Research workshop

Practical and Theoretical Techniques of Oral History

Maryam Rajabi
Translated by Ruhollah Golmoradi


According to Iranian Oral History Website, research workshop of practical and theoretical techniques of oral history was held at Allameh Tabatabai University, Faculty of Law and Political Science on Tuesday, May 8, 2018. In this workshop, Shoja' Alvand was host and Faezeh Tavakoli was lecturer. The workshop discussions were complimentary of the same teacher discussion in the workshop of New Techniques in Oral History.


There is no judgment in oral history

Faezeh Tavakoli, at the workshop of practical and theoretical techniques of oral history, said: "Oral history is a new arena related to the digital era. Every day, three million pages are created on the web, and data and information are too much that we can no longer get, by the way of classical historiography, documents and papers that could be primary source for this type of historiography. Columbia University was one of the first universities that started to operate in the field of oral history scientifically and is now also one of the main universities in the field. Peter Kaufman, director of Department of Digital Affairs at University of Columbia, said in 2014 that by 2016 amount of data will increase so much that only about a thousand times the time of Noah's life is needed for seeing them, but oral history virtue is that because of being accompanied with audio and video, we can find audio of someone who is in country far away from us on our digital devices. In fact, invention of oral history is exactly after invention of tape recorder.

This field of historiography became more active since mid-60s. In 1960s and 1970s, in field of political history studies, as well as for the first time it was developed in subject of history of World War I and II, exploring causes of the wars and interviews with veterans of the wars in Canada, United States and Europe. Then compressed version of oral history, in field and specific models that existed, was raised and extended both theoretically and in terms of interview techniques, or question models and methodology of research. Oral History Project of Harvard is of the earliest oral history project on Iran. Habib Lajevardi, at Harvard University, interviewed all those who had left Iran after the revolution, such as incumbents and political officials and rulers of the Pahlavi regime. Harvard oral history is about 800 hours of interview, which lasted from 1982 to 1989. Another important project which was considerable in Europe was history of Left parties in Iran, which was conducted by Hamid Ahmadi. This was done in two steps and took seven years. I say these examples to see how important is political parties history.

Oral history interview is a completely mutual and interactional interview, and it's not like that you turn on your recorder and ask a question and interviewee start to talk. In oral history, we have a term on elites and informers on research subjects in this area, and we say that each of these is a live library, and if one dies, this library would be disappeared; that is, to this extent, lived experience is important. The reason for the need to oral history work is that historiography has been related to official classes and rulers. In field of oral history, we also interview with marginal people, for example, oral history of workers is very important; in struggles of Islamic Revolution we faced the strike of workers of the oil company. Or oral history of clerics who had been abandoned in the past periods, or oral history of women, who have not even been named in historiography, and scholars can start various projects based on their own interests.

Special feature of oral history is that there is no judgment; that is, you go ahead, conduct an interview and transfer it to friends and levels of community; therefore, it is different with the common historiography that for an incident such as the Constitutional that Fereydun Adamiyat, Kasravi and Nazemoleslam Kermani each wrote a book on it and made their own interpretations. Nowadays, postmodernists in history say that we are not facing history, these are historiographies; because the past was a fact that happened and was over, and the historians who addressed those events, recorded and presented them on paper, view and record the event in terms of their ideological, methodological, and epistemological approaches; therefore, we are faced with historiography of historians, but oral history is composed of narratives, and in a word, we now face with wealth of narratives. You know that in the four decades after the revolution, there have been special developments in the country, but you do not know how they were. Recording oral history of the four decades of Islamic Revolution is very important in all areas. Finding out many problems we encounter after the four decades is related to that we record oral history of the period."


Difference between oral history and oral tradition

The author of "Oral History: Theoretical, Methodological Issues (Basics)" continued: "field of oral history is a qualitative research field. We have two types of research fields. One area is quantitative research that we face in field of social sciences, but in oral history, as we are directly dealing with humans, our research is quite qualitative, that is it is recorded based on mutual willingness of interviewer and interviewee, speech is preferred rather writing, all stratums of society involve in historical, social, political, economic, and cultural developments, help us in completing data, and by creating a live video and audio simultaneously, we can present them at extent of information society. Historiography with oral history is very important, because our evidences are no longer coin and seal, etc. but are human beings who directly played a role in transformations and were actors, and we can open new sides in historical interpretation and developments by interviewing these people.



