Workshop: New techniques in oral history

Lecturer: Faezeh Tavakoli
Adjusted by Maryam Rajabi
Translated by Ruhollah Golmoradi


The major difference of oral history with classic history and fashionable historiography is that in the old days we were faced with official historiography of secretaries and courtiers which have been published as books of History. In the next periods under title of fields of analytic history, we encountered books that each person considered his historiography as principle about events of history. Nowadays post-moderns say that history is not past, the past has been a series of events that had happened and ended, but many views on those events in form of documents and referring to first-hand resources are historian historiography. For example, book of " Oral History: Theoretical, Methodological Issues (Basics)" is result of my views, and someone else can develop the same theoretical and methodological issues with his/her views, notions and experiences.

Oral history is engaging with people and humans. If we encounter in official historiography with a number of stamps, paper documents, archives of films and archives of press of last periods, in oral history we are faced with live humans as creatures in context of events and developments. These developments can be anything like scientific institutions, engineering organizations and conditions of workers of a factory. Apart from political events, oral history of organizations and centers is also very important. We must pay attention to institutions, because they form basis of each society.

Oral history is a completely interdisciplinary arena that creates a fully dynamic and active interview with two-way interactions with individuals. Invention of tape recorder led to producing oral history. Oral history, contrary to official historiography that considered kings and ministers, address classes that were in margins of society, such as women, clerics, workers, etc... .

I want to open your eyes to need for oral history in arena of globalization. Our planet now has about 8 billion people, and we all are like a point on it. We say history is man, time and place. We enter this world like a point in this era. Negative infinity had been before us, and positive infinity will be continued after us too, and after that we will be disappeared; therefore, recording this person in this era of globalization is very important. Orlando Patterson, an English historian, referred to term of "social death phenomenon" for African black slaves, who were migrated from Africa to other European and American countries during 19th century. He says that when these slaves were moved from their geographic location, we cannot find anything about their identity; their identities became unfindable. Therefore, oral history work is to prevent phenomenon of social death. We can associate Peterson view entirely with oral history, because we record audio with video and photo. I had conducted an interview with my late father in field of local history in 2006 or 2007. At that time cassette was fashionable, and I gave the cassette to a relative, and he copied it in a CD, and then that interview became an audio file in telegram.

Oral history intensifies historical research, as we can use it as a complement to historical research, and we are faced with an equal opportunity for presence of all strata in field of historiography. Oral history provides a kind of democracy for historiography. All of you can start from family history issues to history of your workplace and organization. On Institute for Humanities and Cultural Studies, I considered it my mission to record oral history from 1981 to 2016 in order to know what changes have been made in field of humanities of the country, especially here which is one of centers of this field. Farah Foundation, which was 12 institutes, merged at the beginning of the revolution and became Institute of Humanities. Part of results of my oral history interview at the Research Institute is that after the merging, each of research institutes is in three to four chambers, while each of these should be a large center and come out, but they remained in those rooms and here is a lack of space. Therefore, oral history of organizations is also very important.

Oral history historiography also expels historiography from government monopoly; you can challenge official field of historiography and anyone with a small recorder can do oral history projects.

Dr. Abolfazl Hasanabadi wrote the first book of oral history in Iran in 2003 or 2004. In this book, he provided a number of definitions for oral history from abroad, since Columbia first had begun oral history work. Of course, in my later research, I realized that Chicago School was founder of this field, because in the late 19th century Thomas and Znaniecki from University of Chicago used oral history method in order to investigate Polish immigrants in Europe and USA about crimes that existed in societies, such as thefts, issue of specific social deviations, and recognize causes of those conditions. Anyway field of oral history is a scientific arena that has come from abroad. It is said that Columbia first recorded memories of veterans of World War. In fact, after invention of tape recorder, they do such measures. Therefore, our definitions from oral history are often the ones that abroad and foreigner researchers have said, because they started this work sooner than us. They have been working for about 50 to 60 years in this field, and we started after the revolution and the late 1980s. Organizations started to record memories of warriors of the war as well as memories of pre-revolution militants. These organizations are non-academics, but it is good that they do oral history. Of course, just doing is not enough and quality of work goes down; as we criticized Harvard Oral History Project, and although this project was very massive and important in its time period, but there are a lot of problems with its methodology.

