Conducting Oral History


1 How to do an Oral History Project
2 Planning your oral history project
3 Equipment
4 Selecting Interviewees
5 Setting up interviews
6 Doing Interviews
7 Transcribing Interviews
8 Disseminating oral histories
9 References

How to do an Oral History Project

By Sean Field

Senior citizen being interviewedWe practise oral history when we talk about the past to friends, family members, colleagues or anyone else. While we might not call it ‘oral history’, we all use oral history as a part of our daily lives. Oral history as a lived practice existed long before academics thought of and developed ‘oral history’ as a research practice. Oral history as a research method only began in the 1950s in the United States of America and England, and became a popular method for progressive academics and students in the 1960s. A central reason for this growth was the production of cheap hand-held tape recorders. During the 1970s, as the South African trade union movement began to rebuild itself, oral history became especially popular amongst trade unionists and adult educators. Since then oral history as a research practice has been used in universities, schools, museums and many non-governmental organisations across South Africa.

Oral history as a research method records the spoken memories and stories of people in the interview situation. The interview situation is usually located in a room, but it could also happen in the open air. The interview can be recorded by handwritten notes, but it is far more efficient to use either a tape-recorder or video camera. Once interviews are recorded, the tapes are transcribed and interpreted, and then they are usually used to write up a research project. But oral history also refers to the ways in which memories and stories are passed on to the public through archives, books, films, television, radio and community drama. You do not need to be a professional to do an oral history project. This appendix describes some guidelines for oral history interviewing and provides tips for an oral history project on forced removals.

Planning your oral history project

It is very common for researchers to have ambitious research aims which they fail to achieve because they did not carefully plan their project. A research plan should include a clear research focus, budget and timetable. It is important to have a flexible plan, which allows for unpredictable events. But oral history research should be conducted in an organised and disciplined manner, if it is to be given the recognition it deserves. The following questions need to be confronted:

What are the central goals of your research project?
Tips: Carefully think about and write down your central goals. Make sure these goals are realistic. Rather have fewer, narrowly defined goals. Define your goals in terms of central research questions to be answered. Consider what format you want to produce the project in, for example a booklet or video. Bear in mind who you are, and how your age, race, gender or educational level might affect your research. Think about which audiences will read, see or hear your project.

What is the best research method to meet your goals?
Tips: Oral history is good at recording memories and exploring topics about people’s experiences. But it is often necessary to use other research methods as well. For example, the collection of newspaper clippings, photographs and written documents can improve the quality of your interviews.

How much time and resources are required to complete this project?
Tips: Compile a budget for all your possible expenses, listing how you are going to pay for this and any income you might earn from the project. Write up a timetable with due dates for specific tasks and the final project completion. Research is time consuming so allow for more time and not less.

How will you distribute the findings of your project?
Tips: Consult with the interviewees, ask them how they would like to see their stories taken forward. It is crucial to include this aspect of oral history work in your plan, budget and timetable.


A tape-recorder to record interviews is preferable. A hand-held recorder or a portable radio-tapedeck can do the job. But the quality of the recording is often poor on these kinds of equipment. The best way to overcome this limitation is to buy either a hand-held microphone or preferably a lapel microphone. These are expensive items, and you might need to loan these from a company, school or university that hires-out equipment. A portable video camera can also be used. The video camera is very effective in capturing the facial expressions and bodily mannerisms of the interviewee, but can make some interviewees uncomfortable.

For the transcription of your interviews you could use your tape-recorder or video camera but this is very time-consuming and costly. It is far more efficient to buy or loan a transcribing machine. Make sure the transcriber has headphones (for better listening), a footpedal (to control the movement of the tape) and a speed control function. Always use the normal size tape-cassettes (not the mini-cassettes) as they are more common and tend to be stronger. Use 60-minute tapes instead of 90-minute tapes as these are less likely to stretch. Chrome tapes are more expensive than carbon tapes, but survive longer, and are therefore better for archival purposes. Always make back-up copies of your interviews and rather work with your back-up copies and not the originals. If you are fortunate to have a large budget then the most up-to-date technology to buy are mini-disks (very similar to CDs) or a digital audio-recorder.

Selecting Interviewees

In terms of your research project plan (goals, methodology, budget and timetable) you need to decide whom you are going to interview. One way of beginning is to do a single life history – consisting of several interviews – with an elderly member of your family or neighbourhood. Or you could conduct a small case study on forced removals, by interviewing all the older members of your family or your street. If you want to document the whole or a part of your community’s history, then you will need to decide what your main themes are. Here are some questions you will confront in selecting interviewees:

  • How long did they reside in the community they were removed from?
  • Will you select an equal number of male and female interviewees?
  • Will you select interviewees according to race, ethnicity or culture?
  • Will you select according to their class or economic position?
  • Will you select according to age and generation?
  • Are you interested in political affiliation?
  • Are you interested in religious affiliation?
  • How important are sporting or cultural club memberships?

