An Experiment of Oral History (1985-1987): Interviews with Members of the Sociological School
MARTOR, III – 1998, p.114-139
The oral history project of the Bucharest Sociological School was born despite speciality recommendations. Available new literature presented the method as, first and foremost, a means of documenting the history of those social layers, or categories, which do not leave behind written traces themselves. Such are, for instance, the peasants, the workers, the lumpen proletariat, the ethnic and religious minorities, the housewives – all marginal groups which do not commit themselves to paper but through the intermediary of those who are officially appointed to elaborate the documents. The situation is undoubtedly different with the intellectuals. Besides official documents, they author an impressive number of narrative documents, enough to enable an outline not only of their political, but also of their social history. The newspaper collections, the magazine collections, as well as the personal diaries, correspondences, memories, not to mention the elaborated works, are proof enough that is it not them who need a researcher armed with a microphone.
There are, nevertheless, circumstances which legitimize such a project. Gusti’s school had a much more unpropitious destiny than other groups in the Romanian scientific area. It was shattered by the outburst of the war in 1939 and by a royal intervention, then torn to pieces by the communist dictatorship which took power in 1948. The purge affected no only persons, as was often the case, but also the branch of sociology. For over a decade, sociology was labeled as retrograde and reactionary.
After the interdiction period there followed not a restoration of rights but a partial and gradual rehabilitation, dictated by the politics of revalorification of the cultural heritage, starting from the 1960s. This ‘liberal’ politics was intent on the forging of a new legitimacy for the communist party. Therefore neither the historians of sociology nor the old monographers analyzed this historical past per se, in order to understand, continue or surpass it, but with a view to ‘mumify’ aspects favorable to the new ideological discourse.
In the early 1980s, when the school’s oral history project was born, both sociology and the history of sociology had been obscured again. They were no longer persecuted, but had become extollers of the system.
Still, even if the school had not been threatened from the outside (the extent to which they depassed the limits of science is a question still to be debated), if the period of organic growth had ended not in disappearance but in a decline (as was the case with the other schools), an oral history project would still have been welcome: Gusti’s school, just like the other East-European intellectual groups, favored frequent direct and oral interpersonal relationships (the members of the Durkheimian school only met once!), which meant that written sources could not provide an account of the processes and subtle relations in the development of the social sciences.
In the context of the 80s, starting a project of systematically interviewing those who had been involved in Gusti’s organizations appeared a rather fanciful hobby. One which provoked neither approval nor disapproval.
The project was objectionable, in principle, since the speciality literature did not support the idea of recording for the future. Or, it was clear from the very beginning that a non-ideologized interpretation of the material was unthinkable. Therefore, in spite of the recommendations given by the speciality literature, I chose to collect an archive of oral history, without a foreseeable perspective of its being processed and published.
It is not devoid of significance that all Gusti’s former collaborators agreed on this proposal. They also approved of my non-academical status, for, indeed, I was doing it neither on behalf of the Academy, nor for the University. As in the case of other projects, I used interpersonal relations, not institutional ones.
From a technical point of view, I rejected the sample method, which I considered absurd anyway. Since I was working during my spare time, free from the obligations of an official project, I decided to interview as many subjects as possible and as many times as possible. I did not approach the subjects one after the other, according to a previously drawn list, but in a circular manner, which enabled me to verify any piece of information an soon as possible.
Although at the beginning I specified the theme of the interviews and the reason for doing them, I did not stick to these strictly professional relationships. I suggested accounts of their personal lives’ stories. In most cases, the discussions took place in the subjects’ homes, for a higher degree of comfort.
I did not use any sort of questionnaire for conducting the discussions. On the contrary, I used a strategy of non-structured, non-directive interviews. For the first interview (or interviews) I used highly general questions, to ensure a minimum of influence from my part. For the second round of discussions, I asked for a more detailed account of aspects which had only been superficially tackled the previous time. This ‘soft’ technique – also making room for digression – made it easier for me to obtain otherwise inaccessible information.
