On Nurturing And Curating Our Cultural Sources

CULTURAL INTERVIEW AND FIELD TECHNIQUES

Richard Schrader

 

As a research tool, the interview can be a master-key for unlocking the past of Virgin Islands folk life. Nothing beats a warm, flesh and blood discourse of the bygone days, before most of the culture was stripped from the bones of our people. But whether or not the doors of what is left of our native culture are opened to us, largely depends on the way in which we conduct our interview. The interviewer should always try to obtain certain basic information such as the age of the interviewee, place of birth, childhood experiences and other related information. However, there is no one set of questions that will fit every occasion. The interview should never take on the appearance of an interrogation, but rather a warm, friendly, homey drawing of information from the springs of history and culture. The interviewer should never try to sit in the driver's seat. He or she should merely act as a guide on the ride back into time.

The tape recorder is preferred over paper and pencil. It is quite difficult to sense the gut feeling of the interviewee about a particular matter or even share in a good belly laugh while the eyes are glued to a sheet of paper and with a pencil darting from line to line. In trying to capture every word you may lose the message. The more the interviewee feels that you have connected to his/her story the greater the flow of information will be.

The interviewer must always be on guard for signs of irritation or annoyance shown by the interviewee. One day while talking with a 94 year old man, after an hour into the interview when I asked "How old are you?" "Da noh foh yoh business," he replied. "Sorry," I said, "Meh noh been mean foh mash yoh corn." I then shifted the subject and our conversation continued as before in an amicable manner. I had known the interviewee from childhood and he had known my parents. Naturally this relationship contributed to the success of the interview.

The interviewer must be a good listener. Let the interviewee talk. Sometimes one may not receive the answers to the questions asked. But the answer given could open up the conversation to another area of interest. For example, if Mr. "Bee Brown," when asked about his job driving Massa Wowie's phaeton or about his experiences as the only man in a woman sugarcane gang, breaks into a jumbie story, don't say, "We are talking about A nor D." Don't pull the reins. Nudge him/her on! The discovery might be greater than you think.

Another means of recording information is by taking mental notes of what is being said. It is sometimes inappropriate to take out a tape recorder or pencil and paper. The mental notes could be used when you unexpectedly come across a cultural source that should not be passed up. However, the information should be written down at the earliest opportunity.

During the past five years I have interviewed approximately 40 persons over the age of 60; ten were 80 years or older.

 

QUESTIONS:

1. At the outset is Mr. Schraeder more concerned about objectivity in data gathering or a solid rapport with the informant?

2. Is the best interview conducted like an interrogation?

3. "Back seat" driving is often discouraged. What is good about it in the present context?

4. Explain the advantage of the tape recorder over the pen or pencil and pad.

5. How does one show he has connected to the interviewee and the story he is telling?

6. According to the author, does it really matter that the person being interviewed is as old as the interviewer's parents?

7. What does Mr. Schrader offer as a possible justification for allowing the interviewee to digress freely?

8. Are there times when just listening without the recorder or pencil and paper can be justified?

 

From the outset we have maintained that Virgin Islands Culture--especially its folk culture--has to be studied within its historical framework. The unpublished documentation on aspects of Virgin Islands folk culture could fill volumes. Instead, the bulk of this material occupies the stacks of the Royal Archives in Copenhagen, and is in general handwritten in Danish in an evolving Gothic script. Mr. Gerard Emmanuel discusses these challenges to Virgin Islands cultural researchers and to our leaders and decision makers.
 

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