In the previous post on the topic, the benefits and drawbacks of oral histories were examined. In this post, let’s look at techniques and questions historians can ask when interpreting personal accounts.

How to Interpret Oral History

Interpreting interviews need to be done with care. Both what is said and what is not said can create problems. Since oral histories benefit from immediacy and emphasize personal agency, they also run the risk of being taken too literally. Just because the narrator said something was true, however convincingly they said it, doesn’t necessarily make it true. Furthermore, just because someone “was there” to witness the event(s) doesn’t mean they fully understand what occurred (Shopes, 2002, p. 5 – 6). This also holds true for any type of interview and/or topic. The broader issue here is the fact that people take what the narrator said at face value and simply assume that the speaker has all the accurate and relevant facts. (Ugh! There’s an argument for doing follow-up research.) This raises questions about the reliability of the information we get from the mass media and social media, in general (but that’s for another post).


The first thing to do is to consider how reliable the narrator is and how verifiable their account is. Therefore, the interviewer should consider the following questions as they interpret the interview:

  • What is the narrator’s relationship to the events? Do they have a personal stake in presenting a particular version? What was their physical and mental state at the time of the events and at the time of the interview?
  • Is the narrator’s account detailed and internally consistent?

The veracity of oral history can be gauged by comparing it with other sources or interviews on the same topic. If the details align, then the narrative builds upon, or supplements the existing evidence. Therefore, the historian can assume a certain level of authenticity to the account. In instances where the narrative conflicts with other sources, then the historian needs to account for the disparities. They can do this by asking themselves the following questions:

  • Were different narrators used? If so, did they have a different relationship to the event(s)? Do the different narrators have different agendas which may cause them to give different accounts?
  • Could the written sources have a particular bias or limitation?
  • Could intervening events or subsequent popular accounts have created an ideological shift (influenced memories) between the present and the time of the events under discussion?

(Shopes, 2002, p. 6)

Inconsistencies between multiple personal accounts are due to the inherently subjective nature of oral history. While the narratives serve as additional evidence, historians should be cautious about using them as just another source of raw data. Michael Frisch calls this the “More History” approach (as cited in Shopes, 2002, p. 6). Shopes (2002) further notes that interviews can be very accurate, but at the end of the day, they are the product of memories. Errors are bound to crop up and historians can account for errors through good research and well-prepared questions. Historians using oral interviews should be less concerned with the vagaries of memory and more focused on how the individual’s experiences fit within the larger historical context. Thus, oral history is less about fact-finding and more about the interpretation of personal experiences. Each interview is effectively a reflection of a narrator’s identity, consciousness, and cultural background (p. 6 – 7).

As historians are interpreting oral history, they need to ask:

  • Who is talking?
  • Who is the interviewer?
  • What is the topic of the interview?
  • What is the purpose of the interview?
  • What are the circumstances of the interview?

Who is talking?

The narrator’s identity serves as a cognitive filter through which they interpret their personal experiences. For example, interviews with public figures raise the issue that their public speaking abilities and deflection of difficult questions mean that their answers will come across as facile and shallow. As a general rule, the longer a public figure has been out of the limelight, then the more honest they will be. Therefore, “who is talking” is a product of the narrator’s relationship to the events and their temporal distance from them (Shopes, 2002, p. 7 – 8).

Who is the interviewer?

The questions asked by the interviewer are the most important aspect of oral history. Good questions create a strong framework for the interview, and they are derived from previous research and assumptions about the topic under discussion. A good interviewer will listen closely and dynamically phrase questions in response to the narrator’s answers. For the narrator’s part, they assess who the interviewer is and how they should answer the questions posed to them. Hence, there is a social dynamic or relationship occurring between the interviewer and the narrator of the story (Shopes, 2002, p. 8 – 9).

What is the topic of the interview?

While oral histories can cover virtually any topic, how the narrators structure their accounts is important. It’s been suggested that the Western cultural tendency towards individualization and morally righteous stances often sees narrators placing themselves as the protagonist of their own stories who work to overcome obstacles. This gives many oral histories an egocentric bent to them and many narrators sum up their experiences with stories that convey significant emotional force or life-altering events. In fact, folklorist Barbara Allen argued that the stories told through the oral tradition are similar to that of an oral history interview. The intent is to communicate a meaningful message in order to pass down collected wisdom to future generations (Shopes, 2002, p. 9 – 10).

