Oral tradition

The interview (2)

To start collecting oral content, the recording equipment should be placed between the participants of the interview, on a solid surface. If necessary, a lap microphone can be used (it is usually recommended that this type of element is not maintained in the hand, because the distances can change, and with it the clarity of sound). When using cassette recorders, it is convenient to avoid the microphone to be near them, otherwise it may pick up the noises from mechanisms. Many interviewers place under the equipment a little paper or a piece of gum-foam, to isolate the microphone from the noises that can be transmitted through the furniture on which it rests.

Background sounds can destroy the best interview, turning a recording into something completely unintelligible. Air conditioners, traffic noises, typewriters, clock chimes, telephones and similar sounds should be avoided, if possible.

The name of the interviewee, the date and the place of the interview should be recorded at the beginning of the tape. If necessary –for ethnic reasons– the name of parents and children, date and place of birth must be registered. In indigenous communities, this can be helpful for identification. The name should be recorded in the official language and in the local language, whenever known. Recording such data helps to identify the record in case its label is lost or misplaced.

The list of questions should be at hand. It is not advisable to read them (they may distract or annoy the interviewee), but use them as a kind of guide. In any case –as already noted– the presence of the list does not mean that it should be respected as a static script.

Questions that begin with "what", "why", "when" and "how" are the simplest to start an interview, since they are the most general questions and work as an introduction. In general, biographical data is a good start. We can go into details or deal with difficult aspects in the course of the conversation, when the atmosphere has relaxed....

Questions must be asked in a correct and cordial way: it is important not to put pressure, to attack or to criticize. The interview should be a good experience for both parties. It should be noted that, for some cultures, certain attitudes are a complete lack of respect (e.g. speaking in a direct way or interrupting the speaker).

To initiate the flow of speech, some stimuli can be used, such as images, photos or objects. The maps of the region are useful, in the case of rural communities. Historical and traditional information takes on a different meaning when projected onto a map. Such information can help identify sacred territories, ancient fields of grazing, abandoned locations, mines, workplaces, landmarks, cultural heritage or archaeological sites.

The most useful maps are the detailed ones, with scales of 1:50.000 to 1:250.000 (in Latin America, this type of maps are usually sold by the National Geographic Institutes). On the map, the locations can be marked with a number in pencil, noting the reference and the necessary details in the notebook. Some examples may be:

  1. Pumasimi. In Quechua, "cougar's mouth". Interviewee's grazing area during the winter season, from 1930 to 1945.
  2. Abra de las Vicuñas. Interviewee Camp.
  3. The interviewee remembers seeing huts there, but does not know the name of the place.

The researcher must speak quietly and clearly. The tone that s/he uses and poses is normally replicated by the interviewee. Security and confidence must be demonstrated so that control over the interview can be maintained. On the other hand, you should not turn off the recorder unless the respondent is absent for some reason or s/he expressly requests it.

After asking a question, the interviewer has to stop... and wait for the answer, even if s/he has to be silent for a few seconds. Many people need time to come up with an adequate answer. Such responses –and the way they are given– vary according to culture and other factors (gender, age, social position ...). Some people respond directly. Others build a whole story. Others take a huge detour.

Once the response begins, it should not be interrupted. Some people talk and talk; they should be allowed to finish their "flow" of thinking. Stopping them –in any way– may give them the feeling that what they are saying is wrong, or is not important, or that the interviewer is in a hurry. And in many cultures, this type of disruption is a genuine lack of respect, which can lead to a complete failure. If the answer moves away from the main topic, you should return to it, tactfully, asking a question from the guide-list. If the question is not answered, it will be necessary to do it another way: perhaps the question was not understood (or was answered and not noticed), or perhaps the interviewee does not want to answer it.

Regarding this last case, the interviewee must be explained that s/he can restrict the interviewer whenever s/he wishes: such restrictions must be carefully respected. Also, an eye has to be kept on the clues that the interviewee can give about topics about which s/he is not asked and which s/he wants to talk about. Being alert means listening, appreciating what the interviewee says, and improving the relationship with the respondent. It can also provide good material:

  • Uh, that was not much of a problem on that occasion, although on other occasions it was.
  • (Clear hint that a follow-up question is expected) Would you like to tell me about those other occasions?

