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Interviewing process

Preparation for an interview

After registering on the web site, the participant is expected to fill in the online pre-interview form. This quantitative tool is an extensive questionnaire that consists of approximately 200 multiple choice and open-ended questions about the everyday family life, housing, living conditions (food, electricity, water and shelter), proximate danger, experience with shelling and sniper fire, experience of displacement and life as a refugee, schooling, play and games, friendships, leisure time, health, wounding and significant losses during the wartime. It aims to trigger the memory of war experience, preparing thus both an interviewee to better recall his/her experiences and an interviewer to adjust his/her questions rapport individually, gathering as much information as possible without significantly upsetting or re-traumatizing the participant. Optimally, pre-interview form should be completed a day or two days before an interview.

A process of interviewing

The process of interviewing represents audio-video documenting (recorded by camera in pre-designed studio) of testimonies-personal stories on growing up in the war employing a method of oral history.

The oral history is a qualitative research method commonly used in social sciences (especially in history, ethnology and anthropology), based on personal memories of the certain event or historical period, stemming from the oral tradition of passing the stories from one generation to another in spoken form. Historically, the method had been used by chroniclers to reconstruct important events or by biographers to portrait lives of elite, such as politicians or military commanders. However, during the 1970s, the method was brought to social sciences by civil rights movement and feminist activists, who used it “from the bottom up” to fight for social justice and give voice to those deprived of rights (Ritchie 2015).

By letting the person freely narrate his/her own life story or story of a particular historical event, it vividly captures lived experience better than any other qualitative method. According to Janesick (2010:2), “oral history is the collection of stories and reminiscences of a person or persons who have firsthand knowledge of any number of experiences”. Ritchie (2015:1) defines it as the dynamic and creative method to “collect memories and personal commentaries of historical significance through recorded interviews”.In certain way, oral history is “a memory of self” (Janesick 2015:7). It is usually recorded on voice recorder or video camera and has a form of a conversation where the interviewer asks open-ended questions and the interviewee answers in the form of narration of his/her recollections.

Allowing for the usage of ordinary language in storytelling and byproviding the temporal distance (narratives are usually recorded many years after the event), method of oral history helps understand how the person made sense of the historical events and what does it mean to her/him. Although the interviewee is let the freedom to speak as much as he/she likes, the interviews are led according to questions/themes, prepared by an interviewer in advanceto guide the process and help gather the valuable information. In order to ensure reliability and validity, interview procedure respects certain pre-defined standards. All the recorded interviews are then transcribed, translated, summarized and catalogued in the archive or the library (Janesick 2010, Perks and Thomson 1998, Ritchie 2015).

Oral history has been subjected to criticism by many skeptics, especially in regard to the reliability of memory and credibility of interviewees. However, the fact that oral history is prone to bias in terms of subjectivity of the narrated accounts is actually favorable in social sciences, since personal perspective in eye witnessing is part of the lived experience that is in its scholarly focus.

The way person remembers event of interest depends on many factors, both internal and external. One of the most important is the initial perception of the event: whether the person was the protagonist of the event or a bystander and whether and in what extent he/she was emotionally engaged in the event and whether he/she able to see and comprehend the event clearly and objectively. Two different persons can recall the same historical event in a completely different manner, because they had a completely different lived experience. Even the same person can remember the particular event differently in distinct phases of his/her life, depending on the age, mood or current point of view. Certain extent of reflectivity is expected in the narration and interviewer is expected to be aware of it. Memories are prone to distortions – the more time has passed from the initial event, the greater the possibility that many details are faded or completely forgotten. Moreover, more details about the event are lost in the memory, the greater the chance that these gaps are filled with fantasy or secondhand information (that could be someone else’s memories, stories heard in media or part of the politically constructed collective memory). Usually, memories of traumatic or life-changing events, accompanied by a strong emotional reaction, remain strongly fixed and last longer in its original form, than the memories of ordinary everyday events.Many people remember tragic events easily and are readily able to speak about suffering, humiliation or losses. On the other hand, many interviewees remain silent on these issues, consciously or subconsciously repressing these memories and insisting on the recollections of positive aspects of the past. Moreover, years after, memories, especially those from youth, tend to become nostalgic (“the good old days”), giving an impression that life in the past was better or was not as tragic as it might have seemed (Ritchie 2015).

The important examples of oral history projects are StivenSpilberg’sShoah Visual History Archive housed at University of Southern California Shoah Foundation Institute, 9/11 Oral History Project and Hurricane Katrina oral history project that document events of Holocaust in World War II, terrorist attack on twin towers in New York and natural catastrophe of hurricane Katrina in New Orleans through the eyes of survivors and their families (Janesick 2010). In our country, Cinema for Peace documented the stories of more than 1000 people who survived genocide in Srebrenica (Cinema for Peace 2011), while Center for Dealing with Past Documenta has recorded the video-testimonies of survivors of World War II and recent war 1991-1995 in Croatia (Documenta 2015).

The way interviewees recall their memories largely depends on the questions posed during the interview (Janesick 2010, Ritchie 2015). In order to assess the lived war experience of children and adolescents, team of Museum of War Childhood, consisting of a medical anthropologist, a historian, an expert for children’s rights, and three psychologists, have carefully and meticulously created a set of themes/questions for an audio-video interview.The questions/themes cover the following topics: life now, life before the war, beginning of the war, displacement (if any), housing, living conditions (food, water, electricity), security, experience of shelling and sniper fire, family life, friendships, school, leisure time and hobbies, experience of UN soldiers and foreign journalists, wounding and losses, the most remarkable events (personally important), the end of the war, the way war childhood affects the present life, the way person thinks and feels about the ongoing conflicts in the war.

The interviewing process must follow AAA ethical guidelines (AAA 2009). All the participants have to sign an Informed Consent (Release Agreement) that regulates the rights on the recorded audio-video testimony and the cession of the artifacts and documents.

All the research activities in the Museum of War Childhood are supervised by psychologists of PSIHOLAB (LejlaSmajić-Hodžić, AjselaBučan-Varatanović and BelmaŽiga). The PSIHOLAB team has provided the Museum staff an initial training, where all the interviewers were taught skills how to adequately communicate the sensitive issues, how to build the appropriate rapport and how to guide the questioning so not to upset or re-traumatize the participants. Moreover, the Museum team was taught skills how to behave and react in emotionally demanding situations as well as how to protect themselves from secondary traumatization and professional burnout.


Cinema for Peace Foundation
2015 Web site Cinema for Peace, Electronic document, http://cinemaforpeace.ba/en/testimonies

Center for Dealing with Past Documenta
2015 Web site Documenta, Electronic document, http://www.documenta.hr/hr/naslovnica.html

Janesick, V.J.
2010 Oral history for qualitative researcher: choreographing the story. New York London: The Guilford Press

Perks, R and A. Thomson, eds
1998 The Oral History Reader. London: Routledge

Ritchie, D.
2015 Doing oral history. New York: Oxford University Press