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ESR19 Dealing with the Past in a Digital Age: Oral History in Transition

PhD project title

Dealing with the Past in a Digital Age: Oral History in Transition

Outline description, including interdisciplinary, intersectoral and international dimensions (300 words max)

Transitional justice is concerned with the legal and social processes established to deal with the legacy of violence in post-authoritarian and post-conflict contexts. These processes are typically ‘creatures of law’. They are established by statute, their work is moulded and shaped by lawyers, and their outcomes are benchmarked against what is lawful under domestic and international law. A commonly prescribed (but not adequately empirically tested) corrective to concerns about the ‘dominance of legalism’ is the idea that transitional justice theory and practice must become more open to interdisciplinary insights and perspectives. This project takes up that challenge by exploring the synergies between history and law in developing transitional justice mechanisms.

The project builds on the fact that the interview—in different guises, contexts and settings—is at the heart of most transitional justice processes. Prosecutorial mechanisms, truth recovery commissions, assessments for reparations, applications for amnesty—all of these and more are fuelled by the art of one human being interviewing another and then presenting or ‘re-presenting’ the material recorded, to make it ‘fit’ with the broader transitional goals of a particular institution.

Taking proposals to create an interdisciplinary Oral History Archive as part of a package of measures to deal with Northern Ireland’s conflicted past as a primary case-study, this PhD will explore the theoretical and practical intersections between law, history, and the interview.

The non-HEI and international collaborators bring two important additional elements. The engagement of the British Library will ensure that the project is directly informed by international best practice with regard to the development of an appropriate ethical and legal framework for the digitisation, online reproduction and long-term preservation of post-conflict stories. The involvement of the Greek Oral History Association is designed as a bulwark against parochialism. Drawing on their vast experience of researching the politics of memory in the Southeast European context, the primary Northern Ireland case-study will be informed by comparative international work.

Key words/descriptors



Oral history; transitional justice; technology; ethics; post-conflict

Fit to CITI-GENS theme(s)

  • Information Technology,
  • Advanced Manufacturing,
  • Life Sciences
  • Creative Industries.


The proposed PhD topic meets the innovation objective of CITI-GENS by connecting technological change with social concerns. It seeks in the first instance to explore the contribution of an interdisciplinary oral history initiative to dealing with the legacy of past violence and human rights violations. In order to explore the place of oral history within this broader terrain of transitional justice it is essential to grapple with the challenge of digitisation and in particular to consider the ethical and legal concerns that arise in the context of working with post-conflict oral testimonies (the latter will include consideration of re-traumatisation).


The project is fully interdisciplinary, considering the intersection between evolving technologies in oral history within the fields of transitional justice and archival studies. Oral history practice has always been an interdisciplinary practice, engaging folklorists, historians, anthropologists, archivists and librarians, and, more recently, transitional justice scholars. Despite its legalistic origins, the field of transitional justice is becoming increasingly interdisciplinary and intersectoral. Analysis of the variants of justice which are linked to the shift from conflict or authoritarianism has become a growth industry. Academics from fields as diverse as law, anthropology, international relations, philosophy, criminology, psychology, history and many others now self-identify as studying transitional justice. Moreover, domestic politicians and policy makers, UN officials, lawyers, human rights and civil society activists, even some of those working for the World Bank, see themselves on occasion as doing transitional justice. The proposed supervisory team includes a historian, a lawyer and a trained archivist, all with appropriate national and international research experience. Their expertise and the combined resources of Queens University Belfast, the British Library and the Greek Oral History Association will provide the necessary support for this highly interdisciplinary programme of work.


