TIPS FOR RESEARCH INTERVIEWS

Dans l'intérêt général, je reproduis ci-dessous deux textes inclus dans un message envoyé par le professeur Rex Brynen.

Ian S. Spears, « Tips for Research Interviews »,
et
Marie-Joelle Zahar, « Tips for Research Interviews »,
dans Rex Brynen, « Handy interview tips from Ian and Joelle »,
message envoyé à poligrad@vm1.mcgill.ca
8 octobre 1997
reproduit par François-Pierre Gingras,
http://aix1.uottawa.ca/~fgingras/doc/interviews.html
14 octobre 1997

Tips for Research Interviews
By Ian S. Spears
Tips for Research Interviews
By Marie-Joelle Zahar

Date sent: Wed, 8 Oct 1997 14:02:09 -0500
To: poligrad@vm1.mcgill.ca
From: Rex Brynen <cyr6@MUSICA.MCGILL.CA>
Subject: handy interview tips from Ian and Joelle
Copies to: ian.spears@sympatico.ca, ICASNET <ICASNET@vm1.mcgill.ca>, polcan@sfu.ca

During the summer, one of my hard-working PhD students, Ian Spears, wrote up a number of tips on doing field research interviews based on his experience in Ethiopia (he is now off to Angola). That prompted the equally hard-working Joelle Zahar (wise in the tangled ways of Lebanese research, and eventually off to Bosnia) to do the same.

I'm posting both sets of comments here. Although they don't always agree (nor do I always agree with them), I thought that McGill POLIGRAD subscribers--as well as graduate students on the POLCAN and ICASNET lists--might find these reflections useful in their own research.

Rex Brynen
Department of Political Science, McGill University
cyr6@musica.mcgill.ca


Tips for Research Interviews
By Ian S. Spears

Interviewing can be an extremely useful method of gathering information which is not otherwise available to a researcher. In my experience most potential interviewees are forthcoming and eager to assist in the research of a graduate student. But interviewing is a difficult skill which, like your research subject, takes time to master (be assured that I have already committed most of the faux pas discussed below). What follows are a series of tips which I have found to be useful in conducting my dissertation research. Most of these tips involve common sense while others may come as a surprise. Good luck.

* Be prepared. Familiarize yourself with the material in the public domain before the interview takes place.

* Have a logical sequence of questions prepared in advance. Be familiar with those questions so that one does not break the flow of the interview by having to read from a paper all the time.

* Taping using micro-cassettes is unobtrusive and are usually preferable to interviews where only notes are taken. Taping provides the most accurate reflection of your subject's comments which can then be used in the final product of your research. While most subjects are willing to be taped (some even prefer it if it means they will be quoted accurately), permission must be acquired before the interview takes place. Note taking can still, however, be an important way to gather information when taping is unwelcome or unavailable. Particularly if one is short on time, note taking is an effective way of separating the wheat from the chat at the time of the interview and avoiding having to go through the lengthy process of transcribing an entire interview from a tape later on.

* Determine what the interviewee's expertise is beforehand and prepare yourself accordingly. Avoid wasting your time and their time asking general questions which anybody can answer with further generalizations (although one or two general questions can be a good way of easing into an interview and making both you and the interviewee feel comfortable). If you do not have the good fortune of knowing what specific role a person had in political events, with discretion attempt to determine this early in the interview so that you can direct questions to their area of expertise (to your surprise, you may unwittingly find that your man-in-the-street has played a key role in events which are important to your research).

* Often an interviewee will be uncertain of your own background knowledge and will provide a lengthy, but general, rehash of events. While this can be useful, long-winded generalized histories or other such statements may not be what you are looking for and may cut into valuable (and often limited) interview time. Do not be afraid to - politely - direct your interviewee's attention to more direct or specific questions or issues before too much time is wasted.

* With the above caveat in mind, avoid interrupting the interviewee. Allow the interviewee to state his or her answer in full before asking another question. Uninterrupted statements make better copy!

* Try to have a pre-set time limit of not more than one hour -- and keep an eye on your watch. Busy people are reluctant to give up much more time than this and you may be overstaying your welcome if you push further. Lengthy interviews are also time-consuming to transcribe. If more time is required, ask the interviewee if another interview can be arranged for a later date. Having a second interview (rather than one long interview) will also allow you time to digest material of the first meeting and give you the opportunity to come back with sharper and more penetrating questions or unexplained issues which arose previously.

* Interview one person at a time. Sorting out who said what is difficult if there are several voices on a tape.

* Be aware that there are numerous perspectives on any one situation or event. Comparing and contrasting these perspectives can be a useful and often necessary aspect of your research. Consequently, for a complete picture, be sure to carry out interviews with as many people as possible who represent these differing perspectives. Without challenging the integrity of your interviewee, one might also want to raise these alternative views with your subject.

