This is a means of creating material for recent history. The technique is essentially group oral history, though the participation of eminent politicians or scientists sets it apart from mainstream oral history practice which concentrates on the testimony of non-elites. While such ‘history from below’ is often gathered through a life-story interview, from which theory may be generated, the witness seminar generally explores a carefully delineated research question through concentrated discussion. The technique has done much to rescue elite oral history from the charge that it is merely the ‘debriefing’ of Great Men, and instead has introduced a novel means of understanding the policy process at pivotal moments.
The strengths and limitations of the method reflect those of oral history more broadly. Participants may have good or inaccurate recall, may be candid or rehearse the received wisdom. Retired civil servants also tread the shifting sands of government tolerance towards public utterances by ex-employees. The group setting carries additional pitfalls, in that individuals may be less frank than in a one-to-one interview. The agenda is preset, and once underway is circumscribed by the Chair, thus excluding some conceptual and empirical dimensions. Validity also hinges on representativeness, and inevitably some witnesses will be absent, whether through death, disinterest or misadventure. It should therefore not be supposed that the seminar will produce a consensual account which inevitably surpasses that revealed by the documentary record.
Nonetheless, when carefully triangulated with other sources the methodology has significant virtues. The direct testimony of influential actors can generate valuable new insights which the official records occlude. In particular it can illuminate issues such as individual motivation, interpersonal dynamics and intellectual and cultural influences. Group interaction cannot aspire to generate a ‘perfect’ collective memory, but it has other attributes, prompting recollection, and exposing areas of consensus or dissent With this in mind, the ‘problems’ of lack of representativeness and collusive construction of historical narrative may also be viewed as strengths. A transcript reveals how participants make their vision of history, replete with their ideological and theoretical assumptions; the point is not simply to look for the facts, important as these may be, but also to think of witnesses as ‘bearers of culture’ who can reveal much about these assumptions.