Book Reviews -- Interactive Oral History Interviewing Edited by Eva M. McMahan and Kim Lacy Rogers

Article excerpt

McMahan, Eva M. and Kim Lacy Rogers, eds. Interactive Oral History Interviewing. Hillsdale, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1994. 172 pp. $39.95.

The interview, for all of its limitations, is an accepted research technique in many disciplines. Once primarily the domain of social historians, psychologists, folklorists and journalists, it is now used widely in the humanities and social sciences. The eight essays in this book examine the complex interactions between interviewer and interviewee from the perspective of oral history -- the use of interviews to reconstruct a past that may not have been recorded in written documents.

Oral historians have made important contributions to social history, relating the untold stories of women, racial and ethnic groups and others by-passed by mainstream accounts. Yet in the impulse to make history more inclusive and more democratic, ethical and methodological issues are often overlooked. The failure is, perhaps, more apparent here than in other fields. For the oral historian, the interview is not one of several research tools; it is the only one.

The interview is not a one-way process in which one person passively records what another says; rather, it is a social interaction. In the opening essay, Ron Grele regards this "conversational narrative" as primarily political, a "struggle for meaning and the control of interpretation." As a professional, the interviewer/historian decides who to talk to and about what to talk. The interviewee, especially if separated by class, race, or gender, is placed in a subordinate position. Grele argues that the interviewer is not simply "a vessel through which information is conveyed" but, consciously or unconsciously, a shaper of the story as it is told. He calls on interviewers to honestly discuss how their ideologies influence their work.

Grele's essay is not easy reading. The language shows the influence of critical theory, with the interview variously described as "political praxis," "discursive field" and "hermeneutic conversation." If this is what is meant by negotiation of meaning, he strikes a hard bargain. …


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