Oral tradition

The questions

The next step is to design a list of questions to guide the interview. It is necessary that such guide allows obtaining the information sought according to the objectives of the project, covering the empty spaces detected in the state of the question. This list will give a solid organization and internal coherence to the recording. However, it should be used in a flexible way: it is intended to conduct an interview, not an interrogation.

In general, the list of questions is usually built during the project planning process, based on the objectives of the project and on the bibliographic review. However, experience shows that, following contact with the community and potential interviewees, the list should be reviewed, and in many cases, corrected or re-designed. Therefore, it is highly advisable to build it at this stage of the work, although valid ideas can be considered from the beginning.

The nature of the questions will be determined by the purpose of the interview. In general, the recommended category is the open-ended question, that is, the one that can be answered freely (in the closed category, the only possible answers are yes and no, or the choice of any option from a set pre-determined by the interviewer). With the open questions we get an appreciable amount of information, and the flow of the conversation develops naturally and in a relaxed way. In the case of biographical interviews, the questions will be broad, pointing to some remarkable facets of the interviewee's life and allowing him to dwell on it. In the case of interviews on a given subject, the questions should be more specific (even if they remain open).

It is advisable to make questions with a simple and direct structure, grouped in a logical way, so that the interview follows an order, and that both interviewer and interviewee can orient and perceive where they head to. Compound or multiple rephrasing questions and false starts are difficult to understand, to answer... and to transcribe. If a complex subject is intended to be touched, it is recommended to compose a series of concatenated questions that allow the point to be analyzed gradually. The decomposition of a complicated matter in its components allows the interviewee to obtain valid reference points from which to recall and build a response. In the event that associated themes or unforeseen aspects come to light, it is advisable to write them down and return to them later.

Questions should use simple plain language, avoiding the use of jargon as much as theoretical concepts (unless such jargon and theories are part of the experience to be collected). Human memory is maintained on substantially basic grounds. Therefore, it is useful to request very simple notions (eg descriptions, shallow ideas ...).

In fact, the interviews give a better result if, before carrying it out, a summary of questions is sent to the interviewee. The point is to give the person time to think about people, ideas or events that he or she may not have thought about for a long time. If such a practice is carried out, the subject should be warned that the questionnaire is only a basic plot or guide, that it is not a fixed and closed survey and that there is sufficient freedom for many other points to emerge.

A well-prepared interviewer will know which are the gaps in knowledge that he wants to complete with the interview, and therefore will consistently direct his questions to those empty areas. The interview will not provide encyclopedic information, or concrete definitions. In the replies will be included –as already mentioned– much subjectivity and many silences. However, all this can be completed in a later instance, with other informational or documentary materials, or with other interviews (with the same or other interviewees).

A recommendable habit is to include some questions whose answers are already known. These questions function as "marks" to verify and judge the value and certainty of the interviewee's story. On the other hand, the statement of the questions should not include judgments or tendencies that openly influence the response. Finally, the guide-list should provide the opportunity to conduct "follow-up questions", ie questions that are born from a particular response and have not been previously considered. Such questions allow "to follow" an issue not foreseen, that appeared during the process of recording.

It is good to test questions first with advisors of "the other culture" (cultural sensitivity): such an attitude helps to be considered with what is acceptable to "the other", and to be respectful of ages and genders.