Preparation of Life History Interviews

In the preparation of life history interviews, there are a number of stages in the development of the study:

1) General Procedural Issues

There are a range of procedural issues which need to be considered for those employing life history methods. They actually cover a spectrum of possibilities, but here I have presented them in bi-polar opposition to stress the distinctions:
1. Interviewer’s questions versus Silence
2. Structure versus Emergence
3. Prescription versus Freedom
4. Interview versus Conversation
5. Research versus Therapy
6. Coverage versus Depth
7. Flow versus Focus
‘Questions versus silence’ is a rather extreme way to present a choice. For it is true that no interview will proceed without some explanation, conversation and some questioning. But I pose the issue this way to challenge a common assumption that the life history interviewer should ask a set of questions. In my experience, the best life history interviews are often those with the least interviewer questions in them. Too often, a question leads back to the interviewer and away from the life storyteller’s concerns. Questions which are answered as the life story unfolds provide better answers than those given to specific questions.

As researchers (and like all human beings!), we like to be in control, to feel we are getting the data we want. Paradoxically, this often leads to poorer data, so let me propose a rule:

The more we prescribe our questions, the more we structure our enquiries before the interview, the less we will learn.
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Subject: Life History
Available in: English
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Number of editions: 1

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