Random Thoughts on Oral History, Interviews, and Technique

This week, I spent some time really focusing on the process of getting ready for an oral history interview and what is really involved. I ended up with 13 small paragraphs about different ideas and thoughts on how to interview and collect oral history... and I will share them with you below.

1. The idea of neutrality is described as a skillful way of holding yourself/ body and asking questions that keep the focus at all times on the interviewee and their thoughts and feelings. For instance, having too much rapport or empathy with the interviewee can really side-rail the interview and make it more about you and your feelings and thoughts- and not the person being interviewed... which is certainly not the goal that we are trying to complete(in performing an interview). Also, too much of anything- whether it is emotions, questioning etc... can change the interview and make it more biased, less accurate and focused on the biases, not the whole picture.

2. It is suggested that opening an interview with a question that provokes a detailed answer helps to start an interview with a prompt, purposeful beginning. It lets the interviewee know that the interview has begun and gives both you and the interviewee the cue that you are 'down to business'. Using a question that the interviewee is likely to know and need to give a detailed answer to helps get the interview off on the right track of the interviewee talking... and you listening.. It also should state the main purpose for the interview so that the subject that is to be covered is acknowledged right away.

3. A leading question is a question that sets up the interviewee to answer the question asked in the way that the interviewer seems to wish. This will not necessarily give you the answer you are really looking for. The danger of loaded questions contaminating the interview becomes higher if the 'status' of the interviewer is higher than the 'status' of the interviewee. Loaded questions can also produce answers that are truly difficult for the historian to interpret correctly because the interviewer's bias is so obvious in the original question. To avoid loaded questions, avoid questions that provoke short answers, questions filled with 'emotive' words, and use the interviewers own words to ask more questions- do not make assumptions of what the words mean... ask! Leading questions are less likely to cause problems with the interview near the end of the interview and can be useful when you have had an uncooperative interviewee. At the end you can use these questions to try and pull out more details and get more information. However, even in these situations, keeping the questions as non-'leading' as possible will help to keep the interview unbiased and 'correct.'

4. A negative leading question can be useful for getting comments and thoughts on provocative topics... especially if the historian's research has turned up conflicting information between the research and the information provided in the interview. It is important however, to not use too many of these questions because they can turn the interviewee off of the interview and it is also important to word the question so that the 'challenge' appears to come from a third party and not you- which can cause the interviewee to feel hostile and not as forthcoming towards the interviewer. There are other reasons to be cautious when using a negative leading question, but that covers the important points. They should really only be used when the questions can add to intellectual knowledge and debate or figuring out how the subject deals with adversity.

5. You should only give your opinion when the person being interviewed insists on knowing it. Otherwise, your opinion isn't really important in this instance. Your opinion can only help to bias the interview or even divide you from the person you are interviewing. Even when asked, the interviewer can sometimes use the words in the question to turn the interviewee back to the focus of the interview... and take the focus off of you!

6. Follow up questions are used by the historian to really get the details that you are attempting to have the interviewee provide. Ask for understanding when you feel that something is vague. However, the historian must be very careful to not make the interview feel like the subject is getting the 'third degree'. Questions should be open and indirect... without looking like you are challenging the other person. Some interviews can be fairly useless when they are completed in such a way that followup questions are not really asked.

7. Background research is so useful for a few reasons. Research ahead of time can help you to determine bias or untruthfulness in your potential interviewee. The information can help you during the interview to understand the information that you are being given, help to keep the interview 'on topic', and help you to provide 'useful' leading questions as well as memory nudges for the interviewee that is having a hard time remembering specific things/details. Background details are especially good for helping your interviewee with introspection and helping the individual remember what they 'felt' or 'thought' in the past during certain situations.

