Importance of Practicing “Asking Questions” for Oral History Interviews

Maryam Asadi Jafar
Translated by Natalie Haghverdian


In the second session of technical training of “Public Culture, Oral History Approach”, Dr. Morteza Nouraee, said: "Exercising asking questions is an important trait in the interviewer, representing competence. When fully versed on the subject, questions might be engineered. Open interviews are preferred in oral history interviews so that we can ask questions at any time. But you should already have a pivotal question. There may be 10 pivot questions that will come up with dozens of other questions.

Reported by Iran Oral History Site, the second session of technical training of “Public Culture, Oral History Approach” was held on Thursday, 26 October 2018 arranged by Isfahan Study Center and Home of Nations led by Dr. Morteza Nouraee and Dr. Valiollah Mossayebi in the hall of this center.


Interview: The key pillar of oral history

Dr. Nouraee presented an overview of the previous session and stated: “As we said in the previous session, the public culture is the oral tradition and there is no beginning and end to it. It is not a phenomenon; it is a process. While researching and socio-cultural icon such as dialect or game, the inventor is unknown. It might have initiated at any time and transform in context over time; different from its origin. Hence, it is effective to access it for training and enriching the history. The public culture attracts a mix of tastes and vast group of audience.

Interview is the key pillar of oral history and the circle of interview is based on memory. We do the interview to retrieve the memories of an individual on a particular issue and we produce content. In fact we help the interviewee to remember a subject. We are not putting words in their mouth; with our competence we help them to remember incidents, thoughts and events. There are three key elements in an interview: interviewer, interviewee, and location.

Active interview is challenging. It is not a reportage or counselling. How might an interviewer achieve a controversial interview? The interviewer shall be well versed on the subject matter. Hence shall be competent and have sufficient knowledge on the issue.

We said before that interview is either subject or individual-oriented. It is bad to start an interview and then look for clues. You should have clues ready and reviewed the relevant literature or pictorial documents. For instance, if you want to work on the public culture in a city, you should know the city and area well.”


“That’s not what I said!”

In defining the characteristics on an oral history interviewer he said: “An interviewer shall be capable. This capability relates to both apparent style and personal interest of the individual. An interviewer might attend an interview session in a specific style which provokes a reaction in the interviewer. Interviewer shall be polite. Respect is important and the interview shall not be interrupted. A miscalculated or irrelevant question might interrupt the interview. This is prevalent amongst the historians. You might argue that the interview was out of track. The interviewee shall be led back with respect. You might interview an ordinary person or prominent individual. We want to reach the mental content of the interviewee. In fact, interview helps the narrator to recite himself. The recitation might differ on any given day. Hence, oral history is subjective. That’s why we let the narrator talk. I’ve recently read an article, “That is not what I said”. It happens that after transcribing an interview the narrator argues: “That is not what I said.” The problem is interruption; or the question leads the narrator in a special direction. Contrary to reporters and psychologists and anthropologists that intentionally direct the interviewee to a specific direction, in active interview the intention is to activate what is hiding in the sub-conscious. Hence, in oral history we are dealing with memory and its activation based on documents. "Exercising asking questions is an important trait in the interviewer, representing competence. When fully versed on the subject, questions might be engineered. Open interviews are preferred in oral history interviews so that we can ask questions at any time. But you should already have a pivotal question. There may be 10 pivot questions that will come up with dozens of other questions.

We are looking for two aspects in oral history: one is to reconstruct an event and the second is to revive the events surrounding an incident. Activation of the surrounding incidents helps the future historian to define the situation better. It is important to better understand the subject matter. I emphasize that you should be a good listener. An expert says that a good interviewer should listen carefully and when due, shall speak plenty. Interview is not for long questions. Yes/No questions are not suitable as well. The questions shall be descriptive. You should listen to the narrator and speak with body language to make the interviewer talk. It is vital.”


Recording body language; proper location; rich interview

Dr. Nouraee continued: |Interviewer is either prominent himself or has an important subject to share. In a study conducted on nurses who served in war that was the thesis of a PHD student and is still unique, we were trying to understand the services provided by nurses in Iran-Iraq war? And the places they served? You might wonder! We didn’t find more than 30 or 32. There were 60 or 70 but we managed to find 32. They were licensed nurses who had served in war; not experienced aid workers. Some didn’t provide any information. Sometimes the list of interviewees you provide are cut short since during the interview you figure that they don’t have much to say. Out of respect, you shall express your gratitude and cut the interview properly. You shall assess the memory of the interviewee. Is he oblivion? Is the information documented or based on rumors? Extracted material shall be precise. How is it possible that an interviewer doesn’t realize that the interviewee is selling today’s information for those of forty years ago?”

He insisted on the importance of comfort in the location to extract details and said: “Interview time and location shall be well arranged. The interviewee shall be in full comfort. They might feel more comfortable at home.” I recommend the presence of two individuals in the interview. One is the “secretary” the interviewer is focused on the interview. However, other things happen during the interview. One is the body language of the interviewee. Using it, he indicates which subject matters are more sensitive. It shall be recorded and taken into consideration while transcribing the interview. Body language might indicate when he was being untruthful.

In interviewing 500 families of veterans and martyrs we invited a psychologist. His reports were interesting. Your employer might not care but there are standards to be observed. Dialects and special expressions shall be recorded to assist you in transcription. Some people might be self-spoiling and some might be voluble. If you don’t have assistance, have a note ready and record any sign, symptom or specific vocabulary.

Interview rooms are designed but what does it really mean? The interviewer shall meet the interviewee where they feel fit. In an interviewee room you receive your expected answers. We want the truth and the interviewee shall not be pressured. Nothing is base zero in oral history and every activity has its own scale.

In defining a rich interview, Dr. Nouraee said: “When the interviewee starts narrating, we should clear the grounds with a question and build a house. They might start from childhood and then talk about school. You should ask more questions about school and build on it. The truth recited by the interviewee might be unbearable. Remember that oral history is different from oral memory where you should challenge the interview. The houses you build in an interview are vital to achieve your goal and more houses result in richer interview content. This applies to individual-oriented interviews. In subject-oriented interviews when you push the start button, you should lead it towards the subject you want. The interviewee shall be informed of the subject matter.

The interviewee should trust you. When you are asked to stop the recorder or omit the interview partially or fully you shall comply. Never betray their trust. They might ask you to publish their memoirs after death. Trust shall be built.”

Dr. Valiollah Mosayebi, PDH graduate in local history of Isfahan University presented a practical example in oral history and defined the “Musts” and “Must nots”.

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