A Great Lakes Colleges Association initiative supported by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation

The Dynamics of the Oral Interview Process


As a professor of English who is interested in oral history methodologies, especially the collection and integration of data into my post-colonial literature curriculum, I have always looked at the interview, the process of data collection, as the most important to oral history methodology and pedagogy of high impact teaching and learning. I am of this view because I deemed field practice, in terms of the quality and credibility of data, as having a lot of influence on archival and teaching pedagogies relating to engagement and exploration of the subject under consideration. I am interested in the Sierra Leone civil war, my area of interest is punitive amputation, and my particular focus is the intersection between injury and identity and ways in which discourse of the disfigured body shapes conceptions of the bodypolitic.

Between 2008 and 2013, I conducted field work in two amputee camps in the outskirts of Freetown, Newton and Jui, in Sierra Leone. My work was to conduct visual and oral recordings of the stories of amputees during the carnage of the civil war, 1991-2002. At once historical and psychological, the process of data collection also hinges on memory, violence, and trauma. Since I am interested in both oral and video recordings, I would start off the interviews with the oral recordings. Since I conceive of and allow the interview process to function as conversation between interviewer and interviewee, I encounter in oral recordings smooth flowing dialogues, and interactive and reciprocal conversations. Amputees were for the most part pretty relaxed, comfortable, and confident in telling their stories. However, the moment the video camera is brought out and mounted on the tripod, the atmosphere changes dramatically and considerably. You can tell by body language, refusal to make eye contact with the interviewer, and body posture in the angling of their bodies away from the full view of the camera, that the mediated experience of the camera in the interview process is not welcomed.

As researcher, I am puzzled by a couple of issues and these raise for me a number of methodological and pedagogical questions with implications for practice, pedagogy, and publishing. In this regard, I ask: what is it about the mediated experience that the camera brings into the process that has the ability to change the atmosphere so radically? Second, how by this change is the integrity, credibility, and authenticity of the data collected compromised? Third, how by this change is development of a teaching pedagogy affected? Finally, how do researchers in similar positions address this situation if and when it develops?

I would like to proceed with this posting to methodological principles of data collection and begin to ponder on best practices in order to ensure both the integrity and credibility of data. It is important for researchers working on trauma especially in post-war situations to realize the significance of three issues crucial to the interview process. I conceptualize these issues in three categories: fear, shame, and permanence. In many post-conflict African societies, the end of the war is not the end of hostilities. At the same time, cases of revenge are common and so any situation that asks survivors or victims to narrate incidents for which the perpetrators could be identified, is a situation of discomfort if not intimidation for the interviewee.Thus, fear of reprisals is huge especially if there is a visual representation of the interview that the perpetrator could potentially have access to. Second, since the video recording preserves the image of the survivor, there is a sense of shame and humiliation in that the condition of the amputee is digitally preserved in this medium and could potentially be disseminated to multiple audiences. Framed within that medium, the amputee feels trapped and sees no possibility of transcending their situation. The third issue is related to this aspect of fear as it hinges on the power of the digital tool to permanently preserve a visual situation. It is important for researchers to be cognizant of the above factors if they are to collect reliable data. Perhaps the question is how do we collect reliable data without exposing the identities of the interviewees especially in post-conflict situations where the fear of reprisals is prevalent. For this, I will attempt to tease out a few suggestions as methodological practice.

  • Context Matters: researchers should understand the cultural context of the situation they are going into. For instance, in Sierra Leone, a largely patriarchal society, masculinity is highly revered. And so a situation where the head of the household, typically male, loses both hands, it is not only perceived as dependency and reversal of authority, but culturally as emasculation, if not castration. When a male amputee is interviewed, researchers should have this cultural context in mind and should tread carefully in asking questions in order not to further inflict trauma on an already traumatized and culturally alienated group of people.
  • Trust Building: most of the time researchers are more interested in getting the stories from the survivors than in their human condition. It is important to spend pre-interview time with amputees in order to acculturate and integrate into their community and so to allow for mutual trust to develop on both sides. At a time when Africans have come to believe that Western interest in atrocities in Africa is for whatever utilitarian value it affords them, a situation akin to the commodification of African atrocities, it is important that trust is built between researcher and amputee, particularly if the researcher is not indigenous to the society. Otherwise, research in post-war African societies could be seen as another of the attempts of the Western world to exploit and make profits of the horrors in African history.
  • Show Empathy: while researchers cannot put themselves in the shoes of amputees and therefore cannot claim to understand their situation, it is nonetheless important that they are treated as human subjects with a life and dignity to be preserved. Respect for their situation and not pity over their condition is what is needed.
  • Communication: another aspect of trust and respect is to communicate clearly to the interviewees or amputees the purpose for which the research is being conducted, the medium through which the digital products would be disseminated, and whatever compensation is available, if any, to them. Truthtelling is crucial in this situation as amputees have come to be deceived by many researchers who are using their stories for financial gains without their consent or approval.

Therefore, as Oral Historians, as we venture into the field to conduct research on whatever topic of interest, pursue oral history methodologies in practice, and adopt new pedagogies in the teaching of oral history, I hope this exploration of the dynamics of the interview process will be of some use to us.


Written by

Ernest Cole is Associate Professor of English at Hope College. He is interested in using oral histories of amputees of the Sierra Leone civil war between 1991 and 2002 to explore stigma, trauma and reconciliation in post-war Sierra Leone. He is primarily interested in using oral history in curricular development for team teachers, and integrating undergraduate students in the Mellon Scholars program at Hope College and the New Media Studio at the Hope College Van Wylen Library into the project. In this way, he would utilize the facilities available in his institution to digitize data already collected and create an archive that would showcase the pedagogical value of practice, process, scholarship, and publishing.

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