Five Tips for Conducting History Interviews Abroad

CU Boulder’s Rebecca Kennedy offers some helpful advice for executing oral history research projects. 

If you are like a lot of history students conducting oral history research abroad, you are probably thrilled by the idea of a serendipitous trip to your country of interest, believing that fate will lead you to your sources. And following sound planning procedure, you have probably found an organization to sponsor and support you in your research efforts. Last summer I spent six weeks in Brazil researching cultural exchange within twentieth-century black consciousness movements, and I had the full support of several professors, two universities, and the national archives, yet there is a lot that I wish I had known before my trip. Below are five tips that I hope will help you on yours:

1). Get going on institutional review board (IRB) approval early– It is amazing how many revisions might need to be done to the project application, so start it right away. The less stress involved around this step, the better. The process itself will also help you focus your research goals and define exactly what you hope to accomplish with your project.

2). Find people who can help you effectively bridge the culture gap- Unfortunately, we all can’t spend a full year abroad settling into a community and gaining the trust and respect of our interviewees. And your own foreignness, as well as that of your intellectual project, is incredibly obvious to everyone– no matter how well you feel you fit in or speak the local language. Find members of the community who can connect you to interviewees beyond academia. These are most likely people (such as teachers, nurses, and priests) who have a vested interest in the growth of local history.

3). Let go of time expectations- Some interviews will last two hours, others fifteen minutes. Some interviewees might surprisingly give you more of their time, while others who promised an hour will only meet for five minutes at the last minute. Both scenarios can lead to surprising conversations and take your research in unexpected directions. Be willing to go with it.

4). Don’t be afraid to speak the language- Many of us wait until we feel our grammar is mastered, or until our questions are perfectly translated into the target language to go abroad to conduct interviews. This intention comes from a great place, but it can often get in the way of communication. Some words are crucial to translate correctly, but as they say, “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” The overwhelming majority of your interviewees will be so glad that you are speaking their language that they will encourage you along the way. And never underestimate their ability to fill in the gaps and guess what you are getting at—just get talking!!

5). Plan to reschedule – It can be frustrating to constantly reschedule when time is of the essence on your research trip, but it is unavoidable. You can plan well in advance, and I encourage you to do that, but be willing to toss that plan out the window when interviewees don’t respond to your emails or phone calls, when some suddenly leave town, and when others call to say that they can meet you in ten minutes. It is all part of the process, and the more flexible you are, the more enjoyable your trip will be!

* All opinions are my own. Each historian should determine their own interview path!

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