Few Tips on Oral History Interviewing

Mehdi Abolhassani Taraghi*
Translated by Natalie Haghverdian


History is collective incidents, events and past experiences, and the fate of each individual depends on it. Hence, this fundamental fact must be taken into account when collecting, recording and narrating it in various forms (written, non-written). The collective might be small (family, family, city, region) or large (ethnicity, race, nation, country). Thus, the term history embodies the meaning of the group and is the opposite of the individual and the individuality.

There is no meaning to the concept of "collective oral history." Although history is a collective and group human experience, it is necessary to understand the narrative and experience of each individual present, observer, or involved in the event and incident and the collective experience in various ways, including active and challenging interviewing mechanisms, i.e., acquired and obtained through oral history.

Individual interviews cannot be called "individual oral history". Whenever a person mentions or writes their memories in any way, the form and content of their data is the memory. Although historical data can be obtained from such memoirs, this differs substantially from the "oral history” active, purposeful, structured and open interviews.

Usually at the first glance, in a historical event and incident, a key role is taken into consideration by the researcher. This does not mean that all road end to that key role and he is the main and the sole narrator of events; since the main role itself may consist of several subplots. Thus, confining the original narrative to one person and arranging other narrators and narratives around him sometimes leaves layers of narration untold.

While many emphasize the function of oral history in the representation of events and the atmosphere that governs them, the reality is that, even in historical contexts, the oral historian seeks to extract an oral narrative about that event, experience, and subject. Therefore, the priority in any oral history project and its interview is to extract the purely narrative of that event, subject, and experience (uncensored, over-represented, and magnified), and after, the mental status of the narrator is sought; where the narrator is incapable of presenting a relevant and logical (time and place) and correct presentation of events, his mental health and mental space will be seriously questioned.

Part of the events of the past are always important because of their connection with the fate of their community and its impact and persistence in the community (small or large). Neglected parts such as routines and repetitive behaviors (habits) remain unmarked, and therefore not recorded in the collective mind of the people and other written documents. Therefore, historical events are ubiquitous, and their separation is inaccurate.

A historical event may involve a significant portion of a society and others, a narrower geographical area. It depends on the historical geography of that event, the strategic location of that geography, and the outcomes of that event. These three factors contribute to the selection of the event and its scope and field of study.

Although oral history interview is some form of bilateral interaction and dialogue, it is not just a roundtable or discussion! It is the interviewer who makes the narrator speak, the narrator is not the sole speaker and the interviewer the only listener. If that were to happen, it would be better to listen to people's recorded memories and no more need for a roundtable!

Every historical event or experience has a focal point where individuals, institutions, and organizations are at the heart or side of it. They have also contributed to the grounds, the occurrence of the event, its advance and its consequences. Around this center, there are marginal roles (far or near).

Individuals can be interviewed and questioned, depending on their position and status in a historical event or experience. One of the most important requirements of starting an oral history project, after careful, documentary, and outline design is identification of the narrators of that project, their position and status on the whole or parts of the subject (center or marginal), prioritizing the narrators, and placing them on the interview list.

The topics and questions asked from an observer or witness of the event are generally different from those posed to the involved, beneficiaries or active participants in the event. It is possible that many oral history project implementers will leave the first narrators because of this position and immediately go to the second group. While the actors of history, like the cast of a movie compromise a spectrum starting from the lead role to the walk-on parts. Just as the director cannot override other roles because of the first role, even the walk-ons; because a role and function is defined for them as well, the oral history scholar must also consider the walk-ons as the observers and witnesses of historical events and experiences and interview them.

In interviewing the key narrators, the role of the individual, their position and status in the event, the results and associated effects on them, their current status and position are effective in designing and outlining their special question pack. After conducting the key (individual) interview and correcting and completing it (the individual interview), extracting the data, coding and displaying the differentiation and common points of the narrators, oral history interviews can be conducted with the presence of multiple interviewers and multiple narrators (interviewees) based on the best practices. At this point, oral history interviews will again be subject-oriented and, of course, more detailed. This type of interview is referred to as "mass interview", "group interview", "co-parenting" and "cohabitation".

After collecting, recording and documenting the narratives of the key narrators, extracting and classifying the codes, the same (second) and apparently trivial narratives can also lead the researcher to differentiations or common aspects or unpredictable and unwanted information and knowledge, and so on and help them to organize additional interviews with secondary or key narrators. Concurrent interviews with several people (collective or group interviews) are not relevant in this regard.[1]


* Doctor Mehdi Abolhassani Taraghi, oral history professor and scholar; M.Abolhasanitaraqi@gmail.com


Relevant articles:

The place of ‘collective interview’ in oral history

Co-narration; collective narration in base narration


[1] Concurrent interview techniques with multiple individuals (collective) in oral history will be addressed in the future with due consideration of all the aspects of the project

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