Historical Research Workshop

Reading: Learning from Strangers, Robert S. Weiss

“He said, ‘I show that I want to learn and that I’m worth teaching. That I know

something, but not everything. So they can inform me, and I’ll understand’” (39).

The above quote is imperative in accessing the stories and information that the respondent has in an interview. I like the way Weiss frames the process as a teaching and learning experience because it places the authority with the respondent.

The discussion of whether or not to tape record the respondent is fascinating. I agree that taking notes seems less invasive on first glance but I think the act of watching someone writing while you are talking can be similarly distracting. Weiss points out that note taking also prevents the interviewer from preserving the idiosyncrasies of the of the respondent’s speech patterns, and specific language, which provide important clues in and of themselves especially when dealing with sensitive information. If the respondent and budget allow, it seems that tape recording is the best way to capture the interview because you can reference the respondent’s direct speech without having to sort through a second layer of the interviewer’s own lens. Obviously the interviewer drives and shapes the interview but by taking notes and choosing what and how to summarize the interviewer is taking on more influence and perhaps skewing the original data.


7 comments for “Reading: Learning from Strangers, Robert S. Weiss

  1. Hannah Nichols
    October 11, 2013 at 2:37 PM

    Weiss places a lot of emphasis on the interviewer’s need to put himself (or herself) in the mindset of the respondent, and rightly so. He raises some points that I hadn’t previously given much consideration. Weiss’s suggestion that the relationship between interviewer and respondent should be one of collaboration (and, thus, the interviewer should not intrude or interrupt when a respondent has something to say) is particularly on point. I also appreciated how Weiss emphasized the need to establish a relationship with the respondent, ideally with pilot interviews, so they can have a more authentic conversation. I liked this quote: “Interviewing is our only defense against mistaken expectations,” because it makes clear that an interview shouldn’t be constructed to confirm any preconceptions of the interviewer.

  2. Nathan Myers
    October 11, 2013 at 8:11 PM

    Weiss’s description of the relationship between the interviewer and the respondent surprised me to some degree. For example, I expected the relationship to be more easily collaborative if the respondent was of higher socioeconomic rank, but he found the opposite to be true. Additionally, I was unaware of all of the ways which an interviewer can bias the interview by making comments and finishing sentences or offering a comment like “I’m sure it will work out”. The multitude of variables that go into an interview, such as the relationship between the interviewer and the respondent, the location of the interview, the socioeconomic status, the race, and the questions asked, made me think more on how interviews are taken as concrete fact or evidence, like in the case of interrogations, for legal case. These interviews seem to be vulnerable to almost endless variables. Although, if the interviewer is able to acknowledge these variables it seems that useful information can be attained.

  3. Korey Haman
    October 15, 2013 at 7:12 PM

    There was a couple really interesting points that Weiss made that I hadn’t thought about before. I also found the tape recording question interesting since I mostly saw its benefits before. Although Weiss agrees and uses a tape recorder, it’s interesting to see either the respondent would really hesitate with the tape recorder and how much its presents affect the flow of the interview. I’ve taken journalism type class before that talked about interview but now it is different looking at it from a more historical point of view and using it for oral history specifically. If you do interview for research reasons, questions like do you pay the respondent are good questions that Weiss brings up that I necessarily hadn’t thought about before. He also addresses some points like not talking about yourself and learning how to phrase unbiassed questions that I always have found important. Overall I think he does a good summary of the important guidelines to having a successful interview.

  4. Cord Brooks
    October 15, 2013 at 8:32 PM

    I also found the debate about “tape recorder vs. longhand” to be interesting, with both sides having their merit. The respondent might clam up when confronted with the recorder, making them less likely to open up. However, I do believe that taking notes longhand without the assistance of a recorder is a bad idea. As Weiss mentions, content will probably be lost without a tape recorder. I think that the interviewer plays a big role in making sure that the respondent is comfortable and willing to speak. So, forgoing the tape recorder might ultimately be necessary. This also speaks to being flexible while interviewing. An interview may not flow as expected, and it is important for the interviewer to realize this and not rigidly follow a pre-planned agenda. Despite this, it is still helpful to have some idea of how you want the interview to pan out. It would not be professional to enter an interview rudderless.

  5. Kamyar Jarahzadeh
    October 16, 2013 at 12:00 AM

    I recently did a lot of research that was tape recorded, so I found the honest discussion of transcription refreshing. I expected to listen to the tapes thoroughly, but similar to the author, realized that wasn’t all that necessary. I still think tape recording is an essential tool, but it is good to know that it’s not all that common for the tapes to be studied like a sacred text of sorts. Reading the annotated interview also reminded me of a necessary balance to achieve: knowing when the push the respondent forward and when to let them express themselves more fully. I think it depends on the type of study, but I realize that I am often too lenient in letting a respondent discuss a question at length and that there should be no shame in “nudging” them to the next point. Also the portion on knowing your respondents need serious help for a problem was all too real, but unfortunately, the author seemed just as lost as I was in similar situations!

  6. Jason Troia
    October 28, 2013 at 4:50 PM

    It is most telling the amount of time that should go into crafting questions. It would seem to me that even something as minor as the way in which a question is asked can elicit a completely different response. As long as a researcher thoroughly plans out their interview process, and is thoughtful about the likely direction that it may take if framed in the way they are planning to frame it, I think they will ultimately yield dividends by the advance planning. There is nothing worse than sitting down for an interview and wondering if the person asking the questions had bothered to put any time or thought into what they wanted to ask. I can attest to that from my personal experiences with being interviewed by journalists.

  7. Olivia Marston
    November 2, 2013 at 3:49 PM

    Weiss’ description of the interview process illuminated for me the complex and intricate nature of the relationship between interviewer and respondent. The dangers that lie in a poorly framed question, or of pushing the relationship beyond that of one designed to produce information useful for areas of research were things I had never considered much before. I particularly liked Weiss’ description of the process as a collaborative effort, and the responsibilities that each party has in achieving the end goal (information pertinent to research). I also found the concept of ‘markers’ very interesting, as it indicated the subtleties involved in interviewing. In researching my topic I have been reading a lot of oral histories, and Weiss’ reading has definitely given me a more critical eye when doing so.

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