How to conduct an oral history interview

How to conduct an oral history interview

There are two basic types of oral history interviews: one that is narrowly focused on a very specific topic, such as a particular neighbourhood, sports team, or school, and another that is focussed on the arc of a person’s life. The second type is called a life course interview.

If you want to get a global sense of how a person has experienced their sexuality and sexual identity over the course of their life, you would undertake a life course interview. If you wanted to find out more about why in the 1970s and 80s a lot of lesbians called themselves lesbian-feminists, your interviews would focus on just two decades, and your questions would concern the relationship between identity (lesbian) and politics (feminism). Spoiler alert: many lesbians who were out or came out in this era saw the struggle for women’s liberation as inseparable from their lesbian identity, thus for them feminism and their lesbianism went hand-in-hand.

If you were to undertake a life course interview with the intention of finding out more about lesbian, queer, and Two Spirit women’s experience in general, you do indeed have a specific topic in mind — sexuality and sexual identity — but your interest is in that topic across one individual’s lifespan. The terms don’t matter so much as knowing your purpose and objective for the oral history interview.

What questions should I ask in an oral history interview?

When it comes to the kinds of questions you should ask, there really are no rules (but their are ethics and good practices). In fact, it’s generally a bad idea to conduct an interview with a fixed set of questions. Instead, arrive at your interview with a general outline of the topics you want to explore and focus your attention on listening and responding to what your interviewee reveals. Stories will often emerge about things that you never would have thought to ask about, and only when we listen closely and give a person the room and space to talk freely do they emerge.

As a trained social historian I pay a lot of attention to a person’s social and economic class, as well as their gender, sexuality, ethnicity and race, and religious beliefs. That’s because all of these things can play a significant role in shaping the experiences we have, and how we make sense of the world around us. For this reason, I always begin with some basic family history (if you use these questions, feel free to phrase them in a way that seems natural or comfortable to you):

1. When and where were you born?
2. Who raised you? [If not biological parents, several additional questions might flow from that.]
3. What was/is your parents ethnic or racial heritage? What did/do they do for a living?
3. What was your mother like? What was your father like?
4. Did you have siblings? How many? Did you get along?
5. Were you raised with any particular religious beliefs? [Note that this is a yes/no question which generally you should avoid since it does not lead to an interesting conversation. However, I don’t see a way to ask it differently. If they say no, I move on; if they say yes, I ask what those beliefs were.]

Answers to any of the above questions could turn into a long story in and of itself, if you chose to probe more deeply, but for our purposes, a general sense of an individual's upbringing should be sufficient. However, if you sense that the topic is important to the person, don't hesitate to ask more questions that follow from their response. Also, if it seems appropriate, draw them out. For example:

Q. Did you have siblings?
A: A sister and a brother.
Q: Did you get along?
A: No!

It seems this person has pretty strong feelings about their siblings. Suddenly I feel awkward. What do I say? I feel it would be rude to just go to the next question. I might say:

Q: Why do you think that was?

Here are two possible responses:

The one that says leave this subject alone and move on — A: “I really couldn’t tell you.”

And the one that says there’s a story here, and it’s relevant to the subject of our interview — A: “Well, I was not what you would call a girly-girl. I preferred to play with my brother, and my sister tormented me for that. My brother was okay with me playing with him until one day I’ll never forget I was eight and he was eleven and we were at school and his friends called me a lezzie. My brother didn’t say anything. He just stood there. Couldn’t even look me in the eye. I never played with him again.”

To the first reply, I would want to acknowledge their pain. I would probably say: “That must have been difficult.” I would pause and if they said nothing, move to the next question.

To the second reply, I would probably give the same answer, but I might also ask, “what did you do then? Who did you play with at school after that horrible experience?” I might also ask how their relationship is with their brother now, not because it’s particularly relevant to my interview, but because I am talking to a person about their life, and they are taking the time and risk to open up to me. The gift-giving has to go both ways.

When I am ready to turn to the topic of sexuality I usually ask “when did you first realize you were different?” or “when did you know you were attracted to girls or women?”

From that point on I have no set questions, just a list of topics I want to make sure to touch on.

The topics you choose can be those of personal interest to you. For example, even though lesbians are well known cat lovers, I never ask about pets. It just doesn’t interest me, but people’s relationships with their animals are very important to them and there is no reason why this could not be a topic explored in an interview. On the other hand, if an interviewee rode a motorcycle I will aways want to talk about that because it’s a topic I care about and find interesting. However, I would not go on about it too long unless we explored stories that related to her experience as a queer, lesbian, or Two Spirit woman, such as defying gender conventions or riding with “Dykes on Bikes.”

Other issues to explore in an interview

In addition to experiences as a Two Spirit woman, queer, or lesbian such as learning about and having sex, meeting other lesbians, forming social networks (or not), and so on, there are a wide range of other issues that you might possibly want to explore. Some examples are:

  • Who were your role models when forming an identity as a lesbian, queer, or Two Spirit person?
  • What types of social opportunities were available to you in your teens, 20s, 30s, etc.?
  • Were newspapers, magazines, journals, and so on, with LGBTQ2 content important to you?
  • Were you involved in any type of political activism? sports teams?
  • What has been your relationship to/with gay men and/or other BTQ people/groups?
  • Did you have heterosexual experiences before or after you came out?
  • Have you ever experienced pregnancy/abortion (obviously needs to be approached with sensitivity)
  • Have you ever experienced homophobia? How did you handle it? How did it affect you?

The most important thing is to enjoy yourself! Don’t worry about getting it right — there really is no “right.”

An excellent and freely accessible online guide with more detailed information is available here. But don’t be afraid to just press record and start talking! While there are lots of great techniques for improving one’s interview method, at the end of the day you are simply getting to know another person’s story. The only things you really need are to be a good listener, curious, and of course respectful of others.

Find out more about our latest oral history project here.