Intersectoral - Engagement with non-Higher Education Institution partner

The British Library’s Sound Archive is the ideal partner for this interdisciplinary platform of work. One of the key criticisms of oral history research in post-conflict societies is the lack of connect between theorists and practitioners, and in particular the failure to consult and involve archivists at both the design and implementation stages of major initiatives. Taking the current proposals for a c£8M investment from the Northern Ireland Executive to build a post-conflict Oral History Archive as a case-study, this PhD holds the potential to function as an international exemplar of best practice. This demands meaningful engagement with the British Library (and in particular its flagship oral history archive) from the outset. It is thus anticipated that the Marie Curie Fellow will have two short placements, one at the beginning of the doctoral programme and another at the mid-way point. Dr Rob Perks (lead oral history curator at the British Library) will act as third supervisor, and support and guide the professional development of the Fellow.



In order to adapt and develop the lessons from Northern Ireland for use in other post-conflict societies, the Marie Curie Fellow will benefit from the involvement of the Greek Oral History Association and their long track record of researching ruptures and continuities in post-conflict settings, and in promoting international standards for the collection, archiving and preservation of sensitive individual testimonies (see letter of support). In addition to comparative field research (including interviews) in Greece, the student will augment the international comparative dimension of the project by making study trips to two flagship oral history research centres – Professor Sean Field’s post-conflict oral history archive (with its particular emphasis on trauma) in Cape Town and Professor Steven High’s international Centre for Oral History and Digital Storytelling at Concordia University in Montreal. The student will also attend at least three international conferences (including the annual meeting of the International Oral History Association and the Historical Dialogues, Justice and Memory Network at Columbia University, New York). In addition to facilitating professional development and expanding the Fellow’s expertise in the ethical and legal challenges arising in different technological contexts, this international dimension will enable a deeper engagement with the theory and practice of transitional justice. In line with the broader intellectual demands of a doctoral thesis, it will consider the extent to which the challenges faced in Northern Ireland are ‘exceptional’ (Posner and Vermeule, 2004) and the manner in which ideas in these cross-cutting disciplines travel (Said, 2000).

Supervisor Information



Primary Supervisor: Anna Bryson (QUB Senior Lecturer, PhD in History) School: QUB Law

Second Supervisor: Kieran McEvoy (QUB Professor of Law and Transitional Justice) School: QUB Law

Third Supervisor: Rob Perks (British Library, PhD in History) 

International Advisor: Professor Riki Van Boeschoten (Emeritus Professor of Oral History and Social Anthropology, University of Thessaly, Greece and Chair of the Greek Oral History Association)

Name of non-HEI partner(s)

British Library and Greek Oral History Association

Contribution of non-HEI partner(s) to the project:



The British Library is the largest national library in the world, with a well-established reputation for research-led collaboration. Its flagship Sound Archive, with close links to the UK Oral History Society, is the ‘go-to’ institution for advice on recording, preserving and disseminating audio and audio-visual heritage. The Fellow would from the outset benefit from a close working relationship with the head of the Sound Archive and would also complete a placement at the British Library’s Sound Archive. Here the student will engage with audio and video interviews (dating to the late 19thC) that provide unique insights into aspects of UK personal memory, identity and experience. The Archive also carries one of the largest oral history collections in the world - National Life Stories - an independent trust within the Oral History Section of the British Library. In 2015 the Sound Archive secured a £9.5 million boost from Heritage Lottery Fund to help save the nation’s sounds and open them up online for everyone to hear. The funding will enable the Library to digitise up to 500,000 rare, unique and at-risk sound recordings from our Sound Archive and other key collections around the country and make as many available as possible. Until 2022 they will work with partner institutions across the UK to develop a national preservation network via ten regional centres. This work also involves a major outreach programme to schools and local communities to celebrate and raise awareness of UK sounds.

