Much ink has been split discussing the best possible practices and methods for conducting oral histories. This is because conducting an interview is challenging and takes practice, and oral historians are generous in attempting to help the new generation of interviewers avoid the mistakes that the previous generation made in their interviewers. We certainly contribute to the (digital) ink-spilling about oral history technique on this site. Of equal importance but seemingly less treatment, however, is the topic of finding interviewees.
Now, if you are reading this, your project—intended or current—likely falls into one of two camps:
- You have a community that you wish to collect interviews from based on your interest in the community. This might lead you to identify elderly members of your ward or parish, elementary school teachers at your child’s school, or the retired members of your metalworking union. In this case, your question may be of secondary importance to the focus of the community, and there is a good chance you are already well acquainted with the individuals whom you hope to interview.
- You have a question in mind that you want to answer, and that leads you to a community to interview in order to answer that question. For example, your questions about an event or a time could lead you to talk to Vietnam veterans, Sudanese immigrants, climate scientists, or the members of a parish of a religion to which you do not belong.
The insights below will be especially helpful if you are researching a community unfamiliar to you, but they should be useful regardless.
Identify the Community that can Answer your Question
This may sound obvious, but there is more to it than appears at first blush. Running with our previous example, let’s pretend you’re trying to conduct an oral history with members of the local Episcopalian church to see what it was like being Episcopalian in your town in the 1990s. It might appear that all you need to do is head to mass, and stay and mingle afterwards with the people who are in their mid-thirties or later to find potential interviewees. This isn’t a bad place to start, but demographics can be deceiving. Some older members of the parish will likely have moved to the area more recently. Others perhaps were lapsed during the period you are interested in. Some simply may not be interested in being interviewed.
Our other examples have similar complications. If you want to know what it was like to be a soldier in the bush in Vietnam, you’ll need to find veterans who were in the bush, as many were likely mechanics, doctors, office workers, etc., and can’t answer your questions. Or you may need to adapt your questions to something that the available population can answer. Perhaps you don’t speak the Sudanese dialect of Arabic, so you’ll need to find English speaking immigrants or a translator. Or perhaps you do speak Sudanese Arabic, but your questions are about refugee camps, and the people you are interested are Dinka or Nuer, or they only speak Swahili–learned in the refugee camps–rather than Sudanese languages.
Even if you successfully identify a community, or if you are a part of the community you hope to do oral history with, you’ll still run into challenges. Perhaps the climate scientists you find at the local university aren’t experts in the 1980s politics of climate change. Or perhaps they are, and they don’t wish to talk to you because they don’t know what you intend to do with the information they give you. Perhaps your child’s teachers are hesitant to talk about district policy ten years ago because of the ramifications it could have for them today, or because they don’t know what you will think of their opinions or experiences.
The takeaway: identifying your community will take some time and can be more complicated than it first appears. We will go over some things that can simplify the process.
Find a GateKeeper
This was a term I first came across while taking an oral history class, and I can’t think of a more appropriate term to describe your most important community contact than “gatekeeper.” The gatekeeper is the individual who will either let you in or shut you out of a given community. Working with a gatekeeper can open opportunities and connect you with people that you would otherwise never meet or perhaps would not be willing to meet with you even if you did meet them. Once you’ve identified a potential community, try to identify who can be a gatekeeper for you. In our above examples, the gatekeeper might be the parish priest, or a respected or established member of the church. It might be the leading member of a veteran’s organization, an immigrant involved in community leadership, a former union president, or the department head of the climate science department.
Once you’ve identified the gatekeeper, take the time to meet with them. Ask them to lunch or to meet them in their office. Explain who you are, and what you’re trying to do. Most people are happy to help if they know that you are interested in them, and having their history preserved is something most groups value. Ask them if they have any advice about who might be good to talk to, or who would be knowledgeable about what you’re interested in. Chances are that they will have several people in mind. It’s usually good to ask if your gatekeeper would be willing to be interviewed as well. If they’re willing to help you find others to interview, they’re likely willing to be interviewed yourself, and will perhaps be disappointed or offended if you don’t want to collect their history.