These questions will cover the most common possibilities or variables when developing a community research project on forced removals. If you are unable to select interviewees according to all these possibilities, you then have to prioritise the themes that are essential to the project.

These possibilities (phrased as questions) must correspond to your central research goals. For example, if one of your central goals is to find out whether men and women in your community remember forced removals in different ways, then consider the following analytical question: Do men and women have similar or different ways of remembering their experiences of forced removals? This question could be followed up with: Why do these differences and similarities in remembering the past happen? These analytical questions which will guide how you approach interviews. It is preferable to find people who are comfortable with talking about themselves and others, and they should have relatively clear memories of the past. But as memory is open to change you cannot be rigid about this. You need to adopt flexible strategies in setting up and doing interviews.

Setting up interviews

Interviews are setup and conducted around the following central point: The interviewee has the information, which you the interviewer do not have. Therefore gaining permission to interview people must be done in a sensitive way. Bear in mind that interviewees are doing you a favour by giving up their time and telling their stories for your research project.
By stressing that your project is contributing to a shared heritage of the community, you are more likely to get a co-operative response from potential interviewees. When doing interviews in communities, it is necessary to first get permission from the organisational gatekeepers of the community. These might be the civic associations, political groups or local municipal councilors. Once organisational clearance is obtained, the researcher needs to get potential interviewees to agree to being interviewed.

The central issue of the language to be spoken in the interview also needs to be established during setting up the interview. Generally interviewees prefer using their first language. It is obviously preferable if the interviewer can speak the interviewee’s first language. In situations where this is not possible, there are at least two options: on the one hand, a translator could be used, on the other hand, the interview could be conducted in a language other than the first language of the interviewee. Both options have their advantages and disadvantages. The translator option often hinders the negotiation of an intimate interviewer/interviewee relationship and immediate translation is often inaccurate. But this option allows the interviewee the comfort of using their first language. Conversely, the non-first language option is often uncomfortable for the interviewee and there can be misunderstandings of words or cultural dynamics.

There is an additional local issue: using African languages, when one of these languages is the mother tongue of the interviewee is good for interviewing but limits the breadth of audiences that can be reached through dissemination. In short, there is a tension to be resolved: using the interviewee’s first language is usually best for interviewing, but using a dominant language like English, is usually best for dissemination purposes.

Before you start interviewing, it is also important to form a verbal contract with the interviewee that deals with the issue of confidentiality. This means you need interviewees’ permission to use their name in your project. Alternatively, you must keep the interviewee’s name separate from their stories. Many interviewees feel more comfortable talking on tape, when you are not going to use their names. But sometimes, if the interviewee is famous or well known in the community, this might not be possible. The interviewee should be also informed that he or she has the right to choose not to answer any questions or end the interview at any time he or she chooses.

When the interview has been completed, ask the interviewee to complete a written contract. This is either an interviewee/interviewee agreement or a release form. This legal agreement gives the copyright to the researcher, but also gives the interviewee the chance to place any restrictions over the stories recorded. Interviewees may choose to allow the stories to only be used for educational and not commercial purposes. The interviewees might also choose to restrict the whole interview or parts of the interview from publication for a certain number of years.

While setting up and doing the interview, try to present yourself in a confident, but humble and respectful manner. The more you can consult with interviewees about the project the better. This is especially important if your central aim is to establish a history, which the community has a greater degree of control over. But extensive consultation is often frustrating and time-consuming. At very least, your guiding aim should be to develop open and honest dialogues with interviewees.

Doing Interviews

Before you start interviewing, write up an ‘interview guide’. The interview guide is not a fixed schedule, but should be seen as a checklist or a safety net to help with asking questions. The content and the manner in which interview questions are asked will help the interviewee to relax into a story-telling mood. It is essential to ask questions that do not appear on your interview guide such as questions for clarification and questions that link with what the interviewee has previously spoken about. This shows that you are really interested in what they have to say and will facilitate further story-telling.

When conducting a research project on a community that experienced forced removals, we recommend the life story interview guide. A life story interview can be roughly chronological, but in fact, it often follows a more inconsistent order. This approach tends to work well because it allows people more space to narrate their memories and to move around from topic to topic, and from one time period to another. This flexible approach also allows the interviewee time to feel more comfortable with the interview situation. People’s stories also connect to their memories of living as members of communities, families, organisations, teams and cultural groups. The life story interview guide also helps the interviewer to contextualise and explore these specific community or social themes in more detail.

