Reportback: What to Do When Our Interviews Don’t Support Our Cause?

What to Do When Our Interviews Don’t Support Our Cause?


PSN Reportback

Dec. 2, 2013

The question that frames this PSN chat points to an assumption of many oral history practitioners with social justice goals: that the interviews they conduct will always be in alignment with these goals. This PSN chat aims to explore reasons for pursuing or eliciting material that conflicts with your presumed goal; strategies to help you prepare for the possibility of encountering conflictual material; strategies for when you encounter this material in the interview space; and possibilities for working with this material post-interview.

This call was facilitated by Rebecca Lorins, member of Groundswell’s Practitioner Support Network Working Group and Acting Director of Texas After Violence Project and David Anderson Hooker, Mediator, Community Organizer, Adjunct Professor at Eastern Mennonite University’s Center for Justice and Peacebuilding, co-author (with Amy Potter Czjaikowski) of Transforming Historical Harms (EMU 2013) and PhD candidate at University of Tilburg.

Participants included Nicki Pombier Berger, Mary Beth Holman, Thaler Pekar and Manish Vaidya.

We structured the call around the different phases or stages of an oral history interview, and how at each stage, one might consider deliberately speaking across various divides. Below is a summary of some of the ideas and dilemmas that came up during the call]

I.        Pre-interview phase  (Much of our discussion revolved around our aspiration to create space for differing points of view in our work)

  • Decisions around who to interview (project design and deliberately seeking out those at the margins of a given movement or those in conflict with that movement in order to more fully account for the contours of a given “movement.”)
  • The very “problem” of interviewing as “social justice advocate”. Does this close down what can be said in interview? Is it true that corporate work sometimes encourages seeking out “opposing narratives” more than social justice or nonprofit work? Can our advocacy be to “have no advocacy”? Someone suggested, however, that history always has an agenda/point of view. Still, we discussed our hope to make space for different points of view, and to “invite” conflictual views – someone brought up the term “invitational” – that we would like to create an “invitational” ethos. Someone else suggested that our advocacy could be on behalf of “dialogue” and of a free-flowing conversation that allows for an element of the unknowable. A participant pointed to Exhale (the “pro-voice” approach).
  • The issue of trust:  how developing trust in the pre-interview phase is a key element in opening space for different points of view and disagreement within the interview setting. We discussed how time and demonstrating one’s commitment is essential to building trust.
  • One participant mentioned becoming aware of power dynamics as an important ingredient in building trust and in constructing a project design that is aware of how narrators’ stories interact with one another.
  • We briefly touched on the question of implementing pre-interview training and/or educational workshops with narrators. We connected this to Groundswell’s Working Group on Oral History & Anti-Oppression and to what extent this kind of pre-work should be incorporated before recording interviews, as a way to also make transparent and encourage self-reflexivity on the assumptions of interviewer/narrator and the conflictual dialogue at stake in the documentation.

    II.              During the interview phase (Much of what we discussed revolved around creating space for the expression of “dissensus” — external or internal – and cracking open stories for their possibilities, especially when a narrative seems to directly oppose your goals.)
  • A participant brought up a framework that helps her: 1.) the stories we hear 2.) the stories we tell 3.) the truth and 4.) the stories that have not yet been told. We discussed ways to elicit the “nuances” – the stories that can be told only when in a non-polarized environment.
  • So, how to encourage this “dissensus” – to allow for someone to voice a story that may even deviate from their normal narrative or self-understanding?
  • Some ideas: 

                                               i.     Consider serving more as a “facilitator” than an interviewer

                                             ii.     Consider playing with the traditional oral history framework; for example, inviting narrators to interview new narrators, perhaps especially those with intersecting or opposing points of view.

                                            iii.     Consider having the narrator watch or listen to his/her “pat” narrative and then recording as the two of you discuss it.

                                            iv.     Consider the setting of the interview and how that may open up or shut down ways of being.

  • Some ideas for questions/questioning:

                                               i.     Remember that the narrator is speaking to multiple audiences and so has multiple voices – is, in fact, a “multi-being.” At any given moment, the person has multiple identities: principal, deacon, father, activist, etc. If they begin telling the story from one perspective, they also have in mind an audience for that perspective. If you invite them to share the same story but to a different audience, that could open up a new narrative: (ie: “What are some of the things that you would include if telling this to your children?” or “What are some things that children would notice about what you’re sharing?”

                                             ii.     “Have you changed your thinking about this experience over time?” “Do you find yourself thinking about this experience differently and why?” “Have you told your children/parents/etc. about this; have you described it differently to them?”

                                            iii.     Perhaps oral historians interested in social change may divert sometimes from a focus on recording the past and ask their narrators about their aspirations, dreams, and fantasies: the “what could have happened” instead of “what happened?”

                                            iv.     After somebody shared an event from their life, you might ask them, “What are the stories from your life or the life of somebody else that you use to interpret this incident, this occurrence?” This may be a way to get at how someone uses stories for “meaning-making” – how the meaning they are attributing to an event is not “autonomous” but rather “inside” one story or another. You can explore how interpretation may change if the “interpretive” story changes.

III.            Post-interview phase (here, we hoped to discuss questions around how to exhibit and display our oral history work especially when interviews contradict or complicate a particular social movement narrative or social justice goal) (Note: we started to run out of time here, due in part to some technical issues at the beginning of the call; there is a lot more we could cover that we didn’t have time for!)

  • We discussed how one of the strengths of oral history is the acknowledgment of nuance, complexity and resistance to “closure,” and this open-endedness itself could be foregrounded in any public exhibition or display of the work.
  • We discussed how oral historians have typically depended on juxtaposition of voices (and the different weighing of voices) when thinking about how to represent a debate or contentious history.


To sum up, we had a very rich discussion, with threads that had the potential of unfolding over several sessions! We hope these discussions will continue in other ways.