Deep listening and remote interviews with military families

Isabel Campbell

In the midst of the Covid 19 pandemic, blogs, webinars, and posts with expert advice about remote interviewing in oral history have blossomed. For example, three experts at Baylor University in the United States put together a webinar which is available on YouTube.[i] It is particularly aimed at Americans; Canadians will quickly realize that our legal environment is very different, though the webinar includes relevant ethical and technical information. The Oral History Society (of Britain) has also created a helpful web page which begins with “Oral historians have always favoured the face-to-face interview and discouraged remote interviewing.” This piece cautions us about the need for informed consent with signatures, trust building, and concern for the archival quality of the end product. It contains a list of helpful sources.[ii] Graham Smith, an oral history activist, responded to this piece, emphasizing the vital role of oral history in exposing ageism and violations of basic rights to life which are heightened during this crisis.[iii]

The best practices remain the same, but may be more challenging to achieve during a pandemic, while utilizing remote technology. Joy Parr’s ‘”Don’t Speak For Me”: Practicing Oral History amidst the Legacies of Conflict’[iv] was written in 2010, but is especially relevant as it addresses the problems of vulnerable narrators and power relationships based in academic authority which utilizes methodology as a thick barrier. In effect, she asks: Do we have the right to interview traumatized people, and who are we to speak for them?[v]

And yet, I have learned that whole life oral history methodology is a powerful way of allowing people to speak for themselves. Official defence files contain policies and quantitative information about military families; these voluminous records do NOT reveal how military service influenced the lives of countless service and family members from their own perspectives. Further most published works focus upon adult perspectives.[vi]

I’ve performed over ninety oral history interviews with military family members over the past five years. This project grew out of my book Unlikely Diplomats. The Canadian Brigade in West Germany, 1951-1964, as an extra project on top of official duties, utilizing minimal time and resources. The Directorate of History and Heritage provided two digital recorders which I utilize in tandem to ensure duplicate WAV archival quality recordings for every interview. Early on, I learned from the Concordia University Oral History and Digital Story Telling website [vii] and consulted Steven High’s valuable resources on whole life oral history methodology, among others. [viii] These resources provide essential Canadian context helpful for anyone venturing into the sometimes painful territory of whole life oral history.

Convinced of the need for best practices, for building trust in person, and for ensuring the highest quality of recording, I had refused to record remote interviews prior to this crisis, though I had preliminary discussions by telephone, e-mails, and video chats. I assumed, like many, that remote interviewing might inhibit the deep listening and sharing that we seek in face-to-face encounters. Some of my participants, revealed traumatic memories, breaking down in tears, and, at other times, confiding horrific events only when the tape was off. These experiences were deeply exhausting and difficult for the participant and me. I was not confident that any interviews should be done by remote means, and when the pandemic hit, I planned to cancel scheduled in-person meetings.

However, one of my participants insisted upon remote interviews. She had grown up in a military family with a sergeant (other ranks) father and she had married an officer who served in West Germany, in Croatia, in Afghanistan, and other postings in regular (full-time) and militia (part-time) roles. I had previously interviewed her elderly German-born mother (who had survived Canadian bombing of her home town as a child)[ix] and two of her siblings. I first met this participant in July 2019 when she and her siblings travelled from afar to see their elderly mother; we went over permission forms, discussed legal and ethical issues, and the project in detail.[x] And so I was confident that she understood the signed forms she scanned and returned to me.

Now two and half weeks later, we’ve completed eleven remote interviews of approximately one hour a piece. Not only has the technology worked well, but I also solicited and recorded the woman’s own views about this method during the last interview. She emphatically preferred remote interviews and was glad that she did not have to consider my facial reactions and my body language. Further, she revealed (during the interviews and during this specific discussion) that she had trained all her life for communicating remotely. Even before marriage, she and her spouse carried on an intimate relationship by telephone and she regarded the telephone as a desirable means of communicating. In fact, her marriage had broken down in the irritating daily rub of living together, rather than during the tender ache of physical absences.

Most military spouses and children have experienced remote communication with loved ones over time. Not all those interviewed have been enthusiastic about it.[xi] Many civilians too have supported distant relationships, utilizing technology to overcome spatial separation.[xii] Moreover, the younger generation have grown up using  technology to communicate with each other, family, friends, partners, and colleagues and nearly all them are more comfortable with remote communications than many older academics might assume.

A part of sharing our authority with participants is being sensitive to their particular experiences and perceptions. And so, I’ve altered my view of best practices. The best practice is deep listening and learning from the participant. And, in this case, remote interviewing was a very good solution, but it might not be so in all cases. Oral historians must remain alert to their participant and judge each case on its own merits.

Isabel Campbell, Directorate of History and Heritage,National Defence Headquarters. This piece represents her views as a historian, and not those of her employer.


[i] For the webinar, see:

[ii] For this webpage see:

[iii] For his blog, see:

[iv] Joy Parr, ‘“Don’t Speak For Me”: Practicing Oral History amidst the Legacies of Conflict,’ Journal of the Canadian Historical Association, vol. 21, no. 1 (2010).

[v] This is an over-simplified paraphrase of complex arguments. Read the article for a more nuanced understanding of these issues.

[vi]  For feminist activist contributions see: Cynthia Enloe, Does Khaki Become You? The Militarization of Women’s Lives (London: Harper Collins, 1988); The Morning After Sexual Politics at the End of the Cold War, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993); Deborah Harrison and Lucie Laliberté, “Gender, the Military, and Military Family Support,” in Laurie Wienstein and Christie C. White, Wives and Warriors. Women in the Military in the United States and Canada (Westport, Conn.: Bergen and Garvey, 1997) 35-37, and Deborah Harrison and Patricia Albanese, Growing Up in Armyville. Canada’s Military Families during the Afghanistan Mission, (Waterloo: Wilfred Laurier University Press, 2016).

[vii]  For this website see:

[viii] He co-edited (with Ted Little and Thi Ry Duong), Remembering Mass Violence (UTP, 2013), edited Beyond Testimony and Trauma (UBC, 2015), and authored Oral History at the Crossroads (UBC, 2014) among other works.

[ix] There is a whole separate piece to write about the ethical and linguistic concerns I faced when interviewing the elderly mother. There is a large and contentious literature about the Second World War bombing campaign, but very few records which reveal the perspective of German children who survived the bombing.

[x] Their visit took place just a few hours after I had learned that my own mother had passed away during the night. Because they had travelled so far and it took so long to coordinate their visit, and with the paperwork and discussion carefully prepared, I did not postpone that in-person meeting. Instead, I spent the entire morning with them, not mentioning my own situation. Oral history interviews often take part in the midst of the chaos of life. The situations can be painful and demanding on both sides of the interview.

[xi] One daughter revealed her mother’s tears during weekly ham radio sessions when her father served in Alert. “Deconstructing a Canadian military family. The Taylor mother and son remember the Cold War” in Children, Youth, and War, edited by Kristine Alexander, Andrew Burtch, and Barbara Lorenzkowski, Montreal and Kingston: MQUP, (in process)

[xii] In writing this piece, I realized that I had forgotten that when my husband and I had worked thousands of miles apart for two years, our telephone bills were higher than our rent and food bills. In the painful throes of missing each other, it was as though the phone was hardly there.

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