Skip to Main Content
It looks like you're using Internet Explorer 11 or older. This website works best with modern browsers such as the latest versions of Chrome, Firefox, Safari, and Edge. If you continue with this browser, you may see unexpected results.

Oral History Guide: Interview Prep

Understanding the Ethics of Oral History

As Howard L. Sacks explains in Catching Stories (2009), "when conducting oral history, you deliberately enter into another person' life. To say it more colloquially, oral history involves sticking your nose in other people's business." Before conducting your oral history project, it is critical to understand how one's personal biases and opinions, as well as potential cultural, political, and social stigmas, inform and affect the way we understand and react to other people and their stories.

Ethical considerations in oral history largely focus on respect for participants and interviewees and their informed consent. Informed consent is given by participants when they are apprised of all the facts of the project and understand why their input in being sought, how it will be understood and used, and how it will be accessed. Oral historians have a duty to be transparent and honest with their participants, as well as to treat them as intelligent beings who have their own set of knowledge and opinions.

As an oral historian, it is important that you are able to take professional responsibility for your actions and your processes as they relate to the project. The American Anthropological Association (americananthro.org) lays out seven principles of professional responsibility in the field of anthropology:

  1. Do no harm
  2. Be open and honest regarding your work
  3. Obtain informed consent and necessary permissions
  4. Weigh competing ethical obligations due collaborators and affected parties (i.e. be aware of the traditions of the different groups involved in the project and extend respect for these traditions, even if they conflict)
  5. Make your results accessible
  6. Protect and preserve your records
  7. Maintain respectful and ethical professional relationships

As a final note, always keep these ethical considerations in mind during the the process of the project. You should consider yourself as an oral historian and aim to maintain the ethical principles listed above and in other sources.

Peruse the resources below to learn more about the ethics and legalities of oral history, as well as the dynamics of power and oppression in the context of oral history.

Helms, J. E. (1993). I also said, "white racial identity influences white researchers". The Counseling Psychologist, 21(2), 240-243.

Larson, M. (2013). Steering clear of the rocks: A look at the current state of oral history ethics in the digital age. The Oral History Review, 40(1), 36-49. doi:10.1093/ohr/oht028

Perkiss, A. (2016). Staring Out to Sea and the transformative power of oral history for undergraduate students. The Oral History Review, 43(2), 392-407. doi:10.1093/ohr/ohw049

Petersen, J. L. (2008). The intersection of oral history and the role of white researchers in cross-cultural contexts. Educational Foundations, 22(3-4).

Sheftel, A., & Zembrzycki, S. (2017). Slowing down to listen in the digital age: How new technology is changing oral history practice. The Oral History Review, 44(1), 94-112. doi:10.1093/ohr/ohx016

Quick Tips for Preparing

  • Do preliminary research on the topic and the interviewee so that you enter the interview with an understanding of what will be discussed.
  • Reflect on your goals. What should the interview accomplish? What is important to have recorded in the interview, and why is it important? How can you make the process easy for the interviewee?
  • Create a list of topics and questions to explore during the interview. This should not be a strict checklist or a script; rather, it should function as a guide to ensure that you cover all of the content and that the interview stays focused.
  • Create an open line of dialog with your interviewee before the interview so that you are comfortable with each other. This can involve going over the process, offering to answer any of their questions, verifying your time and place for the interview, etc.
  • Choose and thoroughly familiarize yourself with your recording equipment to minimize any potential issues that may arise during the actual interview.
  • Choose an interview space that is relaxed, comfortable, and quiet. You are having a conversation with your interviewee, not an interrogation.
  • If you have never interviewed before, feel free to practice for the interview with friends, family, or peers. This will make sure you are prepared for the real thing.

Guides

Veteran's History Project (Library of Congress) - Prepare for the Interview

Oral History Society UK - Preparing Questions