8. Approaching a friend or family member about an interview would be done differently than an interview with someone you did not know. First, you already have some rapport with the person that you have developed through your personal relationship. Ignoring your previous relationship while performing an interview would make the interview confused, stilted and any attempt to be 'neutral' would look a little ridiculous. :) However, the interviewer/historian must also carefully analyze the person that they are interviewing and modify their (the historian's) behavior and questions accordingly. Again the interview is about the information and the interviewee and not about you or your relationship with the 'interviewed'. Keeping the interview on track, easy going... but as neutral as possible and focused is the key. The interviewer needs to exercise self restraint in some instances and use rapport, empathy and neutrality to get the information that is sought.

9. Oral history is different from journalism in several ways. Oral history is the legal property of the person/interviewee and can only be used with that person's permission. Oral historians usually try to solve this problem by having a release signed when they complete the interview. Journalists rarely ask for consent to publish and as such they are less likely to get people to truly open up about sensitive personal information. As oral history usually contains such personal information, historians should make no assumptions about publication unless they have consent. Journalists also have the option to bias results in ways that oral historians should not. A journalist can use correct materials in such as way to create a bias in one direction or for political expediency. But while that is not OK for a journalist, many journalists will still do it for reasons of expediency, etc... A historian, in an ideal situation, will not allow societal bias, personal beliefs, etc... to influence the information that he is presenting. The historian will do their best to make sure that the information is as neutral and bias free as possible so that the most accurate picture will be presented. A journalist has the responsibility to report and may use personal information in a way that the person may not feel comfortable with. A historian has the responsibility to do more than just protect the source- if the information is not useful for the current public good and can cause undue injury to those involved, the historian should keep the information safe for a good number of years until the information is can be used in a way that doesn't cause a lot of damage to living people.

10. It is suggested that release forms should be simple and informal... and if you write one yourself... keep it from being legalistic. While some people think the forms should be signed before the interview... it is generally recognized that after the interview process is the best time to do so. While, after the interview you might have problems with a recalcitrant interviewee who has changed his mind, doing the signing before the interview can inhibit the person to be interviewed. Making promises to the one that is interviewed is difficult as well because it may be difficult for you to keep the promises. History can and should belong to everyone so promising that it will not is just one promise that is difficult to keep.

11. Background research itself can raise ethical issues that the historian has to deal with. When you are doing research on living people, you may discover information that is clearly confidential and private. It is important that you realize that specific permission must be gotten for releasing this information- even if you broke no laws to get it. It is very important that the historian does their best to not breach people's privacy or release information that can cause undue harm.

12. It has been mentioned that maintaining a neutral stance during an interview is hard and appears to be manipulative and dehumanizing if you perform tactical and careful planning ahead of time. The idea of neutrality is very important and should be carefully considered, but should not be taken the the other extreme which can inhibit the interview. The historian must remember that being neutral should not cause you to behave unethically or even anti-socially. Making sure that the interview situation is about the interviewee, and not about the interviewer. Keeping things confidential, being sensitive and empathetic, helps to keep the interview unbiased and truly humanistic. Neutrality should be used to gather information and not hinder the gathering... but it also should be slowly put aside if needed to increase communication and understanding by making interpretation. I hope that makes some sense.

13. When interpreting and analyzing your interview, it is important that you treat the conversation and information as serious, important information. Some historians believe that any interpretation of someone else's words is possible inappropriate and ethically challenging.... and a full transcript must be released. Others suggest that the historian, by reinterpreting the interview, puts themselves in a place of higher significance, and that releasing the interview as a full transcript is the only way that the interviewer and the interviewee are on 'the same plane'. Other say that there is always interpretation and if you assert that the interpretation of the historian is unethical, that is 'tantamount' to saying that the interview should have never taken place. I suspect what is being said is that care must be taken to be objective when attempting to interpret an interview... and that the historian should be aware of bias- especially their own.

14. The interview should be put into context if you are planning on using it for a term paper or for general consumption. One reason for this is that reading about someone you do not know can be confusing... and even boring. Most people understand that no life is perfect and is affected by the society and culture around it. So adding the history that affects the person's life is so important and makes the interview interesting and draws the attention of not only historians, but other people.

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