But, obviously, it was not for this single purpose that I recorded the almost 200 hours of interviews. Besides the intention to fathom the inter-war intellectual life, to X-ray the organizational culture of a group, its relations to other groups – so, besides this endeavor of a historian of science – I also tried an anthropological experiment: to examine the way a group of intellectuals, now in a communist context, interprets for itself its inter-war life.
We present here short excerpts from this material.
H. H. Stahl
Was there, at Ruşeţu, any research plan?
Only an approximate draft of what was to be done. I mean, following Gusti’s scheme: geographical, biological frames, history, manifestations and all that, you know what I mean. It was but a mere scheme. Which I didn’t use myself, because I was interested in an aspect which was not tackled in those schemes. What concerned me was a problem of the sociology of law, that’s what I went there for, the sociology of war, but…
Right. And then were there any preparatory meetings before going out in the field?
That being your first campaign, did Gusti give you the guiding lines?
Well, he couldn’t do that, as he had no previous experience in the field, he was not a social investigator. He had never been one. All his life, as long as he stayed there, for years and years on end, he never did a personal social investigation. He would urge you to do it yourself. You can manage, can’t you? This is the never-dying, well-known shock of the anthropologist’s first encounter with reality, this peasant reality of which I had, nevertheless, prior knowledge.
Thanks to Voica?
Yes, of course. At least as far as the village is concerned, it was the same old feeling for me. I managed well. I had no real difficulties, none that I can remember.
What about the others? There must have been townsfolk among you who had their first contact with the countryside.
Yes, they may have had a harder time in getting used to it. This is also a gift, I believe, which you may have or may not have. Being a social investigator is beyond school study, it means having those gifts. What those gifts are, it’s harder to tell. First of all it is, in my opinion, what makes you invisible in the village: you should know how to keep silent, how to listen, to look, to stay out of obvious involvement, how to be slightly chameleon-like, to be able to find guidance in the psychology of… well, even the way you’re dressed is important. You have to wear the right kind of clothes so that the people you talk to can accept you, classify you somehow. You cannot go to the countryside dressed the same way you dress for the urban outskirts. It’s different. Then there’s the way you talk. You have to know how to speak their language, that is in such a way that they can understand you. In order to do so you must know their language well.
Still, you had to explain to them what you were looking for.
What was there to explain? No, not at all. I’ve never explained to people what I was going to do. There’s no need for that. You just sit there and talk to them in the normal way, exactly like in a usual conversation between people. Bringing the conversation to what is of interest for you is your trick. But you shouldn’t tell them, you know, I want to do a study on the history of law, or I want to find out what are… The example I gave whenever I wanted others to learn the method is the following: you don’t go and ask the peasant, what is the law with you, which one of the children should stay home, the eldest or the youngest, the girl or the boy? No, this is not the way to raise the problem. Instead, you just ask: nice house, is it old, is it the one that belonged to your parents? If so, and you are their son, do you have brothers? Older brothers? Where are they now, where do they live? So it was you who stayed in the house? He will tell you naturally, without having to provoke him. Without provoking him! And that is how all inquiries, all investigations should be done, you gently make idle talk converge to the subject that interests you. And it is only after you have let the man say what he will that you proceed with the questionnaires. Your question will then strike the core of the matter. That’s different. According to the terminology I used in order to make people understand how a social investigation should be done, I said that there were two successive research methods. The first is the method of the provoking agent. You provoke him to shoot off his mouth /laughs/. And after that, the method of the corkscrew, that is you pull out sentences, ideas, more ideas, in a systematic way. Not until then do you start – if you have devised your questionnaire – to ask questions. But you don’t ask them questionnaire in hand. You should know them by heart and, again, ask them by way of conversation. (…)
Obviously, this is not an investigation to be done statistically, on a mass of people. You only do it with certain people, after having worked with them long enough for them to trust you and to finally understand what you’re looking for. And then you can find peasants who understand only too well what you want to do and will help you. These ones become your collaborators, they are no longer informants. And you can do your job with them, you can tell them… They are very fast and accurate in getting the scientific purpose you’re after. If you know how to explain it to them properly. And if they agree to help you. I haven’t explored this technique in its further possibilities, although it proved very interesting and I feel sorry that I haven’t found someone else who could do that either. To enter a house and to do the inventory of each and every object that can be found there. And for each object to inquire about its history, whether he was the one who made it, or otherwise who was, whether he bought it, where from, for how much money or in exchange for that and so on. One could draw quite interesting conclusions on the process of integration into the life of the market. That means sure data, very strict data, interesting data. They were, at first, sensational ones, since you found out that few things were bought from the market, the overwhelming majority of them were hand-made. So the link with the market was almost non-existent. I mean it was an almost classical Natural Wirtschaft, wasn’t it? Theoretically speaking /laughs/. Very interesting.
