The Art of Interviewing
Professor Emma Crewe | SOAS
When doing fieldwork it can be assumed that every individual is different in some respects (e.g., individual history, identity, experience) but shares traits in common with other people in other respects (e.g., gender, social position, values, profession, nationality, ethnicity etc). People are always in more than one group (e.g., politicians are male or female, from different regions or professions, age or young etc) so it can never be assumed that two people in the same group will think or behave in the same way. Even if party members are indoctrinated this never works perfectly – people always innovate, and see the world differently, even if only slightly. For this reason it is always worth interviewing or observing a range of people even within one group and it is important to interview enough of them to make sure your generalisations are valid.
Trying to find out about what goes on in an organisation or community is like trying to piece together a jigsaw puzzle when each piece represents a person and you don’t have time to look at every single piece in detail. You need to talk to as many ‘pieces’ as possible – some look like sky, others a boat, maybe another one is part of a tree – and ask them how their world looks from their viewpoint. Some informants can only see their own piece or maybe the nearby pieces, but a few can even see the whole jigsaw puzzle because they have been there a long time or they are very observant and reflective. So just because a woman in one part of the puzzle says it is easy to be a woman politician doesn’t mean it is true for the others in other parts.
You know when you have talked to the right people, and enough people, and considered enough other sources (documents, observing them, media reports, what others say etc) because you feel you have a good sense of the overall puzzle and a really clear picture of the parts you are interested in. Some parts could be slightly hazy (other researchers can go there later) but the areas we are interested must show exactly what is going on from different viewpoints. When you talk to people about their experience and views you are not getting ‘information’, you are getting their specific interpretation which will always be unique to them in some ways and similar to others in other ways.
What is a good question? Questions by researchers should never give away the answer you are expecting (leading question), so should be as neutral sounding as possible followed up with further questions depending on what they say. For example:
Good neutral question: do you have direct or indirect contact your constituents? If they say yes, then… what kind of contact? etc
Poor leading question: do you find out about the needs of your constituents by holding meetings or what do you do?
If you ask opinion type questions that can be answered with a yes or no, then you will get less out of them. So make it an open question if asking for their opinion. Or if you do ask a closed question then be ready to ask another to probe further. For example to a constituent:
Closed question: Is your MP good at consultation?
Open question: What is your MP’s track record at consultation?
If it is possible to ask the question is an open-minded way, then the informant has more choice and is more likely to answer with their own ideas, in their own way and words/phrases, rather than responding to the researchers’ agenda and words.
Questions should respond to the specific informant. For example, Mr Abraham of the Women’s Association was smart and honest – so we were able to ask him sophisticated questions, requiring complex reflection. In contrast, Ms Medhanye was defensive, did not speak English as well and was determined to say what she wanted to say, speaking in slogans and idealised ways as politicians do. So she needed very detailed and specific questions.
Making a connection with different informants can be done in different ways and should take into account the type of person as well as their culture/political context. By revealing something about you as the researcher, so they can see what kind of person you are, means they are more likely to trust you. You can also notice particular things about them and ask about them in particular to find out about how they are different from others but also to reveal to them that you recognise that they are ‘special’. Everyone is special in some way or other, even if it is not always very pleasing! Even party members like to be recognised for their individuality as well as they contribution to their group.
A skilled interviewer thinks on their feet (or uses ‘practical judgement’ in philosopher John Dewey’s phrase). They should be continually thinking about what is going on in the interview and adjusting their questions according to the specific situation:
- Why did the informant say that?
- When something sounds odd, you might wonder, Is he nervous of being questioned? Is she trying to impress? Or is she distorting the truth or even lying? Why?
- Why is their view similar or different from the last informant?
- What else can I ask about that to probe more fully? (Sometimes saying, “Could you tell me more details?” “Could you give me an example?” “Why was that?” “How did that happen?” is enough). “Why?” is often very useful.
- What question can I ask to stimulate their curiosity, get them away from vague answers?
- If they are talking too long about matters that are not interesting to our project, what statement or question can I use to get them to a more relevant topic in a polite way?
- What can I say to establish trust and get more candour & honesty?
- Am I giving them enough space to talk about what they think is important (within the limits of my research questions and objectives)? Don’t forget to say, “Do you have anything else to add?”
- Am I leading them to say things? Am I judging too much? Am I revealing my biases and prejudices?
- Sometimes you can even comment on what they are say to show you are noticing things, “I found it fascinating that you said x because that is different from others. Can you tell me why that might be?” Or “I sense you would rather not talk about that, is that true?” Or “Gosh, that must be complicated to deal with. How do you handle it?” (Note a bit of flattery too – people love to feel appreciated!)
- What can I say about myself to put them at their ease that doesn’t waste time but shows that I am also a human being with pressures, emotions and interests.
Finally there are limits to interviewing. Individuals can say things that are trying to impress you, cover up their inadequacies or mistakes, or any number of other reasons for giving you partial or distorted answer. Sometimes FDGs can be useful in the sense of allowing individuals to act a check on each other. However, FGDs can be constraining too – some people are shy, don’t want to reveal things in front of colleagues, can be dominated by more powerful people. Noticing the constraints, writing about them in the fieldnotes and then taking these factors into account when you publish your findings all helps with rigour. So does cross-checking or ‘triangulating’ by using others methods like analysis of texts and images, observation and repeat interviews.