Oral history standards and guidelines

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Introduction: After completing a review of all available background data, identifying gaps in area knowledge, and selecting individuals knowledgeable about your project area, it is time to consider the actual interview process. Before meeting with interviewees major questions or areas of concern need to be organized and an interview outline developed. While the major components and use of an interview outline have been discussed earlier, information is included here to assist interviewers in developing appropriate questions and conducting the interview. In addition, information regarding the allotment of time required to complete the oral history project is discussed. The importance and cost of tape transcription is also presented.

Construction of Interview Outline: An interview outline should represent a topic outline of the historical information that you hope to discover. This outline forms an important tool for project interviewers. It includes a list of general and specific questions that you wish answered, but it is not a questionnaire that interviewers read from word-for-word. It is more of an outline to help keep a discussion on track. It should be used as a reference guide of the range of topics you wish to cover. The guide might list the sequencing of topics and questions in a logical order, but information should be solicited according to the flow of the interview. By constructing an outline interviewers have an opportunity to share their ideas and develop a focused direction for the interview. The interviewer's clear focus and demonstrable knowledge will result in better questions and more substantial responses. It will assure interviewees that interviewers are well prepared.

After familiarizing yourself with your area of interest, including gaining a familiarity with any historical archival sources, develop a list of questions for each person to be interviewed. Questions can be organized into two lists: (1) questions you will ask every interviewee; and (2) questions you will ask only specific individuals. This approach will generate two lists of questions (i.e., general and specific) that will provide a body of general knowledge about the selected theme as well as a means to compare the different individual's perceptions. This will provide a basic idea of each interviewer's background and any personal biases. Make sure that questions are appropriate, comprehensive, and unbiased. Good questions are the product of good research. Provide an environment where the interviewee can express what they are thinking, not what they think is wanted. Your list of questions should be used as a guide during the interview process but should not restrict the flow of information. Remain flexible and be willing to move beyond the list of prepared questions as the interviewee provides more detailed information.

Questions should be designed to elicit a penetrating discussion concerning particular issues, concepts, motives, the sequence of activities or actions, obstacles and frustrations, the role of the individual, family, friends, or government agency, and the dynamics of the world as remembered by the interviewee. Several types of questions can be used during the interview including: yes or no type questions; open-ended questions; specific, direct questions; and questions that are more provocative or probing. Yes/no questions usually solicit quick, short replies and should generally be avoided. It is better to try and rephrase this type of question so that the interviewee will be allowed the opportunity to place their answer into a personal context. Open-ended questions provide an opening for a new subject area or can be used to solicit interpretive or reflective answers. Specific, direct questions provide quick and definitive answers. Provocative or probing questions can often elicit strong responses and should be used with care. Be sure that this type of question can be justified given the context of the interview. If, after asking a question the answer remains unclear, rephrasing the question may help to clarify the meaning or yield confirmation on an otherwise vague or ambiguous point.
The use of silence can also be a very effective interview tool. Attempts by the interviewer to fill periods of silence with prodding comments or by restating the question often only serves to distract interviewees resulting in the loss of valuable commentary. Be sure and give the interviewees plenty of time to consider each question and to phrase their reply. Never rush!
Aggressive questioning can quickly alienate the interviewer and destroy any rapport you may have developed. This style of questioning should be avoided. The role of the interviewer is to work with each interviewee to help them to recall and share their knowledge of your project focus. Your role is to be courteous, reassuring, and attentive. You need to listen as well as ask appropriate questions.
Through careful listening and being able to identify an "opening" or opportunity for follow up, many new areas of interest can be identified or ambiguous situations made clear. When presenting a question to an interviewee always keep in mind what topics or general information you are seeking. Be sure and consider each answer with regard to these fields of inquiry and formulate new questions that might help to further illuminate your topic.
Initial questions in an interview can serve as a means to gather background information on the informant and can help both the interviewer and interviewee to become comfortable with each other. Questions that deal with the interviewee's birth and family will prove extremely useful in compiling a biographical sketch of the interviewee. This information will assist in identifying the interviewee's area(s) of expertise. Volunteering information about yourself may help the interviewee to feel comfortable with the interview process.

After initial background information is recorded, the first substantive question regarding the focus of the interview needs to presented. This question should set the stage for the day's interview and be one that the interviewee knows a lot about, feels comfortable with, and can answer at some length and in great detail. Such an approach acknowledges that the interviewee's expertise is unique and important to your research, that they are expected to do much of the talking, and that the interviewer is genuinely interested in hearing about the interviewee's experiences and knowledge. This process will undoubtedly reveal specific information on many different areas that through future questioning may expand the range of information you had originally envisioned. Essentially, the interviewer serves as the facilitator of the process of recollection but it is the role of the interviewee to provide those recollections. Therefore the interviewee should provide the bulk of the dialogue and interviewer discourse should be kept to a minimum. The use of maps and on-site visits greatly facilitates a person's memories of an area or event. Both techniques should be incorporated into the interview process.