The concept I got from oral history is result of the definitions we are facing. Firstly, oral history is considered a qualitative research that is recorded and produced from mutual interaction between interviewer and the interviewee. In this historiography, speech overcomes text, which means that we evaluate historically that person's voice as a document. All strata of society that are involved in social changes can participate in this historiography by creating live image and sound. When we go to interview with these people get their written documents too.

If I want to focus more scientifically on importance of oral history, I must say that it has a complementary role in historiography and we face historical evidence other than stones and seals, etc…. It introduces new angles of historical interpretation and developments, which are result of interview with humans, since humans are center of gravity of this historiography. About history of oral history, I have to say that we have periods that always transmitted information in oral way. Mr. Mehdi Mohsenian Rad, a lecturer in communications science, says in book of "Iran in Four Communication Galaxies" says that Iranians are completely oral and focus on oral narratives. After invention of writing system, we encounter passing events and issues down by words of mouth in form of text. The passing down also existed during Ancient Iran, from Achaemenid and Parthians. "History of the Prophets and Kings" which is the first valid book in field of historiography and influenced subsequent historians, narrated from various narrators. In era of the Prophet Mohammad (PBUH), there is also an oral narration of history from Sahabah (the Companions) to Tabi‘un (followers) about historiography of Arabic historical books, but all these were questioned in Middle Ages whether these narrators were in that place? Did they state the matter accurate or not? Anyway, it is criticized. I read a book in which it was written that at the time of the Prophet, we had Samaiyon (listeners); they were people who listened well; they listened verses that were revealed to Prophet Mohammad and recorded them. Enhancing skill of listening well in interviews is very important. In our historiographies we have no information from workers who built Egyptian Pyramids, Great Wall of China or Persepolis, and most of all we are faced with history of kings and monarchs, and now an important area of interest in field of history has been created under name of social history. It deals with this field; its start also refers to invention of tape recorder. Mr. Allan Nevins started oral history work of immigrants at Columbia University and now in countries such as Canada or Australia oral history field is widely used as they are countries with a lot of immigrants and want to record history of migrants. William Moss considers three factors in debate of regarding oral history in twentieth century: the first is democratization of human community after British, French and American revolutions, in which people raise and were coming into realm of democracy, second, industrial and technological revolution, and the third permanent efforts by Allan Nevins and his colleagues.

Methodology of oral history is carried out by qualitative research method. We have quantitative and qualitative research. As we are dealing with humans, it is done only through qualitative method. We can, for example, examine performance of humans by quantitative research, but in terms of their existential dimensions, nature, activities, and recording these, they are only made through qualitative research method, which is in fact a kind of humanism. We have in our questions a few words of what, why and how which are question keywords in qualitative questions, like word of "how many" that is important in quantity. So this type of research is completely interpretive. Results of oral history research are data and words. Compiling this research has difficult stages, and you must have someone to help both in implementing sounds that are recorded and in compilation part. In compilation part, when a spoken interview is intended to become a text and those words to be placed on paper, at the same time keeping its speech model of that individual, written principles must be followed and redundant to be omitted. Information transmissions should not be non-direct, as we write our own personal perception of those topics or content of that person. In oral history produced text, we should not add any personal commentary, and at most in some of books inside the country some people have made endnote. I think it's time to do narrative analysis about 10 to 20 pages and write results of our own achievements and opinions; for example, my boss asked me to provide a meta-analysis at the end of oral history project of Humanities Research Institute, a meta-analysis in this meaning that what results and suggestions I got from interview with each of these people.