Research underpins all core purposes of the British Library. It plays a key role in the UK research community and works with national and international partners to support and stimulate research of all kinds. It leads and supports major research projects, supervises a range of collaborative PhDs, research placements and fellowships, and runs a regular programme of training events. British Library staff have extensive research expertise and contribute actively to the development of research policy. They co-supervise doctoral research in partnership with universities from across the country, covering a range of disciplines and subject areas. This includes projects developed through the AHRC Collaborative Doctoral Partnerships programme.  They also work closely with university partners to support postgraduate research training initiatives across all disciplines. The British Library is currently a partner in the following AHRC and ESRC doctoral training consortia:

CHASE Doctoral Training Partnership

White Rose College of the Arts and Humanities (WRoCAH)

CEELBAS Centre for Doctoral Training for Russian, Slavonic and East European languages

The North West Social Science Doctoral Training Partnership (NWSSDTP) 

North West Consortium Doctoral Training Partnership (NWCDTP) 

In addition, the British Library’s annual placement scheme offers doctoral researchers from all disciplines the chance to develop and apply transferrable skills and expertise outside the university sector. Projects cover activities ranging from vital support for cataloguing, conservation and interpretation to policy research, resource development and research engagement. For first-year PhD students, the annual programme of Doctoral Open Days offers an introduction to the practicalities of using the Library and help in navigating our physical and online collections. 



Each project requires that Fellows have a placement opportunity to develop their research projects at the premises of a non-HEI partner. Please describe the profile of the non-HEI partner and the nature of the relationship.    


The student will benefit from a placement opportunity at the British Library’s Sound Archive. As well as availing of the resources outlined above, the student will greatly benefit from close mentoring from the lead curator of Oral History and Director of National Life Stories at the library, Dr Rob Perks. His research interests span the following areas: oral history, memory and narrative: its development, interpretation and presentation in Britain and around the world; oral history and audio-visual archives: issues of collection, documentation, description, access and presentation; the development of UK local and community history, and representations of personal testimonies in public history contexts; the retrieval of 'hidden' and marginalised histories through oral history methodology; and corporate and business oral history. For the past several decades Dr Perks has been to the fore of national and international research on oral history. He is currently Secretary and Trustee of the UK Oral History Society; Director, Trustee and Company Secretary of the National Life Stories (one of the largest collections of oral history interviews in the world); an Editor of Oral History: The Journal of the Oral History Society; an advisor to the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF), the Centre for Life History Research at the University of Sussex, the Australian Generations national oral history project (Monash University Melbourne), and the Canadian Oral History Centre at the University of Winnipeg. His publications include:

The Oral History Reader, Routledge, third edition 2015, second edition 2006, first edition 1998 (with Al Thomson)

Oral History, Health and Welfare, Routledge, 2000 (with Joanna Bornat, Paul Thompson and Jan Walmsley)

Ukraine’s Forbidden History, Dewi Lewis Publishing, 1998, (with Graham Smith and Tim Smith)

In addition to his work as lead curator at the British Sound Archive, Dr Perks has also significant previous experience of supervising collaborative doctoral research projects. Former students have used oral history to explore topics ranging from Holocaust memory to theatre design to Crown Court Clerks. Given his training as both an archivist and an academic Dr Perks would be ideally placed to assist with the external co-supervision of the proposed PhD.


It is envisaged that the British Library will also support the Doctoral Programme in the following ways:

  • provide adequate supervision, mentoring, training, career development opportunities, and training in transferable oral history skills;
  • appoint an evaluator for the thesis committee, as external co-supervisor;
  • offer the researcher(s) the possibility to develop collaborations with the non-academic sector by hosting them for determined periods of time during the project;
  • provide specific training sessions at Queen’s University Belfast as part of the development of the project (e.g. Introduction to Oral History training course) and enable student to enrol on other advanced oral history training courses as appropriate.


As noted above, the involvement of Professor Riki Van Boeschoten (Emeritus Professor of Oral History and Social Anthropology, University of Thessaly, Greece and Chair of the Greek Oral History Association) in the project is designed to facilitate an international comparative case-study and to bring to bear on the project the insights and experience of a well-established Greek oral historian. With an academic background in history, anthropology and literature, Professor Van Boeschoten is ideally placed to help to draw out the interdisciplinary elements of the work.

Research centre / School


Subject area

Transitional Justice / Oral History

Qasim's supervisors

Dr Ian Overton

School of Medicine, Dentistry and Biomedical Sciences

Queen's University Belfast

Dr Matteo Manica