Tutorial: Using and Interpreting Oral History Interviews
Oral history is the recording and preservation of people’s memories about their participation in or observation of past events. Oral interviews, in audio or written transcribed form, offer important sources of historical information and new perspectives about the past.
Oral history is a particularly important source in researching ethnic history because it presents the insights and recollections of those studied. These accounts often provide new information about people who may have been excluded from other documentary sources, or they can contradict, enrich, or illuminate details available in the written record.
Despite its strengths as a source, oral history can present interpretive challenges. Just how reliable is it? We know that memories are fallible, and there are other factors that shape the interview: the narrator’s relationship with the interviewer, the interviewer’s questions, the interviewer’s cultural assumptions, the physical condition of the narrator, and the influence of intervening years and experiences on how the narrator remembers the past. Although the oral history voice may be immediate, persuasive, and compelling, one must scrutinize an interview just as carefully as any other historical source.
Researchers sometimes interview people to help answer research questions and at other times rely on existing oral history collections to supply information. Items featured in the Columbia River Basin Ethnic History Archive are some of the rich resources available in regional archives. Let’s say that you are interested in the history of Mexican Americans in the Snake River Valley of Idaho. After some initial research, you determine that because there is little written information about their history, you want to turn to oral history interviews. To search the Columbia River Basin Ethnic History Archive, click on Browse the Archive, click on Mexican Americans, and search by historical society or material type.
Example from Mexican American Browse page:
You may also search for Mexican American materials by:
For this exercise we will examine three of the interviews that appeared in your search.
First review the preliminary materials, including the release form and personal data sheet. Oral histories require special considerations so it is important to become familiar with any restrictions and required permissions that might apply before using the interview. Next, review the tape summary, which provides a detailed outline of the contents for each half hour of tape. The summary will help you quickly locate where in the tape or transcript your topics of interest are discussed. Then turn to the verbatim transcript, which reflects in print the words spoken in the interview. Finally, the audiotape itself will reveal what written words cannot: voice inflection, accent, emotion, a more immediate sense of the speaker and the meaning she or he wishes to impart.
Listen to this brief excerpt from Antonio Rodriguez’s interview and then compare it to pages 14-16 of the transcript:
What did you learn from the audiotape that is not apparent in the written transcript?
In what ways are the audio and written formats different from one another?
In evaluating an oral history interview, consider the narrator’s role in or relationship to the events he or she is describing. Does s/he have a particular stake in presenting a certain version of the story? Also weigh the consistency of the entire account. Ideally, the interview can be compared to similar interviews collected and to other available sources concerning the topics discussed.
Let’s say that you are interested in the topic of cultural traditions among Mexican Americans of southern Idaho. Examine the following excerpts from the three selected interviews to determine what connections and conclusions, if any, can be made about the origin, importance, and persistence of some of these traditions in various communities.
What were traditions from Mexico and Texas that Mexican Americans sought to perpetuate in Idaho?
How were some of these traditions (celebrations, foods, customs) organized and practiced?
How did segregation and discrimination affect the development of these traditions?
How did these narrators identify themselves, and why?
In what ways do the narrators contradict each other, and how do you resolve these differing accounts?
What consistencies are apparent in the three accounts that help you draw some conclusions?
Instead of focusing on a particular theme or topic, as we did above, we might take a more open-ended approach to interpreting the interviews. Now read the interviews with Murillo, Perez, and Rodriguez in their entirety to think about some tentative conclusions you might draw about the history of Mexican Americans in the Snake River Valley of Idaho. After reading the three accounts, return to the questions below.
What information did you learn from these interviews?
Compare and contrast the three interviews. How are each different from one another, even though similar questions may have been asked? What did each narrator choose to stress?
How did each narrator describe his or her family’s migration to Idaho? Why did they come to the area and why did they stay?
What kinds of employment did these families find? What were role expectations for each family member?
What stories did the narrators choose to share about discrimination experienced on the job or in the community?
How did each narrator describe his/her experiences with education?
How were Mexican traditions celebrated in the home and the community? When and how were community festivities organized?
What general patterns appear in these three sources that help you draw some conclusions about Mexican American life in Idaho from the 1930s to the 1980s?
And finally, in interpreting oral history, it is important to understand the dynamics of the interview. An interview is a dialogue between and a product created by two (or more) people. It represents a particular moment in time and a reflection based on subjective circumstances. Based on the interviews presented:
What can you determine about the interviewer-narrator relationship? Does the narrator appear to be comfortable and eager to share his/her stories?
How did the interviewer’s knowledge, questions, and follow-up questions shape the narrative?
Could the questions asked be rephrased in some way to elicit more information? What additional questions might have been asked to supply information you are looking for?
What strikes you as new and important information missing from other accounts you have read about Mexican American life in the Pacific Northwest?
What information is imparted that leaves you with additional questions?
This brief exercise demonstrates some of the ways that historians interpret oral history and the questions they ask about this source. Of course it is important to consider these interviews in light of other research. The interviews underscore the complexity of history—how each individual, even if from the same region of the country and the same ethnic group, may experience family, work, and culture in different ways. Oral history reminds us that there is not just one true story about the past. At the same time, the narrators share some common stories that tell us about a community’s experiences, beliefs, and struggles and reveal how people over time can develop a collective story about the past.
“Making Sense of Oral History,“ by Linda Shopes
Oral History Association Evaluation Guidelines
Crewport Oral History Project
Densho Educational Website
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