The Life History Interview

  • Erin Jessee
Reference work entry


In this chapter, I explore the “best practices” and core values with which researchers should align when conducting life history interviews to elicit information about an individual’s past and present lived experiences. Drawing primarily on literature from the multidisciplinary field of oral history, I outline the process of determining in which circumstances life history interviews might be beneficial for addressing a research question and how life history interviews are typically designed, conducted, and analyzed. I also examine the challenges that can arise when conducting life history interviews, particularly when investigating sensitive subject matter or working in conflict-affected settings, for example. In the process, I reflect on over a decade of fieldwork in post-genocide Rwanda and Bosnia, wherein discussions of the past are often highly politicized and researcher fatigue – particularly related to the recent atrocities – is common. This provides a starting point for discussing how the best practices for life history interviewing may need to be adapted to ensure that they remain culturally and politically appropriate in different settings. Taken together, the chapter provides readers with a foundation for deciding where life history interviews might enhance their research, and how to adapt current best practices on life history interviewing to suit their research needs and maintain a high ethnic standard in their fieldwork when documenting intimate details about participants’ lives.


Life history Interview Ethics Methodology Intersubjectivity Memory 


  1. Abrams L. Oral history theory. 2nd ed. New York: Routledge; 2016.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Adichie C. The danger of a single story. TEDGlobal. 2009. Accessed 16 Feb 2018.
  3. Adler N, Leydesdorff S, Chamberlain M, Neyzi L, editors. Memories of mass repression: narrating life stories in the aftermath of atrocity. New Bruinswick: Transaction Publishers; 2011.Google Scholar
  4. American Anthropology Association. Principles of professional responsibility. AAA Ethics Blog. 2012. Accessed 10 Feb 2018.
  5. American Psychiatric Association. Posttraumatic stress disorder. 2013. Accessed 14 Feb 2018.
  6. Basu L. Memory dispositifs and national identities: the case of Ned Kelly. Mem Stud. 2011;4(1):33–41.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. BBC News. What are the Boston tapes? 2017. Accessed 14 Feb 2018.
  8. Berger Gluck S, Patai D, editors. Women’s words: the feminist practice of oral history. New York: Routledge; 1991.Google Scholar
  9. Blee K. Evidence, empathy, and ethics: lessons from oral histories of the clan. J Am Hist. 1993;80(2):596–606.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Blee K. Inside organized racism: women in the hate movement. Berkeley: University of California Press; 2002.Google Scholar
  11. Blee K. How field relationships shape theorizing. Sociol Methods Res. 2017;1–34.
  12. Bouka Y. Researching violence in Africa as a Black woman: notes from Rwanda. Research in Difficult Settings Working Paper Series. 2015.
  13. Cave M. What remains: reflections on crisis oral history. In: Perks R, Thomson A, editors. The oral history reader. 3rd ed. New York: Routledge; 2016. p. 92–103. 2015.Google Scholar
  14. Centre for Oral History and Digital Storytelling. Toolbox. 2018. Accessed 14 Feb 2018.
  15. Columbia Center for Oral Historical Research. CCOHR Services. 2018. Accessed 14 Feb 2018.
  16. Cruikshank J. Life lived like a story: Life stories of three Yukon Native elders. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1990.Google Scholar
  17. Field S. Oral history, community, and displacement: imagining memories in post-apartheid South Africa. New York: Palgrave; 2012.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Fielding N. Mediating the message: affinity and hostility in research on sensitive topics. Am Behav Sci. 1990;33(5):608–20.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Fobear K. Do you understand? Unsettling interpretative authority in feminist oral history. J Fem Scholarsh. 2016;10:61–77.Google Scholar
  20. Freund A. Toward an ethics of silence? Negotiating off-the-record events and identity in oral history. In: Sheftel A, Zembrzycki S, editors. Oral history off the record: toward an ethnography of practice. New York: Palgrave Macmillan; 2013. p. 223–38.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Freund A. Under storytelling’s spell? Oral history in a neoliberal age. Oral Hist Rev. 2015;42(1):96–132.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Frisch M. A shared authority: essays on the craft and meaning of oral and public history. New York: SUNY Press; 1990.Google Scholar
  23. Fujii LA. Research Ethics 101: Dilemmas and Responsibilities. PS: Political Science & Politics. 2012;45(04):717–723.Google Scholar
  24. Geertz C. The interpretation of cultures. New York: Basic Books; 1973.Google Scholar
