When to Take the Lead: Oral history and the unspoken dynamics of interviewing

Liz Strong is a current OHMA student. In this post, she discusses the dynamics of interviewing through the lens of Kathy Davis' workshop on oral history and tango.

On Thursday March 26thKathy Davis came to Columbia to speak about her new book, Dancing Tango: Passionate Encounters in a Globalizing WorldBefore her presentation she sat with the students of the Oral History MA to discuss practices of interviewing in oral history and sociology, specifically in regards to her research on bodies and embodiment.

In an article she wrote, Should a Feminist Dance Tango? Some reflections on the experience and politics of passion, one quote stood out for me. She described the distinct connection between people dancing together as, “…a place which is outside everyday life, caught between the old (which has not been totally abandoned) and the new (which is anticipated but not yet realized). This space can feel extremely uncomfortable or perfectly at home, desperately unhappy or ecstatically joyful. While this sense of connection is the experience that dancers long for and that keeps them coming back for more, it is also elusive and unpredictable.”

Her description could easily apply to the connection of an interviewer and narrator as they work to create an oral history record. The moment of an interview is taken out of the everyday to place oneself in the arc of history, examining the old and anticipating the new. The act of remembering in that moment can be awkward or natural, tragic or joyous, and even all of those together. The connection is indeed powerful, but also ephemeral and improvised. Further, within an oral history interview there are embodied relationships of difference, power, expectations, emotion, and memory that are communicated and experienced between narrators and interviews without the intervention of words.

  • How should we cultivate awareness and respond to those connections?
  • When should we take the lead in an intersubjective relationship, and when should we sit back and trust the moment?

These interactions are not so different from the improvised negotiations of a dance.

The metaphor of oral history as dance may be especially apt when considering queer tango. In this style each partner will communicate wordlessly to improvise, change who leads at any moment, and collaborate in motion. Power dynamics inherent in cultural and gender identity are challenged through mutual awareness and acts of mindful co-creation.

Queer tango

Not queer tango

The term queer, as it has been reclaimed, implies an open awareness and celebration of difference. That awareness is the key to recognizing and unraveling entrenched power structures. In traditional tango one leads and the other follows, one decides and the other acquiesces, the one is always male and the other is always female. In queer tango gender roles are discarded or transformed into play.

Ethical and effective oral history interviews are collaborations. Interviewers’ methods are adapted with each narrator, and difference is brought into the open. Mutual awareness is an essential first step to avoid perpetuating oppressive structures within the context of the interview. Fluency with such ethics comes with time and practice. In her conversation with students, Davis recounted learning experiences and advice from her years of initiating connections as an interviewer and navigating memories of embodied experiences.

  • Interact and negotiate

As a sociologist coming in to oral history, “I saw an interview as an interactive event where you would reflect on it. You would negotiate with the person you were interviewing. You’d worry, usually after the fact, about your relations in the interview. All of that. But that it was actually something that belongs to someone—First it belongs to the person whose interview it was, and then you had to go through sending forms to them and negotiating what could be made available and what could not. That was for me a totally different experience… It’s a very different idea of knowledge, and who owns knowledge, and how you negotiate that kind of thing.”

  • Be self aware

“I think your responsibility is to analyze your own involvement in any project that you’re doing. Ideology is only going to take you so far. That is my advice to you. You can’t always control your own behavior in an interview, and you need to be able to look at it critically and reflexively, and analyze it, and open it up for discussion. I think that is the responsibility that we all have as researchers.”

  • Know when to follow their lead

“I think as a researcher you have your notions, all of your theoretical and political and methodological baggage. You bring it along with you. But you have to be open to the people that you’re talking to, what they have to offer, what they have to say… You try to find a way to believe what the person is telling you, make sense of it, find a way to make it plausible, and then of course you analyze it and put it in a broader framework. You can do all kinds of things with it, but basically I think you have to do that.”

By the end of the conversation she and students had covered a wide range of knowledge on effective interviewing. There was more covered than could be encapsulated here, but the thread of her recent research in tango dance and embodied experience was present throughout. Ultimately it was clear that works of oral history require a shared purpose between interviewers and narrators for a respectful relationship, a collaborative connection, and gracefully negotiated creation.