CASE STUDY Conducting a life history interview: Czech business élite (Andrle, 2001)
Conducting a life history interview: Czech business elite
While all sixty-seven respondents were asked to describe what had changed and what had not in their own experience since 1989, fifty-two interviews had a clear life-story format. I started these interviews by asking the respondents to take a few minutes to write down on a time line the years in which events occurred ‘that have had a special significance in your life, for whatever reason’. Then I asked them to explain why they selected those years, and to describe in detail what had happened.
The briefing also invited the interviewees to describe their own experiences in preference to stating general opinions; and it outlined, with a repeated emphasis on procedures safeguarding anonymity, my plans for using the recordings.
My strategy in the opening part of each interview was to encourage the respondent in finding his or her own narrative voice and story line, if such encouragement was needed. When the life story got to the present time, I had a list of questions to ask about developments since 1989, if they were not already answered. The typical interview lasted one hour, but the overall sample ranged from half an hour to over four hours.
Although the interviewees had a free hand in constructing the life stories they told, they were also constrained by the interview frame that was already in place as a result of the telephone conversation in which I had approached them and got their agreement to be interviewed. They knew that I was a British sociologist, but also a native Czech who had emigrated; that I wanted to write about Czech society for anglophone readership; and that I approached them because they had been powerful executives under the Communist regime, or dissidents, or because they currently owned a business, or because they were neither politicians nor businessmen – because they had a social identity that defined a certain kind of participant in the revolutionary change. I was interested in the revolution – its social realities and personal adaptations – and I would never have been able to ask them for any interview had the revolution not occurred, for the Iron Curtain would still have been in place. Long before an interviewee uttered the opening statement of her or his life story, the interview frame put a political dimension into it. It in effect required the interviewee to tell his or her story in a way which defined a morally defensible position vis-à-vis the dominant public discourse of revolution, in which the great history’s break with the past threatened to stigmatise one or another aspect of one’s personal tale.