The interviewer can use many interviewing skills to make the interviewee feel more comfortable. I will mention only two significant skills here. Firstly, the interviewer needs to learn how to be an empathic listener. Interviewees should see and feel that you are really listening to their stories. Secondly, you need to learn how to ask questions in a simple and sensitive way. Try to avoid asking leading questions such as: How bad did you feel when you were forcibly removed? A better way of asking the question would be: How did you feel when you were forcibly removed? Try to avoid asking more than one question at a time. And avoid analytical, abstract or longwinded questions such as: What was your class, race and gender consciousness at the time of forced removals? Rather ask short, open questions such as: How do you think forced removals affected your community?; and, what do you think of the people who did these removals?

Interviewers should remember that the information they are requesting is often connected to intense feelings. Oral history interviewing is not the quick journalist or talk show style of interviewing. Oral history requires a patient and slow style that is sensitive and respectful to where the interviewee comes from, and the mood the interviewee is in. This style of interviewing will help the interviewee to tell more intimate stories and details. These stories might not be meaningful to you or others, but it is crucial is to give interviewees the time to tell stories that are meaningful to them.

All interviewers, be they experienced or inexperienced, make mistakes. Here are some common mistakes made by interviewers:

  • Arriving late
  • Interrupting the interviewee
  • Talking too much
  • Trying to solve the interviewee’s problems
  • Interrogating the interviewee
  • Arguing with the interviewee

The basis for a good oral history interview is less to do with right and wrong and more about building trust between yourself and the interviewee. If you deal with your mistakes in an open and sensitive way, it might even benefit your relationship with interviewees. You are not doing a scientific experiment. You are interviewing a person with complex memories and feelings. If interviewees trust you and feel comfortable being interviewed by you, they will gradually reveal meaningful stories that are helpful to both them and you.

Transcribing Interviews

This is probably the most time-consuming part of doing oral history research. Even with a modern transcribing machine, it is reasonable to expect one hour of interviewing time to take four to seven hours of typing time to be transcribed. This typing time will mostly depend on the quality of your sound recording. It is essential to have clearly transcribed interviews for most research projects. You must decide whether you need a complete transcript of each interview. If your aim is to get a nearly complete community record, then verbatim transcripts (where every word is transcribed) are essential. If your aims are more limited, selective transcripts of the sections or responses you intend analysing or quoting for your project are sufficient. Make sure that you keep the tape cassettes (and copies as well), in a safe place. It is a good idea to label your tapes with the following minimum of information: The interviewee’s name and contact details; the interviewer’s name; the date of the interview; and where it took place.

When transcribing, it is crucial to be aware that there is no one-to-one relationship between the spoken word and the written word. People do not speak as they write. A transcriber/typist can creatively use written words to describe the sounds, expressions and words spoken by the interviewee. The transcriber should also explore ways of describing non-verbal sounds and the mood of the interview dialogue. It is usually better if the interviewer is also the transcriber. Professional typists or transcribers might do the job more neatly and quickly but this will be an added financial cost.

Disseminating oral histories

The stories recorded through the oral history method should be distributed to the individuals and communities where they originated, and to as many other audiences as possible. The central strength of the oral history method is that it usually focuses on recording the many views of people who have been marginalised or oppressed in our society. But researchers have often put insufficient energy and money into disseminating oral histories to communities and the broader public.

Oral histories of communities which experienced forced removals have been recorded through a number of media. For example, popular history books such as this book and video documentaries like ‘The Last Supper at Horstley Street’. Another example is community radio programs broadcast by ‘Bush Radio’ in Cape Town. If you write up a school or university research project it is a good idea to offer interviewees a copy of their interview tapes. While the written medium is useful, I strongly recommend that you rather use the audio or visual mediums so that oral histories can be heard or seen by as many other people as possible. For example, you could use your interviews to make 15 to 30 minute radio or video programmes. At very least make sure that the tapes and transcripts are lodged with an archive. By placing your interviews in a sound or audio-visual archive they can be listened to and used by researchers and other members of the public.

Perks, R. and Thomson, A. 1998. The Oral History Reader. London: Routledge.
Portelli, A. 1991. The Death of Luigi Trastulli and Other Stories, Form and Meaning in Oral History. New York: State University of New York Press.
Ritchie, D. 1995. Doing Oral History. New York: Twayne Publishers.
Thompson, P. 1988. (2nd ed.) The Voice of the Past, Oral History. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Vansina, J. 1985. (2nd ed.) Oral Tradition as History. London: James Currey.

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