The same attention must be paid to note when the interviewee feels uncomfortable. Language, for these cases, is usually gestural or corporal, although some will not hesitate to say it. This deterioration of the relationship can be prevented by saying, before the interview, that the interviewee has the right to refuse to respond to anything, without offending the interviewer.

What the interviewer sees during the interview should be described and recorded on tape. Unless a video-camera is used, the recording equipment does not "see" the interviewee's gestures. It is good to take note of these facts. If a traditional name is said, the object has to be described.

  • We used the m'biké...
  • The m'biké is that kind of violin made with a can of burned oil, with a single string made of horsehair, right? / What is a m'biké?

If a measure is shown with the hands, it must be established with approximation:

  • We dug a trench of "this" depth.
  • Aha ... About half a meter, maybe?

If a photo is shown, some details have to be recorded that allow the subsequent identification of the image.

  • Who is the man with the fishing nets?

If many photographs are used, they should be numbered. If people are meant to be identified in a photo, the interviewer should make a photocopy and number the people, or draw a numbered sketch.

Interviewer questions, actions and gestures should never reveal feelings or opinions. This could influence the responses. The interviewee is already influenced by the presence of the interviewer ("Principle of uncertainty": the observer, by the mere fact of observing, modifies what is observed). If opinions are asked, it is necessary not to put feelings into the questions (i.e. not using leading-questions or questions that guide the expected response). Many may respond by seeking to agree with the interviewer, seeking to satisfy him or perhaps defending themselves... The difference between the following questions (on the same subject: eating insect larvae) are obvious:

  • Don't you think doing that is disgusting? (Clearly and disrespectfully indicates from the very beginning what the interviewer thinks about the action.) The interviewee can defend himself, s/he can mimic or s/he can give his opinion with conviction, the last option being the most unlikely.)
  • What do you think about doing that? (Indicates that there should be an opinion about that, and therefore, perhaps the interviewer does not approve the practice.) The interviewee will tend to poll the interviewer while giving the answer.... if the interviewer's expression did not tell him/her what s/he thinks).
  • Describe that to me, since I have never seen it... (From a neutral point of view, the interviewer shows genuine interest. Hopefully, the description will include the point of view about the action).

The reactions to the interviewee's expressions should be controlled, to a greater or lesser extent. To sound like a judge, or to become impatient, pedantic or disrespectful, modifies the attitude of the speaker. An interview is not a place where one must show how much one knows, much less a space in which to take sides about the beliefs and opinions of the other. All interviewees should be treated with deep courtesy and respect as they provide the privilege of sharing a part of their lives, knowledge and experiences.

There may be information that is beyond the reach of the interviewer due to inhibiting factors in the relationship with the interviewee (gender, age, class, etc.). For example, stories about sexuality and other intimacies will surely be beyond any possibility of conversation. It is necessary to respect these spaces and not try to alienate the interviewee to obtain data that s/he does not want to give... although, sometimes, a little work can be done to overcome the fears or the resistances.

Interestingly, sharing too much with the interviewee can be as problematic and counterproductive to the interview as meeting him/her for the first time. The things both parties know can be considered as "granted" and, therefore, not mentioned anymore. The interviewer has to be alert about this type of data, and should not hesitate to establish what is obvious and what is not. It is always necessary to remember that the interviewer speaks for a third person (absent: the reader) who probably does not know what the participants know in the act of the interview.

Throughout the recording process, it is necessary to pay attention to the equipment, controlling the record. It is preferable to change cassettes before time, in a silence or between questions. It is better to take advantage of such silences to cut the narration to turn or change the tape or the batteries. If it happens that the cassette is cut without having anticipated it, it must be asked permission to change it and to request that the information that has been lost was repeated.

The last element to watch for is fatigue. The interview process is exhausting; it is an emotional and intellectual challenge. If the interviewee shows signs of fatigue, it is better to postpone work for a future moment instead of forcing the situation to a continuity that may not bear much fruit: a very tired interviewee does not think well. And, decidedly, an exhausted interviewer does not react in time.

Before finishing, the interviewer needs to ask if there is anything the interviewee wants to add. Usually, what the interviewee thinks as important is not asked. Thus, the opportunity is given for the subject to express knowledge that s/he considers valuable and which can be very useful.