Sunday, November 21, 2010

Oral History and Interviewing

Copyright ©  2002 José Cossa

Oral history, aka life history, has as its main goal to get a fuller account of the content because it incorporates the various emotional and phonetic expressions of the source, not only the written words. These accounts are collected through interviews, audio, and video serve as assets in reconstructing most, if not all, the interview. In this method, the interviewer must attempt to separate fact from interpretation. This is part of the challenge to the interviewer who often may get tempted to get ego-involved with the interviewee, particularly if the information is emotionally appealing to the interviewer.

The advantage of oral history is that the interviewer gets the information as is from his source and can interact with the source by using a rewind-and-fast-forward kind of technique. In written reports there is no such advantage. For example when asking about the interviewee’s birth place and family memories, the interviewer may ask further questions to clarify information that is unclear or unknown to him/her. They engage in a dialogue that provides a tool for clarification of meanings lost and misunderstood contexts or facts. This is not possible when dealing with written documents because of the absence of the author; and, even when one can consult the author, often written reports require that the author or interviewee makes corrections to the text, which may not always be convenient.

The limitations of this method are that it can be narrow and idiosyncratic, selective, and it calls for questions of reliability of memory recall. That is, interviewers are subject to one person’s perspective and the interviewees may be selective as to what information to furnish as well as the interviewer may be selective as to what kind of information to include in the report; although the selectivity of information is not always undesirable in the research it may become a catalyst of bias. To avoid these dangers, the researcher must (a) be an expert in the subject being studied and its context, and (b) establish rapport with the interviewee.

Both subject and context expertise are of utmost importance because they also aid the interviewer in the establishment of rapport. However, such expert must be cautious not to use the expertise as a detrimental tool, i.e., the expert must preserve a humble attitude when dealing with the interviewee. One important aspect of expertise is the ability to develop confidence in the subject matter, yet respect those with whom we share such domain specific knowledge, whether we regard them as novices or experts. Here I talk of expertise not in the context of literate traditions but of both, this allows for those in the orate tradition to be experts in their own right without being judged on literacy standards. The conclusion of Goldman’s article (entitled Experts: Which ones Should We Trust?) ends with a questions concerned with the kind of education that could substantially improve the ability of novices to appraise expertise, and the kinds of communicational intermediaries that might help make the novice-expert relationship more one of justified credence than blind trust. I think there is more to be done in this field; however, what we have now can aid the researcher to combat bias and arrogance by engaging in the new insights produced by scholars. Also, expertise should not be limited to the content of the interview, but should extend to the technological devices that the interviewer chooses to use to gather data, i.e., video, camera, tape-player, etc.

In addition to the elements discussed above that make for a good interview, to conduct an effective interview, the interviewer must ask questions that are pertinent to the subject yet be culturally sensitive. This is when dealing with non-Western cultures, in particular, in which communication is not as direct as “what’s your name? Are you married? Where is your place of birth?” and so on, nor are the answers as direct as often desired such as “My name is Josh. I am divorced. I was born in New York.”

Two forms ought to be carried by the interviewer that protects the researcher as well as the interviewee – this is in part a form that consents the release of information deriving from the interview. The first, the interviewee agreement consent form should contain the following information: (a) A statement of consent to participate that is clearly stated and covers all sort of indemnity elements needed to protect both the interviewee and the content of the interview; (b) name of interviewer; (c) name of interviewee; (d) signature of interviewer; (e) signature of interviewee; (f) address and phone number, if applicable, of the interviewee; and (g) date of consent. In the event of using recorders, the consent form should also include a section requesting that permission be granted to use such devices.
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