Payment for Interviews

Basya Petnick's picture

Hello all,

We are a community group currently working on an oral history project in San Francisco that will focus on survivors of human trafficking and prostitution. The question of whether or not the narrators (interviewees) should be paid has arisen. There is no anticipation that anyone else in the project will make a profit from the interviews -- the interviews will be placed in a university or other archive and excerpts posted on the Internet at a site we are currently building. The interviews will not be used for commercial purposes; the clear intentions of the project are to inform and to inspire. Project personnel will be paid nominal fees to plan, conduct, record, and edit the interviews.  

In the course of my more than twenty years of oral history practice there has never been a request for payment to a narrator. Request for payment seems odd to me because the narrator owns the interview until gifted to a project, an archive, a community group, etc., via the legal release. So it doesn't make sense to pay narrators for something they first own and then have freely gifted. In addition to payment being illogical, there is also the possibility that the interviews could become devalued, in the sense of their becoming understood/misunderstood as "testimonies that were paid for"-- or, "they were paid to say that." It seems wrong to me, but I am eager to know how others would think about this.

Best wishes,
Basya Petnick, Oral Historian
Norma Hotaling Legacy and Archive Project
San Francisco, California


I am from Singapore Oral History Centre. In our guidelines, we never pay for any interviews. When payment is involved, there are many factors to consider, especially authenticity. Not only money, we do not give any other gift or reward either. However, in Asia's context, we do not go to visit people empty-handed. Thus our interviewers normally will bring some fruits or inexpensive item as a token for the first visit.

So far, there was only one exceptional case, a Samsui woman (woman who works in construction, early immigrant) brought up that she would like some money for the interview. She was very poor, and time she spent on recording would affect her income. In the end, the interviewer decided to buy her food -- such as rice, fruits, and biscuits -- in return. And the woman was happy for the arrangement.

Similar case for George Town World Heritage Inc. During my training for them last week, a participant raised this question, that quite a number of his interviewees brought up this issue. My suggestion to him was not to give money, but to give some inexpensive items. This is quite acceptable in Asia.

I conducted trainings and kick-started the oral history project for Yunnan Provincial Archives, China. In their case, it is the Chinese culture to give something to the interviewee. For example, a TV interview would pay 1000RMB (for about 1/2 hr) to more than 10000RMB depending on the length of the interview. For Yunnan, they had to pay something. In the end they decided to pay 500RMB as a token for each interviewee, no matter how long the interview. However, this is not mentioned anywhere in the materials related to the interview.

Would like to hear from others.

Hi Basya,

I am new to oral history but have been involved in various university-community social sciences research projects for some time. In the social sciences it is quite common to provide an honorarium to research participants, particularly folks who are vulnerable or marginalized. This can take the form of prepaid credit cards, food or other gift cards, or covering transportation costs associated with their participation. The rationale is that the interviewee has knowledge and expertise, same as other people on the research team, and so should also be paid. Also, participants in social sciences research are very often poor and need the money. And last, it gets a tiny bit at the question of "who benefits" from insider knowledge of experience x -- academic careers and increased access to research funding and policy makers with more intel vs. the folks interviewed.

I'm wondering if your narrators have been asked to participate in (university) research initiatives in the past, or if they regularly see recruitment posters with an honorarium mentioned. In some geographical communities, poor folks are recruited into these types of projects so often that they become "professional participants," and the money they receive from their work is a much-needed supplement to whatever other income they may have.

A last thought related to the particular topic of your project (I'm speaking as a social worker on this one) is that recounting histories of trauma can be really painful work, a risk to "gift" to the larger world that permitted the harm done to you, and for some survivors who regularly tell their story to various audiences in support of a particular cause or organization, it's hard not to become cynical when other people are only interested in you for your trauma story and not for much else (e.g., are not in solidarity with you around your practical and current struggle to make ends meet).

This is all tricky stuff which may or may not relate to the broader context of your project, but is perhaps something to explore with your potential narrators just in case.

Best wishes with your work,

I think your concerns about the testimonies being misrepresented as "testimonies that were paid for" or "they were paid to say that" are valid. Perpetrators and those who disagree will often seize on any excuse to discredit victim testimony.

We all think that paying for interviews will break our budget, and in many cases it violates the grant we work under unless it is a "stipend" to a family member accompanying an interviewee. But think of it from THEIR side: we are all getting a paycheck, selling a book, doing a dissertation, getting volunteer experience, meeting grants requirements, getting fame, etc., and it is all based on THEIR life story. We all get something while the interviewee who owns that story gets nothing in their eyes; except maybe the ability to share a story for posterity. In a sense it is unethical to the profession and disrespectful of the culture (if not the person). For the victims of slavery/trafficking, giving the interview may threaten their life and what do they get out of it? Knowledge that it is in some archive somewhere where a second-generation pirate can come back at them?

Lye Soo's idea of bringing a cultural gift is good. We are supplying DVDs to all the family members of the interviewee (hell, they are only costing us less than 50 cents each) as a token of our appreciation, and we are hosting a cultural day with a potluck and musicians as a form of payback for the unique stories we are trying to preserve in Hispanic Northern New Mexico (we also might be sharing some genealogy sources and an overall history of the area dating back to 1640 historically and 3500 BC prehistorically).