Tape recorders serve in the capacity of a "blind" participant in the interview process. Their role in recording an informant's recollections for posterity is important but audio recording has its limitations. Any response that relies on nonverbal means needs to be described for future audiences. For example, if an object is described as being about "this wide", the interviewer needs to interject a question that will clarify this description. "So it's about four feet wide?"
Remember, when using an interview outline or guide, there are two things that you should always keep in mind: First - that the outline is just that-- an Outline! There should be no verbatim questions on the interview outline. The substance of the questions should be sequenced in a logical order but don't be afraid to vary from this sequence if the conversation begins to take a different turn than expected. The interview outline should be considered more of a shopping list of the topics you wish to discuss rather than a recipe that must be followed in a particular order. Secondly, with each new relevant topic introduced by the interviewee during discussion or ones you introduce, start out with an open-ended question that will allow the interviewee the chance to explore this topic in greater depth and detail. Ask additional questions in order to clarify their response or to elicit additional details.
Locating and contacting potential interviewees: Native elders and knowledgeable individuals having information pertinent to your project area need to be identified. Names of potential interviewees should be solicited from local historical societies, tribal governments and cultural resource programs, and area residents. After constructing a list of potential interviewees, each individual should be personally contacted in order to determine if they retain memories of your project area and are willing and able to participate in this project. After initial contact be sure and ask whom they would recommend you talk with. Interviewees usually have a good idea which individuals retain knowledge of specific areas and their advice may help prioritize interviews. Be sure and ask each person what area(s) they are most familiar with. Do they recall information about specific sites? Is their knowledge confined to only a particular portion of your project area? Are they willing and able (i.e., health, vocal quality) to share the information? Each of these issues is very important and need to be identified during your initial contact.
Using information obtained from initial contacts, consider the potential value of each interviewee's testimony. What areas do an individual say they have knowledge of? Do the person's life experiences, as identified during your contact, suggest that they know information about specific areas within your project area? Do they appear alert and possess a detailed memory? Using this information, intuition and advice from other people knowledgeable of your project area, prioritize each of the interviewees.
Contact potential interviewees and arrange interview: When contacting interviewees make sure they understand the nature and reason for the project. Answer all questions completely so that prior to the interview they understand how sharing their knowledge, insights and experiences will assist your research project. Discuss the range of topics you hope to cover during the interview. This will allow the interviewee time to think about the area/topics to be discussed so that by the time of the actual interview their input will be based on a thoughtful consideration of the subject. By using an Interview Preparation and Post-Task Checklist it will be easier to insure that necessary interview components are not forgotten.

All interviews need to take place in locations that are comfortable, quiet, and free from interruption. They should generally not extend over two (2) hours in length, especially for elderly people. It is better to conduct several interviews than to exhaust a person during the initial interview. Provide a 15 second space in the beginning of each tape to include an introduction prior to recording. Leave plenty of free time after the interview to allow for time to review the interview while the information is still fresh. Make notes about any impressions you might have had during the interview; about the person’s health and demeanor, any new questions raised during the discussion, or any other points that will help in remembering the interview later. Often an interviewee will use their hands or make sketches to illustrate a particular point. Make sure to mention these since the recording will fail to pick up on this information and they may prove extremely useful when reviewing the transcript.
Conduct initial interviews with knowledgeable elders/interviewees:
a: Obtain interviewee's signature on an Interview Consent Form: Before beginning the first interview with each interviewee, review the nature of the oral history project and the types of information your agency is attempting to collect. Discuss how information shared by the interviewee will be used for the identification and protection of cultural resources in your area of study. Explain the purpose of the Interview Consent Form. Discuss possible restrictions they can place on the future use of this material. Read aloud the entire form with the interviewee and make sure that they understand it completely. After answering all questions, if the interviewee agrees to participate in this project obtain their signature on an Interview Consent form. Leave a blank copy of the Consent Form with the interviewee for their future reference.
b: Conduct interview: Using the interview outline, discuss the major topics of inquiry with the interviewee. Identify the general range of information the interviewee might know regarding your topic. What types of information do they know and for what time depth does this information relate? If your topic is area specific, using a map of the area (U.S.G.S. 15 Minute Quadrangle) attempt to document the range of each interviewee's knowledge and area of expertise. Site-specific areas should later be plotted on 7.5 Minute Quadrangle maps. Questions should focus on collecting site-specific or topic-specific information, when possible.

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