Interviewer & Interviewee in Oral History

Mohmmad Mehdi Abdollahzadeh
Translated by Natalie Haghverdian


Limited number of experienced, knowledgeable and skilled interviewers required impose challenges in conduct of historical studies in the field of oral history. Hence, a selection mechanism shall be defined to conduct interviews with witnesses, agents and stakeholders in intended historical incidents or a limited number of eligible applicants have to be trained. Lack of prioritization and interview of people whose story is no priority by skilled interviewers, results in loss of opportunity to conduct important interviews. In light of this, upon selection or training of eligible interviewers, narrators shall be identified and selected based on their specific knowledge and skills in a particular field.

Projects left incomplete or fruitless are the bitter and common experiences amongst those who have been active in the field of oral history for years. The reasons of failure in most of these projects were lack of interest in the narrators (affective domain), physical issues and illness (psychomotor) and faded, worthless, distorted and second hand memories (cognitive domain). Inexperienced interviewers lacking necessary qualifications have also been effective in failure.

The interviewer has the main role in recounting memories featuring as the first role actor in this important scene. In such circumstances the interviewer plays the role of the manager and leader; which indicates that the interviewer shall be an experienced actor to play the role.

Interview is the cornerstone of oral history. Oral history is produced through an intelligent and targeted interview between the interviewee and the interviewer. In oral history interviews, through existing mechanisms, a content is produced that would not exist otherwise.

Oral history interview is a dialogue process. In this process there are no recorders and cameras and the interviewer is not free to talk about just anything, otherwise the content in hand would be oral memories and not oral history.

The interviewer is the manager and leader of the interview session. He adopts special techniques and predesigned questions and questionnaires support the interviewee to conductively remember, analyze and recount memories and therefore make it possible for the interviewer to form assumptions.

Considering the roles played by each party to the oral history interview, each have to have a special set of qualifications for the process to result in oral history – desirable outcome.

Oral history interview is a triangle and interviewer, interviewee and interview subject form its angles. Changes in any of these angles affect the interview process and its outcome. These three principals have in interactive effects. Negligence towards interviewee qualifications is as catastrophic as delegating the interview to an individual lacking required skills. Considering the role and value of the interviewer and the interviewee in oral history interview process it is worth considering the cognitive, psychomotor and affective qualifications of each party.

Education psychologists have classified learning domain. One of the most popular classifications is that of Benjamin Bloom et al. In Bloom classification, learning occurs in thee domains of cognitive, affective and psychomotor. Cognitive domain constitutes of the knowledge, understanding and mental skills. In other words, the targets of cognitive domain involve mental activities. The affective domain deals with interest, motivation, appreciation and valuation. The psychomotor domain refers to motions or physical activities. In other words, any activity involving both psychological and physical domains fit here.[1]

Classification of goals and objectives into these domains is to emphasize their distinct aspects and not to segregate them or consider them as completely irrelevant and independent; since there are no distinct lines in between. These domains form a network however some behaviors are more cognitive than motor, some others are emotional and some others reflect more significant scientific skills which fit within this domain.

In the interview process, psychomotor and affective features of the interviewer and interviewee manifest in the narration. The following characteristics are to be considered for the interviewer: in cognitive domain, he has to have an acceptable level of memory; be knowledgeable of psychology, history and geography; have cognitive skills such perception and understanding the words of the interviewee and skills to analyze the memories and value and interpret them; in psychomotor domain he should be able to employ audio-visual equipment; in affective domain, he should be interest and have positive attitude towards oral history and establish an effective relation with the interviewee. Accordingly, the interviewee shall more or less benefit knowledge and ability.

During interview, there is no time to refer to documents and references to assist the interview to remember some aspects; hence the interviewer shall have acquired relevant knowledge beforehand.

Oral history interview is a difficult task. The interviewer shall be focused to avoid diversion; shall act by respect and avoid any reaction which might imply exhaustion, negligence, lack of awareness on the topic, lack of interest, rush to finish the interview, talkativeness, slowness, having bad memory. The interviewer shall demonstrate interest, intimacy and respect towards the narrator and the topic. Punctuality, study before the session and preparedness will make a conducive interview. Hence, the interview sessions shall not waste the energy of the interviewer or result in exhaustion.

Interview process with an individual with faded memory who doesn’t remember details or lacks required interest is not very effective. On the other hand, the interviewer and the interviewee are affected by the topic. Mr. Yahosseini has stated that in all oral history definitions, interview maintains the key role. Consequently, extensive research on its aspects and angles are necessary.[2] Professor Alireza Kamari, on the impact and effects of the interview principles has stated: Memory is formed in monolog sphere however while oral history is a process in which dialogue takes place and the resulting content is an interactive dialogue among two parties.[3]

In oral history, considering the role of the interviewer as the manager and leader, targeted questions are asked and the content produced is the outcome of an interaction; hence both the interviewer and the interviewee are historians.

In oral history, questions asked by the interviewer is the cornerstone and the narrator is expected to recount, interpret and analyze the causes of each event. Such questions activate the memory and bring details into life and through detailed and targeted questions the reaction of the interviewee towards any historical incident is perceived.

Since oral history is the outcome of a dialogue based interview it is a process. Process means that the interviewer and the interviewee have interactive effects and build a system in which the outcome is different from the inputs. The following diagram represent the three main principles of interview:



In order to have a detailed and extensive interaction on oral history content, the interviewer shall adopt qualitative methods. Under such circumstances the interviewer will ask open and wide questions to create an ambiance in which the narrator will present his/her memories with due analysis. On the other hand, open questions shall assist the narrator to remember details and recount incidents from his/her point of view. In qualitative interviews, interviewer has serious presence and is involved in the process through follow up and asking proper questions.[4]

On the importance of some of the characteristics of the interviewer and the narrator in the process of oral history interviews, Mr. Mehdi Kamous says: Oral history interview is a dialogue. The authenticity of oral history is subject to the authenticity of the interviewer, interviewee, compatible mutual power, high perception power, etc.[5]

This article is the outcome of experiences gained through 1500 hours of oral history interviews conducted in the course of thirteen years. The readers and audience are invited in the Iran Oral History Site to share their comments and experiences to enrich the content.



[1] Seif, Ali Akbar, Modern Educational Psychology, seventh edition, Doran Publication, 2014, pp. 458 and 459

[2] Yahosseini, Seyyed Qassem, Oral History Interview Pathology Article from Oral History Interview Book; series of articles, Soureh Mehr, 1998, p. 185

[3] Kamari, Alireza, Speech article in training workshop from Oral History Interview Book, p. 18

[4] Abbassi, Ibrahim, Analysis of quantitative and qualitative research methodology in oral history from Oral History Interview Book, pp. 192-193

[5] Kamous, Mehdi, Original concept and nature of oral history interview from Oral History Interview Book, pp. 22-23

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