A report from the 3rd Comprehensive Workshop on Oral History Training

Oral history is an experiential affair

Maryam Assadi Jafari
M. B. Khoshnevisan


According to the website of Iranian Oral History, the 3rd workshop out of “the 3rd Comprehensive Workshop on Oral History Training” was held on Wednesday in Sheikh Bahaee’s Expert Library of Art and Isfahnology with the attempt of Assar Khaneh Museum – The Centre for Studies of Isfahan Common Culture. Dr. Mehdi Abolhassni Taraqi delivered a speech in this workshop.


Study before interview

Dr.  Mehdi Abolhassni Taraqi in this workshop talked about the features of interviewer and interviewee and said, “Different features have been said about interviewee and interviewer, but first we talk about the interviewer.

Oral history is an arena for a scientific research. So with this default that the present people in this workshop have a ground and field for research, we deal with this basic point what features an interviewer should have. Being people of studying, research and field work is the most important feature of an oral historian. Unlike written history, oral history is not to go inside a library and involve in a series or eventually see a document in an archive. Oral history includes part of written history plus a field work one part of which is observation and another part is the selection of narrator or interviewee and conducting an interview. Thus, in my view, the abilities which an interviewer should have are beyond an ordinary research. I mean an oral historian finds abilities and skills gradually which is more that an ordinary researcher because we consider oral history as an experiential job, but this has conditions for itself. I mean any oral historian cannot say I am superior to an ordinary history researcher. This person, due to the reasons that I will say, should have an average talent and intelligence higher than an ordinary researcher.

After leaving aside the first condition namely being a researcher or having the spirit of research and searching, a person in the area of oral history should have relative studying and information about the subject he or she wants to work. The instances we find in various political and cultural institutions shows the opposite. It means that the interviewer takes a tape recorder, sits in front of the interviewee and ends a 45 to 90-minute meeting with one or a few general questions. When we look at the content of such interview, we see that the person has an empty mind and has entered this area merely for his or her interest in oral history and interview. We find out from the questions he or she has posed and the process of the interview which has not been controlled by him or her but by the other side that he or she has an empty mind. The interviewee has expressed the whole thing in the form of memory and we see a verbal reaction from the interviewer every few minutes. If you want to work on any subject in oral history, you need a limited research as well as the studying of documents. Your plan should be coincident with a historic period and close to us. It should be history not the present time, because that is something else and is not oral history.”


From “patience” to “helpful behavior” in interview

In continuation of the workshop, he asked the present trainees in the workshop to present their selected subjects in the area of Isfahan’s oral history, and explain about the methods of being involved in oral history in various subjects and the ways of entering the areas of study and research. Emphasizing on having an aspiration in the field work, he stated, “An oral historian should have the endurance to work in hot and cold weather and in different environments with lower and higher classes of the society. He or she should have patience and serenity. The narrators are sometimes obstinate and adamant which harms the work, but since we want to conclude the work, we wait in order to get a result. The ability to establish relations, amicability and sunniness, absorption of individuals and internal characteristics can also create attractive force. These attractive forces should be increased. He or she should have the power of speech and the power of good conversation. You must have the necessary face for attending in an interview meeting. One person or ten persons may be sitting in front of you and watch the interview. If he or she does not have the face, cannot concentrate and retell the considered questioning package regularly and receive the answers. A shy person cannot be an oral historian.

An eye relation and effective verbal and non-verbal behaviors can also contribute the process of an interview. It is important to look at the interviewee and confirm constantly. This is called “helpful behaviors” which also exists in psychology and we can make the other side to talk with this method. An effective non-verbal behavior like nodding and smiling are also important.  This method is also used for correcting mistakes during an interview without upsetting the other side. Otherwise, the course of narration is blocked or in other words the blockade of narration happens.

Apart from effective verbal and non-verbal behaviors, avoiding from destructive behaviors while conducting an interview is also important. Looking at the watch or wall constantly or sitting in a way that the other side gets upset are all deterrents, disturbing the course of an interview. Such principles should be observed in view of the personality and status of the other side. Of course, politeness should also be observed whether you are sitting in front of a porter or a merchant; you must observe the mutual respect. Sometimes, it is necessary that you cover the clothing of that status and go for conducting an interview. The interviewee may be sick and the environmental conditions are annoying. It may be very hard to sit and conduct an interview in such a room, but for the sake of my goal, I sit for an hour and treat in a way that the other side does not get upset.  This happens much for those who work in the area of sacred defense and interview chemical janbazan (the war veterans who are suffering from chemical attacks). If you want to grouch, you cannot do the job. So, what the family members who are living with such conditions for thirty years should do. Thus, you need to sympathize and help.”


