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How to do an Oral History

Step 4 - Developing a list of questions that are appropriate to the person's life experiences

Developing a list of questions will help you clarify specific areas you will want to explore in the interview. Begin with simple questions, often those relating the narrator's earliest background. Arranging questions chronologically is sometimes most straightforward.

A strong interviewer will have done research and be able to ask some questions to explore the following areas of the narrator's life:

  • Social (The areas of a person's life that are about friendship, companionship, community, arts, hobbies, shared recreation or play for learning and amusement.)
  • Education (The nature of educational experiences the person had and where their schooling took place.)
  • Economic (The areas of a person's life that is about money: how they earn and spend it, and how it affected their life. And how the economy of their city, state or nation affects their life-was there a depression or financial boom at different periods of their life?)
  • Occupation, avocation, volunteering, military experience, skills, passions (the area of a person's life where they were supported financially and/or their passions, or skills practiced in non-recreation time)

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  • Political (The areas of a person's life that are about the government and power systems: What are their political attitudes-conservative, moderate, liberal? What was their role as a citizen in their neighborhood, city, state or nation? Experiences they had where government's power affected them?)
  • Spiritual or religious (How a person's spiritual, religious, or beliefs in, or not in, an energy greater than human beings informed and influence their life.)
  • Ethnic or Cultural (The areas of a person's life influenced by their ethnic group--Asian; African; Latino; Native American; Black American; Gay, Lesbian, Bi-sexual, Transgender - or minority group experiences in the larger society.)
  • Personal (The private areas of a person's life: personal time, family, home life, food preferences, gender experiences, gender preferences, physical and emotional health or illness, personal characteristics, and beliefs.)

Sometimes your narrator will have in mind what they want to share and weave their stories. Your job will be to ask clarifying questions.

And other times you will need to ask all your questions to keep the conversation going, you will be very thankful you came prepared with an extensive list of questions.

Next step: 5 - Interview

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