Research & Targeted Questions in Oral History Interviews

Mohammad Mehdi Abdollahzadeh
Translated by Natalie Haghverdian


Oral history interviews are means of collecting information. It is through interviews that historians in this type of historiography receive information from the interviewee. The interviewees are sources of various types of information; however, the interviewer is interested only in a specific type of data. Hence, the interviewer has to employ systematic strategies to manage and steer the interview.

Experience plays an undeniable role in the efficiency of the interview, but theoretic knowledge in the field of concern and exploiting the results from other sciences, as well, play a major part in its success. Success in interview might even be subject to the dominance of the interviewer over research methodologies.


Interview Planning

Having research questions and questions derived from other research questionnaires will steer the interview in the right direction. Also, the outcome would be authentic. Provisioned questions provide the opportunity for the interviewer to lead the interview in a specific framework and avoid fragmentation, reticence, and verbosity by the narrator.

The ideology, attitude, beliefs, elements of faith philosophy or generally saying the identity of the oral historian will affect the design of the questions. What shall we do to avoid such effects? Planning in conduct of an oral history project will assist the interviewer towards success.

As medical consultations are conducted within specific frames such as behavioral therapy, psychological therapy, etc., oral history interviews are affected by the theoretic perspectives of both the interviewer and the narrator. For instance, one who believes in the unseen will have a different account of one incident that a material person. Knowledge of such effects will help us to avoid them.

Planning is called thinking before action. Objectives are set in planning and strategies are designed to realize such goals. If the interviewer has clear goals will be more successful in management of the interview session. Such interviewer, defines the goals and objectives of the session in brief sentences at the beginning of the interview and sets the path. To set interview goals, the interviewer has to study all available resources on the subject and those concerning the narrator. For instance, when the interview is about sports in years of captivity, the interviewer should study all available resources concerning other war captives and if possible, review the background and achievements of the narrator in sports. Such studies help the interviewer to outline questions. As per example above, the interviewer might learn that the narrator was a football prayer prior to his captivity with high achievements. In such case, the research question might be: “How was football in Mosel 1 camp?” Detailed questions for further clarification shall follow each general question. For the example stated above the detailed questions might be as follows:

1- Were you allowed to play football?

2- When would you play?

3- Did you have facilities to exercise?

4- Who would organize football matches?

5- Did you have trainer shoes?

6- Did you have sports outfits?

7- How would you find the ball?

8- How big was the court?

9- How was its quality?

10- Did you have leagues?

11- Did Iraqi guards participate in any manner in the matches?

12- What was the winner prize?

The response of the interviewer might necessitate asking some new questions which will be covered under the same general question. However, having the general and detailed questions will keep the interview on tract and will maintain its integrity.

The basic principle for a researcher is to have systematically and rationally organized questions. Each general question shall contain multiple detailed questions with a logical and systematic sequence based on the dominant perspective. The detailed questions shall neither require long answer nor be limited to “yes” or “no”.

Through such logical path, as stated above, which is closer to studies in behavioral sciences, the researcher shall be able to conduct a proper and scientific management and best exploit the interview to achieve his goals. Also: “Each question in an interview is subject to the response of the interviewer!” is not acceptable anymore. On the other hand, having a questionnaire set for the interview makes it possible to submit the questionnaire to the interviewee prior to the meeting so that the interviewer might study and prepare answers based on documents and memoirs available to him. Based on my fifteen years of experience in the field I would suggest submitting only the general questions to avoid any confusion.


Theoretic Principles

One aspect of oral history which has gained acceptability like in many other sciences is its interdisciplinary nature; despite the fact that it is criticized by some due to its employment from the west.[1] Based on this assumption, it is only fitting to exploits findings and methodologies adopted in other scientific approaches in oral history as scholars of other sciences use oral history findings to develop their knowledge in various aspects.

Five steps of problem solving introduced by John Davy have been long used in research and studies of science. Some have developed these five steps to twenty but its generality still remains five.

If oral history is to be perceived as an interdisciplinary field, scientific methods accepted by other scholars shall be adopted. It is worth mentioning that based on the nature of topics in oral history, it is very much acceptable to say: “Oral history is question oriented rather than hypothesis driven.”[2] Also, since oral history studies are qualitative, the researcher might define goals and objectives instead of asking research questions.[3] Accordingly, following the steps as stated below are necessity in conducting an oral history project; however, there is the flexibility to refer back and review previous steps:

1- Each research originates from a question or a problem.

2- Guessing or determining the root causes; the oral history scholar shall not outline any hypothesis here, but has to design the general research questions. (Design of detailed questions is not intended in this phase.)

3- Provision of probable strategy or collecting required data.

4- Selection of the best strategy. (In oral history, development occurs in this phase.)

5- Implementation of the selected strategy and drawing conclusion.[4]

In an interdisciplinary scientific activity, experts in multiple fields collaborate in the identification, resolution or analysis of one complex and real incident, issue or subject; hence, interdisciplinary scientific activities are meaningful when there is scientific recognition and understanding about a complicated or unknown subject or issue which is beyond the capacity and knowledge of one field.[5]

The reason of perceiving oral history as in interdisciplinary field is that it involves all scientific fields integrated into one incident or issue since there might be overlaps with them. In this approach, history is not a cold concept which belongs to the past but it is a constant dialogue. In this approach, manner of incident in the past and now form the root cause of an issue or incident.[6]

In conducting oral history projects there is the possibility of error and ignoring it might question the authenticity of the end product, including:

A- Political aspirations and attitude of the interviewer; for instance, when the narrator says things which do not suit the aspirations of the interviewer, he shall not employ techniques to steer the interview into a different direction.

B- Unsystematic steering of the interview; scientific steering is the responsibility of the interviewer; hence based on professional ethics he shall not involve his personal beliefs though it is a tough task.[7]

C- Interviewers bias in oral history is so effective that Toynbee says: “History reflects its historian.”[8]

The historians shall exploit scientific methodologies to avoid deviation. Based on such methodologies, oral history scholars (interviewers) shall conduct a discovery study and then outline their questions around the subject. These general few questions shall form the base of other detailed questions which in total form the questionnaire for the interview.


[1] Kamari, Alireza, Historiography & Iran and Iraq War Historiography: Articles, Holy Defense Archives and Study Center, 2008, p. 41

[2] Noorayi, Morteza, “Reports of the Fifth Technical Oral History Conference”, Iran Oral History Website (Resistance Culture & Literature Study and Research Center – Art Division),

[3] Sarmad, Zohreh; Bazargan, Abbas; and Hejazi, Elaheh, Behavioral Science Research Methodology, Agah Publication, 19999, Volume II, P. 33


[4] Delavar, Ali, Research Methodology in Psychology and Behavioral Sciences, Payam Noor University, 14 series, 2004, p. 23


[5] Khurzandi Taskouh, Ali, “Cognitive diversity in education and interdisciplinary research”, Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies in the Humanities, No. 4, 2009, pp. 57-83


[6] Kamari, Alireza, Historiography & Iran and Iraq War Historiography: Articles, Holy Defense Archives and Study Center, 2008, p. 41


[7] Rahimi Karami, Zahra, Advantages & Disadvantages of Oral History, Articles, by the efforts of Qolamreza Azizi, Publication of National Archives and Library, 2011, pp. 226-227


[8] Noorayi, Morteza and Abolhassani, Mehdi, Evidence of Honor (Article: Correlation of oral and written evidence in contemporary historiography), Holy Defense Science & Education Faculty, 2011, p. 399.


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