Craig Fees, "Meditation on Methodology", Oral History Society Regional Network annual meeting, 28.9.2002


There are two major frames around my work:

Therapeutic community, in which the dynamics and processes of the community - prison wing or cell block, psychiatric hospital or ward, school, hostel, halfway house, farm, day centre, group home, the old approved school, social rehabilitation unit, borstal - are the main therapeutic tools.

And Archives, in which the salient point was recently made by the President of the Society of American Archivists: “we don't tell the stories; we provide the raw materials...". Among archivists I make the distinction between 'oral history', and 'oral archiving'.

There are two key procedures which take place outside the interview, are mundane in themselves, but are a critical part of the methodology, to which I’ll return.

And there is what takes place inside the interview, to which I bring a number of things:

My native way of listening - thinking back, to the way I listened to my mother and her friends in the kitchen in Denver; or to an old man on a public bus on my way home from school, about nine, who told me of laying the last stone of the Mormon Temple in Salt Lake City, and of his horse who stood by him in the desert when a lightning strike nearby during a storm knocked him to the ground unconscious; or my grandfather, trailing Pancho Villa after a raid across the Mexico/Arizona border.

Ten years in Los Angeles as an undergraduate and postgraduate theater student, both doing theater and researching deeply and widely for my master's thesis “Medieval Theater in Indo-European Context”. Very early on in thinking for this paper I found myself thinking that I listen in an interview like a method actor preparing a character.

More esoteric, intellectual influences: The American psychologist William James and the phenomenologist Martin Heidegger, particularly the phenomenological approach (I won't attempt to say the word “epokhe”), the fundamental character of Human Being as Being- in-the-World.

My training as a folklorist in the Institute of Dialect and Folklife Studies at Leeds University - seven years between start and finish of a fieldwork-based PhD. And my research into the roots of the Institute, taking a great deal from the English Dialect Survey which, between 1950 and 1961, under the direction of Harold Orton, completed comprehensive linguistic questionnaires in 313 sites in England and Wales, tapping the oldest available dialect speakers in each place, and taking between 15 and 26 hours over a period of four to eight days to complete. The questionnaire took three years to devise and continued, in use, to be refined.

Ten years living and working in a residential therapeutic community with extremely emotionally and behaviourally disturbed children, aged 6 to 14. Five years as a volunteer. Five years as a part-time member of the therapeutic team.


The methodology of the interview

In reflecting on the roots of my methodology, I found myself back in the theater, and on that sacred relationship in which actors and audience attend to each other within a bounded and protected space. What happens is not, in the Samuel Taylor Coleridge chesnut, the 'willing suspension of disbelief', but the creation of a kind of magic circle of belief and intimacy in which it is safe to pay a profound attention both to ones' self and to the others within it, without being thereby committed to lifelong bonding. You can both come away changed, and with mutual regard, but also going your own separate and independent ways.

The interview situation, at its best, certainly for me, has this character. One creates a protected space. Crucial to the creation of this protected space for me are the two mundane but key procedures to which I referred earlier, and what is implied by them. What is implied - and will be stated at some point before the interview, - is a dedicated, secure archival home for the materials, where confidential materials can be kept confidential, and public materials made public.

The procedures are simple: Whenever we make a recording, the person with whom we make the recording receives a copy. We make a draft transcript, which is sent to them to make any changes, corrections or emendations they feel necessary; after which we prepare and send a final copy. They can both hear what they said, and see what it looks like they said. The recording is treated as confidential unless or until they explicitly agree otherwise, and if they agree to make it available it will only be in the form and under the conditions that they specify. This may seem convoluted and draconian, but in a field which is characterized by dangers and vulnerabilities, my own view is that it is essential. It is also useful, a point I will come back to.

The other procedure is the copyright and release form, based on many around, and developed in this specific form in consultation with one of my informants, Mr. R. E. Curtis, from whom we will hear in a moment. You will see that the Preface to the form itself, clumsy as it is, spells out some of the ways that material can be protected - access can be Open or Closed; names can be changed, passages deleted (from the public, not the master, copy. It is essential, both to protect the informant and the Archive, that there is an accurate, unedited master transcript which gives a one-to-one guide to what is on the master tape, with which we would not mess). And so on.

Having framed the interview beforehand, creating a kind of empty stage with words along the lines of “What I really want to know is how you came to be and do the things you've done: When were you born, who were your grandparents, what were your parents, what was your schooling, brothers and sisters... basically, everything really. How did you come into all this [implied reference to the core task of the Archive and Study Centre, which has to do with therapeutic community]”, and outlining the procedures above, the interview basically does take care of itself. Define the space, make it safe, open it with your listening, and allow the other person to fill it in their own way. Two different psychiatrists whom I have interviewed have afterwards spoken of it as free association.

This is intentional, and goes back to things I’ve already said. As a folklorist, I am interested in the story, in the way it is told, in the individual as an unmediated-as-possible performance of culture; thinking of James and Heidegger, I am interested in the way that this particular human being expresses that being; as an archivist, I am thinking of the people for whom this body of information is being created: it is not being created primarily for me or my use, but for people many of whom I have never met, many of whom have not been born, who will have questions of us and our times which I can’t even begin to imagine; as a researcher, and as an archivist, therefore, it is as far as possible this individual’s unadulterated self-revealing story in its own logic, language and structure, that I am trying to capture. And this question of standing back, and getting out of the way of someone’s story springs also from the study of the English Dialect Survey, in which awareness of the sensitivity of the interviewer’s unintended not to say unconscious effect led the questionnaire and the collectors to extraordinary lengths to not prejudice the words or the structure or the sounds with which they were spoken - using mime, framing silly-sounding questions such as “What is the name of the creature which goes (sound effect)”.

But there is, of course, more to it than that.

I had the experience more than once, while living and working with disturbed children, of a child who did something atrocious in front of my eyes; but who was so honest and effective in denying it, that even when I had seen it myself I would begin to doubt that I had. Methodologically, one listens, one believes, and one allows the story to unfold in its own way. But at the same time one also stands to one side of one’s belief, in the sense that an actor both is and is not their character, or in the phenomenological sense of having but bracketing the experience. And, one attempts to unobtrusively insert into the interview moments against which the narrative as a whole or details within it can be tested; like test questions thrown into psychology or consumer questionnaires.

One also has to be involved with and asking questions about one’s own listening and belief the whole time. One of the lessons which arose while I was researching “Medieval Theater in Indo-European Context” was a researcher whose will to believe was picked up by a kind and accommodating native informant, and fed. There was no motive apart from a kind of warm generosity. The result was detailed academic publication about a performance tradition which did not in fact exist. One has to step aside from one’s will to believe; one must have an eye to what one wants to be true, or even what one expects to be the case. You therefore go into an interview effectively naked of your own experience, and yet using all of it, and learning about yourself and the person you’re talking to, while listening. I don’t think this is a paradox; I think it is a method.


[Here I played an excerpt from an interview recorded with Mr. R.E. Curtis on November 30, 1994 about his experiences in the desert and as a POW during World War II. The handout included the section of the transcript which was played, and the Copyright and Release form then in use at the Planned Environment Therapy Trust Archive and Study Centre, which I had completed with consultation with Mr. Curtis].