So Gusti did not conduct the investigations, he only co-ordinated them. I can’t see what he would do all day long, while you were working in the field, till the “bright hall” gatherings? Somebody told me that he would put a carnation in his buttonhole and walk through the village.
That’s not quite it. No. At Ruşeţu, for instance, he did his own job. He went to the village library. Gusti was the one who had organized the library of the Iaşi University. He was a specialist of library organization. And he went there and did a quite interesting study on what a library meant in a village which was part of the domains of the Crown and which was run by Kalinderu, a cultural activist. And, obviously, he was interested in seeing the way this problem was totally misunderstood by… Hence the conclusions, how a peasant library should be organized in order to be efficient without, all the same, being ridiculous, as was the one at… He then went to a horse farm near Ruşeţu which stirred his interest, he wanted to see, to understand what such an enterprise meant, so he spoke to the manager and the doctors there. Not with the peasants. It was possible for him to speak to the doctors and he was a good investigator. At this level. Not at the peasant level.
Interesting. He who was so deeply concerned with the peasant issue, could not manage to…
No, no, no. He was a German professor. Very rigid, very distant. He tried hard, poor fellow, to be popular, but, no way, he couldn’t do it.
I wouldn’t have even imagined this, not until I was told about the buttonhole carnation.
This was his pleasure, no matter the place, town or country, and he was well dressed too. He was always impeccably dressed, buttonhole flowers, gentle, polite, but… he was not an investigator. The investigator behaves differently.
Is it that he understood the necessity but had no inner resource to do it?
It wouldn’t even do, at his age it would have been out of place to ‘play the fool’, because you had to do that as well, to mingle with the peasants and to… to live their life. It couldn’t have worked. He was a professor. Social investigation takes putting on a series of masks which do not go together with the dignified deportment of a professor.
Yet, at the same time, when in the ‘bright hall’, he would not play the professor, but had this ‘dear colleague’ friendly attitude.
That was part of the professor’s paraphernalia. This is how he understood it. But in the ‘bright room’ he was indeed a professor. To his mind the professor was always the ‘shaper’ of colleagues. This was his great professorial quality: that he knew how to persuade his students that they were his colleagues and that each of them had his own task, his own personal mission he was held responsible with. A great pedagogue he was, Gusti. He is the one and only professor – and I’ve known plenty of them throughout my career – the only one who had this quality. It is very likely that all of them did not succeed. This is only natural. But what he was after was to make you realize that you were responsible with a scientific task.
Was none of the historians like that?
Not even Iorga?
Oh, God forbid! The only person alive for Iorga was himself. When he got hold of you, Iorga made you work for him. He would have you look for a certain bibliography, like I did, or take down the courses in shorthand, but that was about all. There was a void around him. (…)
I’ve heard nice words about Mehedinţi the ethnographer as well. He also had ethnographic concerns, didn’t he?
