The Life History Interview
In this chapter, I explore the “best practices” and core values with which researchers should align when conducting life history interviews to elicit information about an individual’s past and present lived experiences. Drawing primarily on literature from the multidisciplinary field of oral history, I outline the process of determining in which circumstances life history interviews might be beneficial for addressing a research question and how life history interviews are typically designed, conducted, and analyzed. I also examine the challenges that can arise when conducting life history interviews, particularly when investigating sensitive subject matter or working in conflict-affected settings, for example. In the process, I reflect on over a decade of fieldwork in post-genocide Rwanda and Bosnia, wherein discussions of the past are often highly politicized and researcher fatigue – particularly related to the recent atrocities – is common. This provides a starting point for discussing how the best practices for life history interviewing may need to be adapted to ensure that they remain culturally and politically appropriate in different settings. Taken together, the chapter provides readers with a foundation for deciding where life history interviews might enhance their research, and how to adapt current best practices on life history interviewing to suit their research needs and maintain a high ethnic standard in their fieldwork when documenting intimate details about participants’ lives.
KeywordsLife history Interview Ethics Methodology Intersubjectivity Memory
- Adichie C. The danger of a single story. TEDGlobal. 2009. https://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story. Accessed 16 Feb 2018.
- Adler N, Leydesdorff S, Chamberlain M, Neyzi L, editors. Memories of mass repression: narrating life stories in the aftermath of atrocity. New Bruinswick: Transaction Publishers; 2011.Google Scholar
- American Anthropology Association. Principles of professional responsibility. AAA Ethics Blog. 2012. http://ethics.americananthro.org/category/statement/. Accessed 10 Feb 2018.
- American Psychiatric Association. Posttraumatic stress disorder. 2013. http://www.dsm5.org/Documents/PTSD%20Fact%20Sheet.pdf. Accessed 14 Feb 2018.
- BBC News. What are the Boston tapes? 2017. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-northern-ireland-27238797. Accessed 14 Feb 2018.
- Berger Gluck S, Patai D, editors. Women’s words: the feminist practice of oral history. New York: Routledge; 1991.Google Scholar
- Blee K. Inside organized racism: women in the hate movement. Berkeley: University of California Press; 2002.Google Scholar
- Blee K. How field relationships shape theorizing. Sociol Methods Res. 2017;1–34. https://doi.org/10.1177/0049124117701482.
- Bouka Y. Researching violence in Africa as a Black woman: notes from Rwanda. Research in Difficult Settings Working Paper Series. 2015. http://conflictfieldresearch.colgate.edu/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/Bouka_WorkingPaper-May2015.pdf.
- Cave M. What remains: reflections on crisis oral history. In: Perks R, Thomson A, editors. The oral history reader. 3rd ed. New York: Routledge; 2016. p. 92–103. 2015.Google Scholar
- Centre for Oral History and Digital Storytelling. Toolbox. 2018. http://storytelling.concordia.ca/toolbox. Accessed 14 Feb 2018.
- Columbia Center for Oral Historical Research. CCOHR Services. 2018. http://www.ccohr.incite.columbia.edu/services-resources/. Accessed 14 Feb 2018.
- Cruikshank J. Life lived like a story: Life stories of three Yukon Native elders. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1990.Google Scholar
- Fobear K. Do you understand? Unsettling interpretative authority in feminist oral history. J Fem Scholarsh. 2016;10:61–77.Google Scholar
- Frisch M. A shared authority: essays on the craft and meaning of oral and public history. New York: SUNY Press; 1990.Google Scholar
- Fujii LA. Research Ethics 101: Dilemmas and Responsibilities. PS: Political Science & Politics. 2012;45(04):717–723.Google Scholar
- Geertz C. The interpretation of cultures. New York: Basic Books; 1973.Google Scholar
- Jessee E. Beyond perpetrators: complex political actors surrounding the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. In: Smeulers A, Weerdesteijn M, Hola B, editors. Perpetrators of International Crimes. Oxford: Oxford University Press, forthcoming 2018.Google Scholar
- Krog A, Mpolweni N, Ratele K. There was this goat: investigating the truth commission testimony of Notrose Nobomvu Konile. Scottsville: University of KwaZulu-Natal Press, 2009.Google Scholar
- Lummis T. Listening to history: the authenticity of oral evidence. Totowa: Barnes & Noble Books; 1988.Google Scholar
- McDonald H. Boston college ordered by US court to hand over IRA tapes. 2016. https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2016/apr/25/boston-college-ordered-by-us-court-to-hand-over-ira-tapes. Accessed 14 Feb 2018.
- Oral History Association. Principles and best practices. 2009. http://www.oralhistory.org/about/principles-and-practices/. Accessed 10 Feb 2018.
- Oral History Society. Is your oral history legal and ethical? 2012. http://www.ohs.org.uk/advice/ethical-and-legal/2/. Accessed 10 Feb 2018.
- Oral History Society. Oral history society statement on the Boston College Belfast Project. 2014. http://www.ohs.org.uk/documents/OHS_Statement_Boston_College_Belfast_Project_May2014.pdf. Accessed 14 Feb 2018.
- Passerini L. Memory and utopia: the primacy of intersubjectivity. London: Routledge; 2007.Google Scholar
- Portelli A. What makes oral history different? In: Perks R, Thomson A, editors. The oral history reader. 3rd ed. New York: Routledge; 2016. p. 48–58.Google Scholar
- Ritchie D. Doing oral history. 3rd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press; 2015.Google Scholar
- Rothschild B. Trauma essentials: the go-to guide. New York: W.W. Norton & Company; 2011.Google Scholar
- Summerfield P. Culture and composure: creating narratives of the gendered self in oral history interviews. Cult Soc Hist. 2004;1(1):65–93.Google Scholar
- Thompson P. The voice of the past: oral history. In: Perks R, Thomson A, editors. The oral history reader. 3rd ed. New York: Routledge; 2016. p. 33–9.Google Scholar
- Tooth Murphy A. The continuous thread of revelation: chrononormativity and the challenge of queer oral history. Scottish Oral History Centre seminar series. 2014.Google Scholar
- Trouillot M. Silencing the past: power and the production of history. Boston: Beacon Press; 1995.Google Scholar
- White L. Speaking with vampires: rumor and history in colonial Africa. Berkeley: University of California Press; 2000.Google Scholar
- Yow V. Recording oral history: a guide for the humanities and social sciences. 3rd ed. New York: Rowman & Littlefield; 2014.Google Scholar