The interview – part of the research

Oral history sees personal experience as an important resource in the study of social life as well as in the analysis of the relationship between the individual and society. The sources for research are oral history and life-story interviews.

Here are some tips for how to conduct a biographical – oral history or life-story – study and how, as an interviewer, to trigger/suggest a memory story.

Oral history or life-story?

The terms oral history and life-story interview seem similar and are sometimes used interchangeably. However, there are differences between the two types of biographical interview.

The purpose of a life-story interview is to encourage people to tell the story of their lives. Here, the narrator has a much bigger role to play. The arrangement, sequence and accent of the events depend on the narrator. The life story reveals the narrator’s personality in the way he/she weaves life events into a plot.

An oral history (OH) interview consists of a fully or partially structured conversation about a specific experience. However, the focus of an OH interview is not to elicit answers to questions, but instead to obtain a detailed narrative rooted in personal experience.

The choice between a life story or an oral history interview is determined by the aim of the research: the reconstruction of past events or a specific situation, or life story as a reflection of personality.

The person interviewed is usually called the narrator, performer or author, because each narrator recreates his or her life story in the interview and is thus its author.

To hear both a story about a specific experience and gain a deeper insight into the narrator’s personality, both approaches may be combined – from life-story interview to oral history and vice versa. However, the interviewer must be able to react to changes in the situation or story. For example, when faced with a very talkative or, on the contrary, uncommunicative person, the interviewer may have to adjust his or her tactics and also the time allotted for the interview. In both cases, one must be able to adapt to the situation.

Incentives for conducting a biographical interview:

  • a person with unique experience
  • a good narrator
  • a remarkable, creative personality
  • a witness to specific events
  • any person, if you want to find out about individual aspects of social life

In oral history, the narrator is chosen based on the narrator’s specific experiences.