Oral History: Techniques and Questions

Creating a “Natural” Interview Setting

If visiting a relative or other person specifically for interview, take along home baked goodies, an artifact/object from the past or a picture that may be used during the pre-interview session as a lead to interview questions.

Use props whenever possible: Documents, letters and photo albums to stimulate memories.

Oral History Questioning Techniques

  1. Ask evocative questions rather than those requiring only a yes or no answer.
  2. There will be some information you will not get, some sensitive issue cannot be approached even when trust is developed. You may be the wrong age or sex. That’s okay though, just expect it.
  3. Take a low key approach. This helps ease both you and the informant into the interview role.
  4. Show interest through body language but don’t crowd your informant. Interject remarks, take part in the conversation but don’t take over. Learn to be a good listener.
  5. Know what questions you want to ask, but don’t be afraid to let your informant go off on a tangent.
    • Getting back on track:

      “Before you told me about this or that we were talking about so and so. Can you tell me how so and so was affected when the model T became available?”

  6. If you need to write down questions, put them on note cards (one or two to each card).
  7. Use props whenever possible.
  8. Be sensitive to the needs of the informant. Older people may tire easily. Cut off interview at first sign of fatigue.
  9. Consider Ethical Issues:
    • Be honest about your intents.
    • Respect privacy and confidences.
    • Respect sensitive issues.
    • Don’t make promises you can’t keep.
    • Safeguard the relationship with your informant.
    • Remember, secret recordings violate your informant’s right to know.
    • Let your informant see anything that will be published. Ask for permission to use tapes/photos to be displayed publicly.

Oral History Questions

The most useful questions will be those that you develop through your knowledge of yourself and you family. For your initial efforts you may find the following list of questions helpful.

  1. Please state your full name and present address.
  2. Where and when were you born? How long have you lived at your present home? Where did you live as a child? What can you recall about your family home and neighborhood?
  3. What do you know about your family surname? How did it originate? What does it mean? What are the traditional first or middle names in your family?
  4. What was family life like when you were growing up? How did you celebrate holidays and special occasions? What are some of the traditions still carried on by your family?
  5. What church did you attend when you were growing up? What activities were associated with church going? How has the church affected your life and the life of your family?
  6. What did you do for a living? (Or what type of work did you do as a homemaker?) Has this type of work changed?
  7. What were your favorite childhood games? Have sports changed much during your lifetime? What other entertainment have you enjoyed?
  8. What effect did (Prohibition, The Depression, World War I, and World War II) have on your life?
  9. What changes have you noticed during your life in such areas as fashion, morality and technology? How do you feel about these changes?
  10. What “Words of Advice” would you like to pass on to future generations in your family?

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Developed by Judith L. Warren, Ph.D., former Extension Program Leader, Family Development and Resource Management, and Professor and Extension Gerontology Specialist, Family and Consumer Sciences, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service, Texas A&M University, College Station, Texas. August 2001.

Last updated: 21 November, 2013

Educational programs of the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service are open to all people without regard to race, color, sex, religion, national origin, age, disability, genetic information or veteran status.