Sampling in qualitative research in oral history is that for starting interview you need to look for someone to give you some good information about your questions; for example, the first person whom I remember in project of prisoners and political women of Pahlavi era was Ms. Azam Taleghani, the daughter of late Ayatullah Taleghani. I knew that she and her father had been in jail for many years. You should choose someone as the first person for interview that be quite elite in that field. The first sampling method is a simple method, and you can call that person with an ad, but this is not usual way. The most important method in sampling is snowball method. The second way is called snowball because when you select firstly sample, when the interview is over, you want him/her to identify other friends whom are related to him/her. He/she even names some persons during the interview, and immediately you take another person's number; like snowball that is above a mountain, and as it turns and comes down, it gets bigger. In this method, first sample must be selected very accurate and well. You can evaluate validity of words of each person, because one of objections for denying oral history is that they say, how do we know that person's words are correct? While in this way, we interview simultaneously with several persons from one faction or group, and during interview, we understand correctness words of each of them. In oral history, if they someone words are questioned, they should not be deleted, but they should put it in a endnote and say that we do not have complete information on this field and refer to elite and reliable people in that area. Oral history is not now an official and scientific field, and if it had framework of law and official field, deletions were considered a crime, or even a person narrated mistakenly about another person and that person was legally questionable, it was again a crime. The third method is theoretical or purpose-based sampling that you advance completely systematic and object-oriented, and perfectly targeted and identifiable, following your findings, arrange some individuals.

Interview is tool of oral history; if there wouldn't be interview, you couldn't record and implement any data. In this interview, communication is completely face-to-face, and all your verbal and non-verbal capacities must be established. Interview goals are collecting information and reminding in interview method. In oral history you are completely in contact with a stranger. He wants to ask you questions based on his views and this creates a dynamic and active flow. Some of memories you have in your memory and part of them to be in your memory that interviewer is looking for by those questions. Nature of interview in oral history is that questions don't have merely a interrogative aspect, but also on the basis of informed and active presence of interviewer according to previous information, also has an inferential aspect. We take individual interpretations and analyzes of person on an event in which he/she have had a dynamic and active participation. Type of communication is quite verbal. In an interview, people who are elite and well-informed people should be interviewed. Morphology of interview is that you need to have a good and proper relationship to conduct your interview. Appearance and dress is very important because it is the first session that interviewee sees you and this is very important. It is also important that you can talk very well with them and usually you should make the first appointment with telephone. During my interview with women prisoners, I called Ms. Haddad Adel in 2007. She told me at the first call: some people contacted me in this week for interview, but I do not know why I want to accept your interview. I actually tried to make a good speech conversation with informal tone. I explained plan to her very well. Sound should be clear for the person through the phone. Ability to ask an effective question is one of your skills in doing oral history work.

When key people are interviewed, interview situation should be completely impartial, have a tape recorder, and check its charge. One factor that influence interview is interviewer bias that based on his/her interests and experiences can affect interview. Bias of those who contribute is also one of factors that people, instead of their own answers, say what interviewer wants to hear, and ultimately, that interviewees may exaggerate a behavior or don't raise a behavior or issue which they are embarrassed about. Steps to do interview are as follows: when you want to start interviews, at least one to two months, you should study subject of your research and choose key and elite people. Non-key people are also people who play a key role and should not be ignored. National key people are politicians and statesmen. To know how to conduct an interview, every researcher must do the following: first, either in person or in call he/she tell necessity of problem. For those who have some kind of excuse, make sure them that information is not published elsewhere or that information will be printed at any time they want. Coordinate date and time of interview. Take a diary in order to not forget tips you have in mind and want to ask them; these notes cause your interviewee see your seriousness. Interview place should be a neutral and quiet environment. You need to have structured and semi-structured questions, arrange them and have a scenario for conducting oral history interview, which is a serious measure. Provide a list of questions, topics and interests which are related to your research topic.