Of course he had. He taught courses in ethnography and successful ones. It’s a shame they were not published. The course notes in lithograph haven’t been republished. Only that volume on the ethnographic coordinates has… Good, very good works. But he wasn’t a field researcher. It seems that in the geographic field he was one, all the same. He trained quite a lot of geographers. He did that, yes, with the geographic trips he organized. Together with his students. A geography professor has to train his geographers in the field. But, speaking about sociology, Gusti’s attitude was surprising, for his sociologists would not go out of the library. And they would not organize research teams for the field-work. And no one would divide his men according to frames and manifestations. When he told you, you will take care of the historical frame issue, then you actually felt the responsibility for it. It was on your head that you succeeded or failed. But he forced you to take yourself seriously. It is something. He would not only have you work on a certain issue, he would also help you do it. And the most valuable help came from his priceless scholarly information. He had a boundless memory and was always able to give you all the bibliographic indications you needed; who had ever approached the problem from the same vantage point, whom you might be interested in, where you can find that. Not only books, but also various magazines. (…)
If he was so dedicated to library study, what drew him towards sociology? The will to action?
I think it was the experience he had in working with Wundt. It was from Wundt that he first learnt that psychological studies are done in the lab. As for the sociologist, he only had social reality. Social reality was for him what the lab was for Wundt. This is what I think. From what I could gather, from what he was saying. This is how I see things, I may be wrong but I don’t think so… He took his Ph.D. with Wundt. And he knew his way into philosophy as well. From the Greek antiquity up to the contemporaries or almost.
Does that mean that in the ‘bright hall’ he did not raise problems of research methodology, every-day life issues, but proposed theoretical judgements?
Indeed. That is the evening sessions were seminar sessions, where you went and said, look what issues I have explored and what I’ve come up with. And the comments he made were always of help. Because he has solid knowledge of the theory and literature around the issue. Take an ethics problem: he immediately told you what was the importance of what you had found out, if it had any importance at all, if it was something new, if it had been tackled upon before and you only rediscovered it.
If, for instance, a generally accepted category was proved false by reality testing, I mean if one found something else in the field – like you did with your research in the sociology of law – what was his reaction?
First you have to be aware that he was perfectly hep to Ehrlich’s theory. And to everything that had been discussed in Germany regarding Freiesrecht. He knew. He knew that very well. It wasn’t new for him. So there was nothing that could have taken him by surprise. He was hard to surprise.
I think he was the stage of the conflict between the scholarly propensity and the vocation of a politician. I think Max Weber would have been amazed by the way he managed to balance them…
But I have the feeling that with Gusti one supported the other.
I wouldn’t know about it. Because he foregrounded the political side of it from the very beginning. His chair was one of sociology, ethics and politics. That is he was directly interested in the social action issue. But he saw politics as a technique of social action. It’s not petty politics that he was interested in. He had serious doubts when he was asked to be Minister of Education.
Of course he did. One had to join the party, the National Peasant Party, in order to be… He hesitated a lot. His idea of political action was of this type, as cultural politics. But in the long run he reached the conclusion that, as Minister of Education, it might be easier for him to achieve… his entire action was directed towards the elaboration of an Education Act. That’s because all the usual politics of the Ministry was run by Petre Andrei. With whom, as a matter of fact, he was in conflict.
Had the conflict been born before the Ministry?
It worsened there.
I see. And Golopenţia was head of the office.
Golopenţia, yes. The first thing Gusti did was a social investigation. At the Ministry. He wanted to know what was the recurrent situation of Education action. And he did a social investigation which was published, a whole thick volume…
Yes, I’ve seen it. One year’s activity…
Yes, it was a social investigation at which Golopenţia worked a lot.
Interesting. I was under the impression that he was pursuing and expanding this research in order to create an army of… how should I put it… fighters for the cause. That he had…
No. He obviously had personal ambitions, but on the professional line. He saw himself primarily as a sociologist, a theoretician. Not as a man of political action.