Presence in historic geography

About the capacities of the city of Isfahan in the area of oral history and the features of interviewee, Dr. Mehdi Abolhassani said, “For instance, Isfahan is a pioneer of charity institutions in Iran. Some of these institutions like Imam Zaman Charity Institution are active for more than half a century. These are part of Isfahan’s social history. Many well-known charitable persons are from Isfahan. Isfahan has this capacity and just someone should identify and observe these persons, dealing with such subjects. The charitable persons built baths and mosques formerly, but now they build hospitals or import dialysis machines. All of such things should be done. You can find an intact subject for oral history out of whatever you think.

When you specify your subject, you much choose the narrator or narrators. In both cases –whether subject-centered or person-centered – you have to find the narrator. Your narrators should be in the center of that subject. The narrator must be the main actor or “an element” and or “observer and witness”. If you could not find anyone form the first category, you can go to the second category with a mediator - but with more caution and more studying of documents and controlling of the interview and its content. But the third category is a group which was neither element nor an observer and a witness but can give information and fill the info vacuum of your project due to their study and access to the documents and archives. But the priority is with the first group and then the second and third ones. For example, in the oral history of bazar, the elements of the bazar merchants including the producers, dealers, great and small merchants, sellers, bearing system, banks, mosques and schools are among the first group. The second group consists of the individuals who have relation with the bazar like the customers. The third group consists of for example people who once have come to Isfahan’s bazar from another city.”

He continued, “One of successful methods in conducting an interview is the presence in historic geography. It means that you take the interviewee to the location and interview him or her there, because the memoirs are brought to life as he or she comes to the location, the elders are in priority in our oral history projects in Isfahan. So start this with them, because the risk of amnesia and death are more probable among them. In any category that you classify, give the priority to the elders and then to the middle-aged and younger people. If we select the narrators without any study, we will face problem. The more we study, the more we pay attention to the interviewee’s mistakes while we are talking to the agents or the observers or informed persons. Therefore, you should have good and comprehensive information. You should also observe the oral history preliminaries, namely the extracting of the biography of the interviewee. If the interviewee refuses to talk about his or her biography and past, I do not stop but become more sensitive. A series of people speaks easily but some escape form their past. Try to extract the people’s biography in the first meeting. It is a mistake to go through the main interview immediately. You have to recognize your narrator in any subject at first. If he or she is a politician how he or she has promoted to this status. When you find recognition on the narrator, everything keeps going well.

In my view, if you want to work especially in person-centered field, even work on the record of his family for several sessions. Then you find out what a good information you have. The reactions done by the individuals later are the result of this family record and education."

In continuation, about the interviewees who have not the ability to talk, Dr. Mehdi Abolhassan Taraqi said, "I obtained part of information about a cobbler who could not talk from his wife and another part from his neighbors. For example, I talked with a barber whose neighbor was the cobbler. He was his neighbor and spoke about the old man in his interviews. For instance, if he has a senior son, he can speak. At any rate, these are informed people and witnesses and have direct information.      

We want to have a correct and logical interview. So the individuals should have proper intelligence and senses, because when someone is getting older, he or she may repeat something several times. The repetitions show the internal tastes and interest of an individual. It means that you find out the other side likes very much to talk about the subject."

At the end of the workshop, he considered one of the features of oral history as being an interdisciplinary, and added, "The interview itself is a technique in the science of communication. It means that it was used by the reporters before we use it. That an oral historian has to know psychology to some extent shows that oral history is an interdisciplinary case. Effective and ineffective verbal and non-verbal behaviors also exist in psychology. We should use such techniques. I think the thing beyond science and books is social science in practice. If you don't recognize your society well, you cannot be an oral historian. Certainly, a man from Isfahan cannot present a good oral history work in Tehran and vice versa. Although the book "Sociology of the People of Isfahan" has been written during Pahlavi era, can a book introduce the people of Isfahan? It is impossible! For carrying out an oral history, we should work and live with the people more and more. An oral historian should be able to establish relations with all strata of people. Interview with a university professor or a porter in bazaar, each of these have their own traits. So, if some individuals were not ready to have an interview, we write in the book introduction that these individuals were not ready to have an interview."

According to the Head of Assar Khaneh Shahi Museum (The Center for Studies of Isfahan's Common Culture), Mohammad Memarian, the participants in “The 3rd Comprehensive Workshop on Oral History Training" after being passed in the exams will receive a degree and will be invited for carrying projects of Isfahan's Municipality in the area of oral history.           

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