Types of interviews include a non-structured interview, a structured interview and a focus group. Non-structured interview contains a wide range of topics that do not restrict answers, and you are totally free to ask questions and give your interviewee an opportunity to easily share his/her issues. Structured interview is completely subject-oriented. Certain questions are asked in a specific order. Focus group is not fashionable in oral history, but there are exceptions, and perhaps this type of interview to be applicable in terms of your research subject. A disadvantage of a focus group is that people do self-censorship and do not express many issues in group. These are some of the most important things to do before interview; when you want to go for an interview, turn on your recorder, tell date, interviewee's name, which sessions of the interview and the interview place. After conducting each interview, implement audio quickly and then formulate and do not distance between these steps. After each meeting, remind that if interviewee has a paper, document, seal, or anything else to present it. Hold interview for about 90 minutes, unless the interviewee is a key person and you know that he/she will not give you time again. These interviews can be done in two to three hours, but accuracy of the interview is reduced due to tiredness of interviewee. I should say about typology of questions that in a qualitative research method the first question are the same demographic questions such as biography, then behavioral-experiential questions that I wanted, for example, in project of prisoners and political women, to explain one day of prison conditions. Ideological and value questions refer to the contributor's ideas and judgments that, for example, we want to know his idea about ​​the recent protests. With emotional questions, you also want to enter his/her world of emotions and feelings; for example, we can ask women's feelings about captivity and torture. In epistemic questions which are your cognitive part, you can say explain about x subject. Feeling questions are the same questions that, for example, how did you feel when you encountered an enemy? Default questions are like this that what was experience you have about x subject? You want to know her/his experience before asking principle of subject as a question. Pursuit questions are for example we say can you refer to the topic you mentioned in the previous sessions? Single questions are this way that what is your idea about x subject? Neutral questions are those that you persuade her/him to explain subject as she/he wishes. The final question is very important and we leave it to her/himself, for example, we say whether is something remained that you want to explain and I forgot to ask it?

In discussion of oral history interview techniques, our main axis is communicating. In places interviewee may not have necessary motive to communicate with you and you should facilitate this communication. There are a number of ways to encourage more these people, for example, you can use short, simple, and clear questions. Non-question communication techniques actually include good listening and good talking. A specialist in message and verbal communication like Birdwhistell says that 35% verbal skills and 65% your body language is influential. In oral history, body language plays a significant role, and Albert Mehrabaian, an Iranian scholar, said 7% verbal skills and 93% non-verbal skills and body language play; of these 93%, 38% are phonetic and 55% are facial or non-verbal expressions. In meta-language discussion, distance, tone and sound characteristics, regarding distance, and type of dressing and makeup have influence. Phonetic communication is also very important, and difference between oral history and written history is that we have tone of persons. Considering body language of politicians, Deutsche Welle, in a report titled "Photos Speak" during Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or Nuclear Deal, analyzed face states, kinds of looking, hand moves, and style of sitting and behavior of Rouhani and Mohammad Javad Zarif in meeting with his foreign counterparts.

In historiography of oral history, there is no wall between past and future, but it is a bridge that connects past to now. We need to be careful about research standards and interview standards and method of work in this historiography. In narrative analysis part, when we do interview and implement it, we encounter numerous pages of narrative. Firstly, in method of compiling oral history, form of question and answer of interviews must be preserved, interviewer name must be presented but name of interviewee is not obligatory. You must consider chronology of events and ask time and place to give your work authenticity. When you want to compile narrative text, you have to do some categorization, you have to extract concepts out of the text, title that you use for headline of your narratives is very important, and ultimately oral history can do theorization by analyzing narratives. In issue of categorization I said that only thing that can be extracted in project of prisoners and political women is ability of women in prison and their mental and psychological conditions. Generally, you can do narrative analysis with or without software. Conversation analysis may include private conversations too. In conversation analysis, you need to identify study unit, consider logic of conversation and conversation chain, and ultimately analyze and interpret relationship between dimensions and content of interview text. One of the key points in conversation analysis is to know what meanings, concepts, and goals conversation text includes? Where does it start and where does it end? What data has been exchanged between two actors? What is interactive and verbal conversation chain?

