I’m presently wrapping up a summer-long dissertation research trip in Colombia, where I’ve been looking into the history of a type of socially conscious music called canción social (“social song”). One of my main research activities has been collecting oral histories from musicians who were most active during the 1970s and 1980s. I’ve done about two dozen long-form interviews in Spanish over the last three months, so issues around communication have been on my mind a lot lately.
The main thing I’ve been grappling with as I refine my interviewing technique is the difference between what I’ll very simplistically call ethnographic interviewing—the kind championed in fields like anthropology and ethnomusicology (my discipline) that is aimed at comprehensively describing some aspect of a culture—and a more journalistic type of interviewing. As I started accumulating more and more illuminating testimonies that will undoubtedly prove invaluable to my written dissertation, I began to lament not having put more thought into recording my interviews in a high-quality format that I could use to create audio or video documentaries that could be of interest to non-academic audiences.
The first and perhaps greatest obstacle standing in the way of my making broadcast-quality interview recordings is my utter lack of training. I am now firmly convinced that ethnomusicology graduate programs must include courses on audio and video recording techniques. But beyond the practical matter of training, there are other factors that influence the interview process for academic ethnographers. I’ve often justified my informal recording approach (i.e. plopping my phone somewhere in the vicinity of the speaker and pressing record on the native voice recorder) to myself with the notion that my interviewees would communicate differently with me—in other words, provide me with less of the rich information us ethnographers prize—if I had to envelope them in recording gear, not to mention putting them in front of a camera. I try to impart an informal, conversational tone in my interviews, which sometimes last for several hours, and I think that feel would be lost if I had to spend a bunch of time setting up and testing equipment and instructing people to be conscious of speaking into a microphone. (Catherine’s post last semester touched on how people’s behavior changes in front of a documentarian’s video camera.) Furthermore, many of my interviews veer on to somewhat politically sensitive topics, and I’m quite certain some of the people I talk with would be far less candid if the machinery that records their every word dominated the physical space around them. Finally, if one is planning to present the actual audio from interview recordings in a public forum, it is important to try to obtain clean snippets of speech by not interrupting the interviewee or interjecting with the short affirmative responses that we normally use in every day dialog, and this might contribute further to formalizing the interview.
The other problem I face in obtaining publishable audio is that interviewees I’ve never met in person before often request to meet me in public spaces, usually cafés, which usually have lots of background noise. While I often hold follow-up interviews with my interlocutors in more amenable spaces, I sometimes have only one chance with important figures, and I prefer—and am compelled by the ethics guidelines governing research with “human subjects”—to let people I’m meeting for the first time choose the location to ensure their comfort and convenience.
Needless to say, there are ways to foster an informal interview setting while still recording high-quality material. A friend who studied audio recording suggested using a lapel microphone, which is fairly unobtrusive to the interviewee, can be hooked up to an inconspicuous handheld recorder (or even a smartphone), and doesn’t necessarily pick up lots of background noise. Budget permitting, I might try this set up in future research, though I’ll probably continue to communicate with my consultants in the “ethnographic” mode to which I’ve grown accustomed.