Lessons from the Field: Oral History and the Challenge of Pre-Interviews

By Marius Kothor 

Marius Kothor

In response to the problematic representations of African people in popular discourse, I started the Iowa-Africa project last fall to illustrate the diverse experiences of African people in the United States and on the continent by documenting the experiences of Africans currently residing in Iowa. As part of this project, I recently conducted interviews with a man from Kenya and a young man from Liberia. Through these interviews, I learned a great deal about the men’s countries of origin, their personal life stories, and their resettlement process in the United States. The interviews also gave me important new perspectives on oral history methodologies. Specifically, they allowed me to see some of the pitfalls of conducting extensive pre-interviews.

Pre-interviews can be a great way to build rapport with the interviewee and get an understanding of the major themes that will be addressed in the recorded interview. However, depending on how they are done, pre-interviews can sometimes negatively impact the quality of the formal recorded interview. In my pre-interview with the gentlemen from Kenya, he gave me a truly captivating account of his life back in Kenya and his resettlement process in the United States. Yet, in the recorded interview, I noticed that his story lacked the same depth and nuance of the first account.

There are a couple of reasons why this may have happened. The first has to do with the fact that I did not adequately explain the way the interview was going to be disseminated in the pre-interview. After learning that the interview was going to be publically accessible, the interviewee informed me that he wanted to withhold a particular story he had shared with me in the pre-interview because he felt uncomfortable sharing it with the public. This is a completely reasonable request and in the formal interview I made sure to avoid questions that would direct the discussion to that particular topic. Aside from this particular story, I also noticed that I had to work harder to direct questions in a way that would capture the nuances and intricacies of our first conversation. After discussing this experience with a senior oral historian, I realized that this may have been a consequence of the fact that I had conducted a detailed pre-interview with him prior to the recorded interview.

Naturally, when people share a story for the first time, they tell it with the assumption that the listener is unfamiliar with the details. Accordingly, the story is told with the most detail possible. In the second telling of the story (to the same person), however, the interviewee is less likely to spend time on the minor details because they know the listener has already heard it. This means that some of the details in the first telling of the story may be marginalized in the second retelling.

In some cases, the interviewee may add details that they did not remember during the original interview but, in my experience, when I ask interviewees to retell a story they have told me before, they are much more likely to omit details than they are to add them. For survey styles of interviewing, where the interviewer has a specific set of questions they want answered, this may not always be much of a problem. For more comprehensive oral histories, however, the details are necessary and worth preserving. Therefore, I recommend that interviewers avoid doing detailed pre-interviews. Instead, the pre-interview should be an opportunity for the interviewer to make in-person contact with the interviewee to establish rapport and get a basic overview of their story. The detailed questions, however, should be saved for the recorded interview in order to capture the most detailed story possible.

Marius Kothor completed her MA at the University of Iowa in the department of History. Her research focuses on West African History and African Diaspora History. She is currently leading the Iowa-Africa project; a digital humanities project documenting the experiences of African immigrants in Iowa

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