Social Psychological Aspects of the
Oral History Interview
Howard E. Sypher
Mary Lee Hummert
University of Kansas
Sheryl L. Williams
Illinois State University
Interpersonal interactions are extremely complex, often unpredictable, and although they can be very distressing, they are simultaneously central to our lives and to our satisfaction with our lives. These interactions come in many forms, discussions, rituals, and so on, that are guided more or less by cultural norms or rules of conduct.
Interviews have an inherent advantage over most other kinds of interpersonal encounters. That advantage lies in the situational constraints inherent in "doing an interview" or in "interviewing." Interviews are not impromptu. Interviews involve assigned roles, those of interviewer and interviewee. The principal responsibility of the oral history interviewer is to acquire information and the principal responsibility of the interviewee is to provide that information. In cognitive terms, there are "scripts" for interviews that are easily accessible, and the interview in general has less inherent uncertainty as a result of such scripts than do many other types of encounters. Of course, the interviewing process is actually more complex than this simplistic overview suggests. For example, we may find that expectations associated with interviews prove to be stumbling blocks even when good faith efforts to succeed are made on behalf of both parties.
Often interviews, like other less specialized interactions, flow well. In a good interview, there is almost a synchrony as interviewee and interviewer "hit it off" and seem to anticipate each other's next move or question. The participants appear to fit effortlessly into their roles and participate fully in the elicitation of pertinent information, beliefs, opinions, and so forth. Other times, the