  25. Greenspan H. The unsaid, the incommunicable, the unbearable, and the irretrievable. Oral Hist Rev. 2014;41(2):229–43.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Head E. The ethics and implications of paying participants in qualitative research. Int J Soc Res Methodol. 2009;12(4):335–44.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Jessee E. The limits of oral history: ethics and methodology amid highly politicized research settings. Oral Hist Rev. 2011;38(2):287–307.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Jessee E. Conducting fieldwork in Rwanda. Can J Dev Stud. 2012;33(2):266–74.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Jessee E. Managing danger in oral historical fieldwork. Oral Hist Rev. 2017a;44(2):322–47.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Jessee E. Negotiating genocide in Rwanda: the politics of history. New York: Palgrave Macmillan; 2017b.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Jessee E. Beyond perpetrators: complex political actors surrounding the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. In: Smeulers A, Weerdesteijn M, Hola B, editors. Perpetrators of International Crimes. Oxford: Oxford University Press, forthcoming 2018.Google Scholar
  32. Kerr D. Allan Nevins is not my grandfather: the roots of radical oral history practice in the United States. Oral Hist Rev. 2016;43(2):367–91.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Krog A, Mpolweni N, Ratele K. There was this goat: investigating the truth commission testimony of Notrose Nobomvu Konile. Scottsville: University of KwaZulu-Natal Press, 2009.Google Scholar
  34. Lambert J. Digital storytelling: capturing lives, creating community. 4th ed. New York: Routledge; 2013.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Launius R. Public history wars, the ‘one nation/one people’ consensus, and the continuing search for a usable past. OAH Mag Hist. 2013;27(1):31–6.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Liamputtong P. Researching the vulnerable: a guide to sensitive research methods. London: Sage; 2007.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Liamputtong P. Performing qualitative cross-cultural research. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; 2010.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Lummis T. Listening to history: the authenticity of oral evidence. Totowa: Barnes & Noble Books; 1988.Google Scholar
  39. McDonald H. Boston college ordered by US court to hand over IRA tapes. 2016. Accessed 14 Feb 2018.
  40. Oral History Association. Principles and best practices. 2009. Accessed 10 Feb 2018.
  41. Oral History Society. Is your oral history legal and ethical? 2012. Accessed 10 Feb 2018.
  42. Oral History Society. Oral history society statement on the Boston College Belfast Project. 2014. Accessed 14 Feb 2018.
  43. Passerini L. Work, ideology, and consensus under Italian fascism. Hist Work J. 1979;8:82–108.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Passerini L. Memory and utopia: the primacy of intersubjectivity. London: Routledge; 2007.Google Scholar
  45. Portelli A. What makes oral history different? In: Perks R, Thomson A, editors. The oral history reader. 3rd ed. New York: Routledge; 2016. p. 48–58.Google Scholar
  46. Ritchie D. Doing oral history. 3rd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press; 2015.Google Scholar
  47. Robben A. Ethnographic seduction, transference and countertransference in dialogues about terror in Argentina. Ethos. 1996;24(1):71–106.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Rothschild B. Trauma essentials: the go-to guide. New York: W.W. Norton & Company; 2011.Google Scholar
  49. Russell M, Moralejo D, Burgess E. Paying research subjects: participants’ perspectives. J Med Ethics. 2000;26(2):126–30.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Samuel R. Local history and oral history. Hist Work J. 1976;1:191–208.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Summerfield P. Culture and composure: creating narratives of the gendered self in oral history interviews. Cult Soc Hist. 2004;1(1):65–93.Google Scholar
  52. Swartz S. ‘Going deep’ and ‘giving back’: strategies for exceeding ethical expectations when researching amongst vulnerable youth. Qual Res. 2011;11(1):47–68.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. Thompson P. The voice of the past: oral history. In: Perks R, Thomson A, editors. The oral history reader. 3rd ed. New York: Routledge; 2016. p. 33–9.Google Scholar
  54. Thomson S. Getting Close to Rwandans since the Genocide: Studying Everyday Life in Highly Politicized Research Settings. Afr Stud Rev. 2010;53(03):19–34CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  55. Tooth Murphy A. The continuous thread of revelation: chrononormativity and the challenge of queer oral history. Scottish Oral History Centre seminar series. 2014.Google Scholar
  56. Trouillot M. Silencing the past: power and the production of history. Boston: Beacon Press; 1995.Google Scholar
  57. White L. Speaking with vampires: rumor and history in colonial Africa. Berkeley: University of California Press; 2000.Google Scholar
  58. Yow V. Recording oral history: a guide for the humanities and social sciences. 3rd ed. New York: Rowman & Littlefield; 2014.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Nature Singapore Pte Ltd. 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Modern HistoryUniversity of GlasgowGlasgowUK

Personalised recommendations