An issue that you must consider about role of historian of oral history is that they have a particular responsibility for people they interview with, regard to society, public opinion and also supporting institutions. About stage of compiling and writing oral history report, I should say that compilation is the most important part of oral history field to attract readers' attention. Here, literature of a person who is a researcher in this field as well as his/her skill and writing is very important. Title of research is very important in the case of a project you want to write for oral history. Title always indicates temporal and spatial scope of your subject, and it should be short and at the same time have frameworks in itself. Next one is part of problem statement that in which subject has to be explained and subject goals to be expressed. Research literature includes the same literature review that includes presenting subject, recognizing different dimensions of problem, and extent to which you participate in the research. For oral history, because it is a kind of qualitative research, we do not consider hypothesis, and we have often theory. The subject, field, or context of study not only includes geographic scope, but it is also said a territory or space in which research operation is conducted. Research questions are usually between 3 and 7 general questions that you put forward as main questions of your research and can include a set of minor questions. Writing data and finds, and arranging and organizing them are very important. Oral history work, like any other book, has an introduction and an entry into main part or data. When you want to arrange data, you see you had interviewed with a number of people on a timely basis, and this should be kept so that data to be covered in a timely manner. History will be history and not memory when time ranges and periods are fully respected. In compiling narratives, you should do some sort of arrangement that starts with elites and reaches non-key individuals. In writing data, the discussion must be categorized and conceptualized. In oral history we cannot make specific conclusions in the text, and meta-analysis must be presented separately. Appendices include all documents that you collect during oral history process. We also present sources and references at the end; we mention names of all books we use for studying, research questions and endnotes.

In verification of oral history I must say that a question we are constantly facing in field of oral history is that at what extent narratives can be real and to what extent we can recognize their authenticity? In issue of validity and reliability, we have to pass our text out of several filters: credibility, reliability, verification and transformability. We need to continually review our questions analytically to help us believe what extent of our research findings have been answered by found data. For this reason, after interview, implementation and development should be done quickly and review them before the next meeting. Issue of reliability is identification of those who are really aware of and informed with your questions. In verification issue one should see at what extent can evaluate and analyze data with details they have been given? Transformability is said a degree that results of a study in oral history can be transmitted to a different environment and used for a different population. The basic tool for creating transformability is to use proper description to provide all associated details with research process.

Ethics of research in oral history includes principle of non-compulsion, right to choose and consciously consent. Principle of non-compulsion means that we should not hit our social and political persons in our interviews. During interview, the person should not feel we are interrogator or judge, and we must have a neutral approach, to give him/her right to choose in order to see whether he wants to interview or not? We inform them of process, and in what stage we left interview, it is necessary to notify interviewee. At the beginning of interview, you must copy form of consciously consent and give it to interviewee and ask him/her to sign it so that there wouldn't be any debate in future and not deny interview and his/her claims.[1]


[1] Workshop of new techniques in oral history including communication techniques in oral history, body language and conducting oral history interview, new techniques for motivational interview, and analysis and compilation of narratives in oral history, taught by Faezeh Tavakoli, was held by political history department of Research Institute of Iranian History of Institute for Humanities and Cultural Studies in collaboration with Iranian Society of History in the Center for Free Professional Trainings of Human Sciences on February 26, 2018 . According to oral history website, at the beginning of the workshop, Tavakoli said: "I am indebted to Mrs. Shafiqeh Niknafs in NLAI because I first learned oral history in a workshop from her. After that because of my interest, I started oral history project of prisoners and political women of Pahlavi under supervision of the Institute for Publication of Imam Khomeini's works. I was presenter and unfortunately its result has not yet been published for some reasons. After I started practical work, I generally participated in annual oral history meetings held by organizations, and I saw that there are a lot of methodological problems in field of oral history, and there is not a systematic way to advance based on its algorithm instructions step-by-step and conduct it. I worked on methodology in 2011 and 2012 and linked field of qualitative research with oral history. The result was a book entitled "Oral History: Theoretical, Methodological Issues (Basics)". As long as this book was written, I held several workshops in the Institute for Humanities and Cultural Studies, NLAI as well as Holy Defense Documents Center."

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