Letting go of the one-on-one interview?
Monday, September 15th, 2014
Rebecca Lorins, Texas After Violence Project
Sarah Loose, Director of the Rural Organizing Project’s Roots & Wings Oral History Project; Groundswell Practitioner Support Network (PSN) Working Group
Oral history is most often seen as a practice that takes place between one interviewer and one narrator, in an exchange that prioritizes an individual's personal story and experiences. What impact does this highly individual nature of oral history have in doing social movement and community-oriented oral history projects? Might it reinforce an overly-individualistic view of history and movements? When should we let go of the one-on-one interview?
In this chat, we'll explore the utility of formats other than the one-on-one interview for doing oral history. What is the value of group or collective interviewing, especially in cultures and groups where community and the collective are highly valued, or in applied oral history projects with clear organizing or community-building goals? What are the challenges of having multiple voices in an interview space and navigating those power dynamics? What skills are needed to facilitate group interviews - and how are these different from or the same as the skills for a one-on-one interview? Finally, what collective methods do (or could) communities/groups use to share and present their multi-vocal stories?
What We’ve Experimented With
Chat participants shared examples of their own experiments and experience doing oral history interviews in formats other than the one-on-one, including:
Two (or more) narrators & one interviewer
Multiple narrators & multiple interviewers
Group interview followed by individual interviews (and vice versa)
Story circle-type formats
Some of the reasons for experimenting with these forms included:
narrators requested to be interviewed together with someone else
interviewing multiple narrators who shared a common experience can help jog people’s memories and assist in remembering things that happened long ago
the unique synergy of interviewing people who participated in a common movement but from different vantage points or in different roles (for example, Amy Kesselman talked about interviewing women active in the feminist movement in Connecticut, each of whom were involved in different aspects of the movement together, such as organizing around childcare, etc…)
because it is a better reflection of movement culture - of how people actually participated in the historical events or movements that the interview is exploring (Sarah Loose shared how couples often shared a single board position within the Rural Organizing Project (www.rop.org), and so in an oral history project documenting ROP’s organizing over the last 20 years, they’ve interviewed those couples together)
to facilitate a process of open, collective inquiry (in Doug Lambert’s project looking at what’s going wrong and what’s going right in Superfund management, the research team includes a sociologist, a philosopher, an engineer, etc. - and it has made sense to invite some or all of them to be present at interviews)
to facilitate the formation of a collective identity and/or common knowledge bank; and for movement building purposes - to create or strengthen the relationships between people that are necessary for collective action
to create a collective space for people to share, dialogue about and work through their differing perspectives or interpretations of the past
the venue was especially suited to it and/or difficult to do a more traditional one-one-one interview (Ellie Belew shared her experiences interviewing union members at a union picnic with an “interview stand” where people could come and go at will, and often came up together with their union buddies)
Challenges & Strategies for Dealing with Them
Interruptions - what should we do when people are interrupting and talking over each other? Rebecca Lorins suggested setting “ground rules” at the beginning of an interview (asking people to wait a few seconds after another person speaks before speaking themselves, “step up, step back” - encouraging those who are more vocal to make space for those who are more quiet and vice versa), but she also questioned the notion of whether interruptions in interviews are necessarily “bad” or to be avoided - indeed, isn’t it part of some groups’ and communities’ cultures to interrupt and “build” on each other’s ideas in that way?
Audio quality and microphone choices - what mic setups are effective for interviewing more than one person? Participants cautioned against using table-top mics on the same table around which narrators are sitting and highlighted the importance of knowing your microphones’ patterns (cardiod? bidirectional? omnidirectional?) and placing them appropriately. Other suggestions included using lavalier mics and having one for each narrator and using several “gooseneck” microphones that allow you to get close to narrators’ mouths.
Identifying narrators after the fact - sometimes it is hard to identify who is speaking on an audio recording when doing a group interview. Some potential solutions include: make sure each person introduces themselves at the beginning and has own mic/track, setting up a cheap video camera as a second reference (although this might affect the vibe of the interview?).
Processing interviews - we might need to adjust our project workflows when introducing group interview formats. (Doug explained how he normally has the interviewer do the annotation/summary of the interview. Working with multiple interviews has brought up the question about who should do the annotation.)
Archiving interviews - some archives and databases are only set up to handle one-on-one interviews. (For example, Rebecca Lorins shared that the Texas After Violence Project works with the digital database at the University of Texas Libraries to archive their interviews. But the database is really only set up to handle one-on-one interviews. So they’ve been thinking about setting up a different part of the archive to share recorded conversations or group storytelling events with multiple people.)
Other Themes & Questions
What’s the purpose? How we intend to use the interviews is critical in determining the best interview format. Our aims should inform our means. And sometimes it can seem as though these are at odds. For example, a primary goal of the Texas After Violence Project is to concientizar (raise consciousness/awareness among) Texans about interdependence and the connections to our neighbors. Given that, is a one-on-one interview format really the most aligned with those objectives?
The purpose of our interviews also informs our tech decisions; for example, if we are using the interviews primarily for the purpose of quotation in a book, it’s probably not necessary to have broadcast quality audio, and it might be more important to make sure that each narrator has their own (cheap) microphone so everyone is easily identifiable. If our end product is a documentary film (or some other creative, non-academic, or community-building purpose), it might be less challenging to have people interrupting each other than if our end product is a transcript.
Group interviews introduce new forms of subjectivity and added layers of complexity for interview analysis and interpretation - we need to pay attention to interactions not only between interviewer(s) and narrator(s), but also between narrators.
Doing individual interviews first can be a way of identifying particular sets of people to group together for group interviews. And vice-versa...
Are group interviews really “oral history”? Participants reflected on the increasingly multi-disciplinary nature of our work, and the value (or not) of trying to establish definitional boundaries between forms.