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Columbia Receives $90,000 National Science Foundation Grant to Conduct Oral History of the World Trade Center Tragedy

By Caroline Ladhani

The National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded Columbia University $90,000 to conduct an oral history project on the World Trade Center attacks of September 11. Over a two-year period, researchers will collect and analyze life stories of individuals both in New York City and around the country who were affected directly and indirectly by the attack. Called "Narrative Networks: The World Trade Center Tragedy," the project was initiated by Mary Marshall Clark, director of Columbia's Oral History Research Office and one of two principal investigators on the project, which researchers hope will create a valuable historical resource for future researchers and the public.

"As oral historians, we know that people make sense of their experiences through stories," said Clark. "We want to give people affected by this tragedy the opportunity to offer their own interpretations of this historical event. Through doing so, we will provide the public and generations of future scholars and researchers, a record that represents, to the fullest extent possible, the uniqueness and diversity of responses to this tragedy."

Using both video and sound recordings, the researchers will capture more than 300 personal accounts in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy and then conduct follow-up interviews with the same individuals after six months and again after two years. Since the scope of the project will extend beyond New York, Columbia will recruit oral historians across the nation.

"This project represents a wonderful opportunity for Columbia University to participate in a productive and educationally appropriate way to help us understand the reactions of individuals to an unprecedented tragedy," said Provost Jonathan Cole. "We are deeply appreciative that the NSF is able to act so quickly to support this project, which will capture the reactions of survivors of the horrible attack on the World Trade Center and others. The study will have lasting historical value and help those who participate in the study deal with the consequences of this disaster."

Columbia researchers intend to investigate the extent to which individuals' life-stories are shaped by the World Trade Center tragedy. Of special interest is how the event emerges as an important turning point. In addition, they hope to understand how narratives of the tragedy are shaped by, and shape understandings of, immigration status, race, social class, and ethnicity.

Also involved in the project as the other principal investigator is Peter Bearman, director of the Institute for Social and Economic Research and Policy (ISERP) and chair of Columbia's department of sociology. Robert Smith, assistant professor of sociology at Barnard College, an ISERP research fellow, and an affiliate of the Oral History Research Office, is a co-investigator.

"We hope to understand the ways in which stories of the tragedy were told, transformed, circulated and shaped the understandings of people, both closely and only distantly involved," said Peter Bearman. "Hundreds of volunteers who have stepped forward to conduct interviews, transcribe data, organize field materials and help in launching a giant field project in a matter of days," said Bearman. "Because narrative quality decays quickly, the support of the volunteers has meant that we can get into the field quickly, an essential element for project success."

Published: Oct 03, 2001
Last modified: Sep 18, 2002

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