Some people say we have had oral history that has been the same narrated by narration quotation. In fact, it is oral tradition. We need to differentiate between oral history and oral tradition. For centuries, this information have been passed down by words of mouth, but it has been called oral tradition, but in History (era after invention of writing) which comes with invention of writing system, or ancient era of Iran and after Islam, we see that information was still  passing down by words of mouth and it was fashionable; we had a series of narrators from Sahabah (the companions) to Tabi‘un (followers) and from Tabi'un to them in time of prophet Mohammad (pbuh), or famous historians like Tabari who quoted fully based on narration, but in Medieval Iran, these news were criticized whether chain of narrators is true or not? Ilm al-Rijāl (biographical evaluation) and Hadith science were objected. In the world, in contemporary era, it was emphasized on classes of social history, such as the Persepolis, the Acropolis, the Egyptian Pyramids, the wall of China, which had been formed by masses of people; then we must come and focus on those masses and classes of people in order to see that how have their roles been. History of oral historiography was initiated by invention of tape recorder and also after world wars I and II, because these two wars were the most important destructive transformation at the height of human rationality. Barbara Tuchman has book of "The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam", in which she emphasizes that all three thousand years of human civilization has been accompanied by war and bloodshed. The only science that mankind has not been able to complete it until twentieth century is science of governance. World Wars I and II had much displeasure that both philosophically involved our philosophers, and involved historians in exploring causes of these wars. Someone named Allan Nevins, using a tape recorder asked in Columbia University memories of people who were war veterans. Oral history is a historiography that everybody can enter, and they do not need to be historian, because oral history has an interdisciplinary approach. And by using this approach, all people in different disciplines can become familiar with this skill."


Details of how conduct oral history interview
Tavakoli added, "Sampling in oral history interview is sometimes targeted sampling, which is in fact interview with people who provide the best information. In a quota sampling you interview with a certain number of informed people. In a network sampling, we interview with a group of specific people who are in an organization, and spontaneous sampling is when faced with some politicians whom you suddenly faced with in a meeting. The middle and final stages of the interview are relation with people who we know are connected to subject of the project and talk with them can help to understand the issue more; in field of politics, interview with knowledgeable people at the national and regional levels also be conducted.

The four main steps of interview include formulating questions, questions that should fill gap of available knowledge, addressing details, preparing pre-questions which are the same structured questions, and arranging questions. Typology of interview questions is very important, and it is itself a part of techniques; that how do you prompt a person to do interview and questions you ask are very different depending on his/her education and individual situation. There are a series of behavioral-empirical questions that make it possible to evaluate him/her, that is, in what spaces he/she has been and what has been his/her reaction? For example, in an interview with political prisoners, we want them to describe activity of a day in jail. In ideological-value questions you want to find out about his/her ideas and judgments, and ask, for example, what is your opinion about a subject? In emotional questions, you want to know emotions of interviewee about his/her circumstances and how it has been? Epistemological questions are about your knowledge of a subject and you want him to fully explain it. Feeling questions are for certain situations like the front, for example, you want to explain his/her conditions in confronting enemy or his/her feelings in that context. Demographic questions are also the same biographical questions that should be asked initially. The presumption questions are also asked to see whether interviewee has any information about the subject or not? Follow-up questions are also about previous questions you had asked and would like interviewee to give information about them. Single questions are asked when you consider an opportunity and ask interviewer to explain about a subject. Neutral questions are questions that you want interviewee to be prompted to respond, without feeling that you have ideological position."

At the end, the history scholar, pointing to people who have done good and interesting political interviews with various personalities about contemporary history, said, "reviewing and analyzing personality of interviewee by interviewer can be done in meta-analysis, because judgment in oral history is not from interviewer. We evaluate and adapt talks of each interviewee with memories of people who were with them in that period. Even if someone tells wrong accounts, our people will not be misled, they are aware and compare. Even if people do not compare, we are not allowed to identify hidden aspects of this oral history for people. If we say that, for example, a woman exaggerate in her interview and I think her narratives were not correct, she complains to us in court and says if my story was not correct, why did you publish it? In fact, oral history is an impartial media."

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