Oral History: how to focus and structure a life history interview I



Oral History: how to focus and structure a life history interview I

Drawing by G. L. Fernandez: The Spanish Civil War

Drawing by G. L. Fernandez: The Spanish Civil War


We can look at life history interviews as individual biographical accounts, which will help us to understand the impact of events in the life of an individual and how these events influenced and shaped the individual's identity and participation in society.

Life history interviews normally cover the familial and social background of the interviewee and explore the key influences that have marked the interviewee's life, with detailed accounts of life-changing events. Life history interviews should not consist of a random collections of facts but of rounded accounts of the person's whole life story and trajectory.


These activities will consider some guidelines to ensure an effective approach to exploring and collecting rich life history narratives.

Activity 1: The focus of life history interviews

The main objective when conducting a life history interview is to collect the interviewee's overall personal insights which have been gained through their whole life experiences, and are recalled through their memories.

Sometimes interviewees may have a fixed idea about what they should be talking about. For example, they may assume that researchers are interested on a specific topic only, e.g. the closure of a mine they worked at, or their participation in a war evacuation expedition. This may lead them to neglect other equally interesting aspects of their life histories and conclude their accounts once they have finished talking about these particular events. This may present some challenges to the interviewer who wants to gain a wider insight into the interviewee's life.


Listen to the following sound extract recorded during an oral history training session. It captures the type of scenario described above. Tick the box to identify the course of action taken by the interviewer to redirect the interviewee back to giving the kind of fuller life history exploration that the researcher wishes to capture.

Audio 1 Padmini Broomfield


Activity 2: Structuring the interview

The success of a life history interview is due to careful preparation. Careful consideration should be given to the structure of an interview, the selection of topics, location and other factors.


In the following exercise, read the question and then tick any of the strategies which seem effective to you.

1. Which of the strategies below do you think could be useful in helping you to conduct a successful life history interview?

2. What are the advantages of structuring interviews chronologically?

Additional Resources

Listen to this extract from a lecture on oral history methodology by Padmini Broomfield, an expert in collecting oral histories. It illustrates the main points covered in this exercise.

Audio 2 Padmini Broomfield 

© Irina Nelson and Alicia Pozo-Gutiérrez. University of Southampton. / Padmini Broomfield - Oral Historian / Oral History Methodology by Irina Nelson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Created using the LOC Tool, University of Southampton