The information presented in the interview occurs both verbally and non-verbally. What is not said can be equally important. Silence on the narrator’s part can indicate discomfort with a question, mistrust of the interviewer, or a disconnect between the two parties. Additionally, silence can have different meanings depending on the culture (Shopes, 2002, p. 10). For example, in Japanese culture, being very high context, silence can indicate any number of things. Silence can indicate that the person is seriously considering what has been said. I can indicate that they are pondering what to say so as not to risk offending someone. It can even serve as a non-verbal form of mutual understanding between two people. In short, silence can have any number of meanings in Japanese culture. In contrast, Westerners often feel the need to fill in the lulls in the conversation with speech.

What is the purpose of the interview?

The direct or implied purpose of the interview influences the narrative itself. For example, the oral histories collected in the 1960s and 1970s with pre-WWI immigrants were attempting to preserve the experiences of a generation of people who were about to pass away. Similar projects are being conducted with people who experienced events such as WWII, the Holocaust, and the Civil Rights Movement (Shopes, 2002, p. 10).

Less formally, community-based oral history projects are often conducted with the aim of enhancing or preserving local/cultural identities. In these cases, the narrator and interviewer work to present the community’s best characteristics. Subsequently, such interviews tend to omit the more controversial aspects of the community’s history, particularly if they receive a wider publication (Shopes, 2002, p. 11).

Personal motivations can also influence an interview. For example, if the interviewer admires the narrator, then they may not ask questions about difficult topics out of deference or respect. Similarly, a narrator may deflect questions or omit information that threatens to damage their reputation (Shopes, 2002, p. 11).

What are the circumstances of the interview?

Generally speaking, the more well-prepared the interviewer and interviewee are, the more detailed and extensive the oral history will be. Naturally, the more physically comfortable the participants are, and given adequate time, the better the recall will be. It has also been observed that the setting of the interview affects the narrative, as well. Interviews conducted in an office tend to be more formal in tone compared to those conducted in someone’s personal home or study (Shopes, 2002, p. 11).

Summary of Questions to Ask for Evaluating Oral History

Who is talking?

  • What is the narrator’s relationship to the events under discussion?
  • What stake might the narrator have in presenting a particular version of events?
  • What effect might the narrator’s social identity and position have on the interview?
  • How does the narrator present himself or herself in the interview?
  • What sort of character does the narrator become in the interview?
  • What influences–personal, cultural, social–might shape the way the narrator expresses himself or herself?
  • Consider especially how the events under discussion are generally regarded and how popular culture might shape the narrator’s account.

Who is the interviewer?

  • What background and interests does the interviewer bring to the topic of the interview?
  • How might this affect the interview?
  • How do the interviewer’s questions shape the story told?
  • Has the interviewer prepared for the interview?
  • How adept is the interviewer in getting the narrator to tell his/her story in his/her own way?
  • What effect might the interviewer’s social identity and position have on the interviewee, and hence the interview?
  • How might the dynamic between the narrator and interviewer affect what is said in the interview?
  • Does the interviewer have a prior relationship with the interviewee?
  • How might this affect the interview?

What is the topic of the interview?

  • How has the narrator structured the interview?
  • What’s the plot of the story?
  • What does this tell us about the way the narrator thinks about his/her experience?
  • What motifs, images, and anecdotes does the narrator use to encapsulate the experience?
  • What can this tell us about how the narrator thinks about his/her experience?
  • What does the narrator avoid or sidestep?
  • What topics does the narrator especially warm to, or speak about with interest, enthusiasm, or conviction?
  • What might this tell us?
  • Are there times when the narrator doesn’t seem to answer the question posed?
  • What might be the reason for this?
  • Are there significant factual errors in the narrative?
  • Is it internally consistent?
  • How might you account for errors and inconsistencies?
  • How does the narrator’s account jibe with other sources, and other interviews?
  • How can you explain any discrepancies?

What is the purpose of the interview?

  • How might the purpose have shaped the content, perspective, and tone of the interview?

What are the circumstances of the interview?

  • What effect might the location of the interview have had on what was said in the interview?
  • If anyone other than the interviewer and interviewee were present, what effect might the presence of this other person have had on the interview?
  • Do you know the mental and physical health of the narrator and interviewer?
  • What effect might these have had on the interview?

(Shopes, 2002, p. 11 – 12).

As can be seen, there are many things to consider when interpreting oral history. The historian will need to make a decision on what information is important and relevant to their topic of research. Even at that, they still need to be able to account for discrepancies and biases that can arise in personal accounts. There is no magic bullet, but steps can be taken to mitigate errors and allow well-conducted interviews to supplement and enhance the existing body of knowledge.


Shopes, L. (2002, February). What is Oral History?. History Matters: The U.S. Survey Course on the Web.