While the gatekeeper is not always the community leader, it’s usually good to let the community leaders know what you’re trying to do. In my own oral history experience, I found one mosque warmly open to me because I took the time to reach out to the Imam and explain my intentions, while being largely unable to work with the members of another mosque because I wasn’t able to connect with the Imam first. Gatekeepers can shut doors as easily (or more easily) than they open them, so be sure to be respectful and honest when asking to meet with them and working with them. Don’t overburden them either; they’re doing you a favor, one which can take a lot of time out of their already busy schedules.
Find a Community Partner
Your community partner may be the same person as your gatekeeper, or they may not. An ideal community partner is someone who may be willing to help you arrange interviews and, where possible, accompany you on your interviews. In many interviews, this will be helpful. In other settings it may be essential, as interviewees may not be willing to open up to strangers, but may be willing to speak if a friend or partner is present and involved in the interview. With groups that have good reasons to be wary of outsiders prying at their histories (church members, veterans, unions, teachers, and climate scientists may all fall in this category for good reasons), you may not be able to delve very deep without an insiders help.
A gatekeeper may have a recommendation of one who can work with you as a community partner. Note, however, that this is a substantial commitment, and it might be easier (or only fair) if you are able to compensate this individual for their time. This cost is something to consider when setting up a project.
Participant Ethnography, or “Deep Hanging Out”
It’s good to spend some time showing your interest in the community, as well as doing the initial groundwork to see what’s important to your potential interviewees. This is also a chance to get to know them. Attend mass or a church potluck. Go to a cultural night or union picnic. Sit-in during a lecture or research symposium. In addition to meeting potential interviewees this way, you will also likely find both answers to some of the questions you had, as well as finding new questions that you want to ask about that you might not have thought of otherwise. After each session, write down your observations in your field notes. Your field notes might include things you learned, the names and contacts of people you met, or questions you came up with.
A few words of warning about deep hanging out:
First, Remember that the people you are hanging out with are involved in activities that are important to them. Though some may be happy to find you are interested in their work, community, or religion, they are there for other reasons, and have things to do, friends and family they want to see, or obligations. Don’t be annoying, overly demanding, or clingy. You should get a sense after some time who is interested in talking to you, and who isn’t. You’ll likely find some people who might be willing to do an interview, but aren’t interested in being your friend at every event. Respect that.
Second: Be authentic. Chances are, if you want to do oral history in a given community, you are interested in that community, and that interest may grow as you do your fieldwork and interviews. It’s okay to show people you are enthusiastic about their work or history. But do not make promises or use false pretenses to gain interviewees. For example, if you decide to become Episcopalian, that is a personal decision you can certainly make, and one that those in the parish may welcome. People may be more willing to talk to you once you are “in”. But do not feign interest in conversion or join as an official member of any group (religious or otherwise) with the intention to disappear once your interviewing work is done. Not only is it dishonest, people can often smell inauthenticity from a mile away. Don’t make promises you can’t keep either. Don’t promise that your work will be helpful to the union or school or immigrant community in ways it won’t. If you believe it will be a useful history that you can donate to the community, that’s fine to say. But don’t promise you will be able to secure them funding or beneficial media attention if that’s something you can’t deliver on.
Participant ethnography is useful because, even with the help of a gatekeeper, it’s much easier to talk to someone who has met you and knows you a bit. The alternative for your interviewees is meeting a stranger who turns on a recorder and begins to pry at their personal details. In a perfect world, you would know each of your interviewees before you interview them, but this is not a perfect world, so don’t stress if you haven’t spent time with some of your interviewees before the day of the interview. We will discuss some ways to ameliorate some of the awkwardness of going into an interview with someone you haven’t met in our piece on conducting an oral history.