* Try to find interview locations which are quiet. While the location should be at the interviewee's discretion, offices are preferable to noisy cafes or other busy meeting places (although the interviewee may prefer the latter). Any background noise can be a nuisance when attempting to transcribe interviews from a tape and may even obscure key words.

* Even if you are taping the interview, be sure to take notes. Accidental tape erasing can occur and your notes may also be of assistance when transcribing interviews afterward.

* Having the interviewee build a history by giving his or her interpretation of events chronologically is a useful method of interviewing. The interviewer should have a good grasp of these events before hand so that he/she can move the narrative along. The detail or personal experiences provided by the interviewee can then enrich the account you already know.

* If you are free to quote your interviewee but do not have access to a hand-held tape recorder, use quotations marks around specific words used by your subject while taking notes. This allows you use these words later and thus better approximate the subjects meaning in your own writing even if you cannot quote them at length (although, again, permission to quote your subject is a necessity).

* Be sure of the time and location of the interview and arrive on time. Double check; in some African countries the first hour of the day begins at sunrise (6am -- meaning that three o'clock is actually 9am). A lack of familiarity in this respect can be embarrassing and appear unprofessional.

* Be prepared for cancellations or no-shows - which are inevitable. Another interview can usually be rescheduled and flexibility on your part is often appreciated by interviewees.

* If the interview is being taped, come prepared with several cassettes and replacement batteries. If taking notes, be sure that you have several working pens and sufficient paper. Check these items to ensure they are functioning and ready to use before the interview begins.

* Clarify before and again afterward the conditions of the interview (ie quotations etc). This can change in the course of an interview. If the interview is being taped, this must be cleared before hand.

* Transcribe your notes as soon as possible after the interview - especially if the interview is hand-written rather than taped. Often important insights or understandings are lost in the interim between interview and transcription. Even rereading and notating in the minutes immediately after the interview can be helpful later on in interpreting what may be scrawl-like notes taken during the interview.

* Be sure to smile and make your interviewee feel at ease. Informing your interviewee of the nature of the research you are conducting is a good way to do this. Be sure to thank the interviewee for his or her assistance. Politeness and a thank-you afterward can have invaluable payoffs later on.

* Exploit potential resources that are close to home. Members of a diaspora are often within your own city. They may save you an expensive research trip or they may be important in preparing you for one in the future by allowing you to ask preliminary questions. These individuals can also lead you to other more informed people or, if you are planning a research trip, they can put you in touch with individuals there.

* Do not miss an opportunity to inquire about others whom your subject might think could be of assistance to your research. Once this process begins, one or two interviews often leads to an exponential number of additional sources who are willing to help


Tips for Research Interviews
By Marie-Joelle Zahar

Getting an Interview: First contact--A crucial step, it may to a large extent determine the end-result of your efforts. If talking to the potential interviewee, sound prepared and knowledgeable. Be specific about the topics you want to tackle. A good hint is to have read all important interviews the person has granted to the media on the same topic. If trying to obtain the interview through an assistant, better not to talk to them on the phone--you are less likely to make a lasting impression and your request may go under a pile of other things. Go to the interviewee's office, have all supporting documents ready, bring a list of tentative questions along (you may or may not need to hand them over to the assistant). Do this as early on as possible, many interviewees may have a very busy schedule and setting the interview may take up to a couple of weeks.

Letter of Introduction--Of foremost importance, this is the document that will vouch for you. It confirms your status as a graduate student/researcher rather than a snoopy journalist (a species politicians and others often distrust and dislike). It officializes your efforts to obtain the interview and may tip the balance in favor of a yes. The letter should clearly state who you are, your institutional affiliation, and in "broader" terms the topic of your research (you may want to be vague about the particulars of your research, sometimes a given perspective may "offend" or "bother" interviewees and make them reluctant to talk to you).

Follow up--If you do not hear back from a potential interviewee, you must try again. Don't besiege the person with phone calls (even though you might be in the country for a couple weeks only and want your interview desperately). This will in all likelihood have an adverse effect. Let a couple days (4-5) go by and then call again (a good pretext may be that you do not have an answering service and are concerned to have missed the return call of the interviewee). Persistence does pay off in certain situations. In others, the lack of an answer may be a "polite" way to turn down your request. In such cases, it is better not to insist.

Miscellaneous--Do not limit yourself to a pre-set number of interviewees. Have back-up lists ready. It is always better to have more interviews than less. It is also good to interview people with contrasting opinions. Select your interviewees so that you do not get the same information over and over again (people from different or rival organizations, or even people at different levels in the same organization). Do not plan to carry out the interviews during peak periods (emergency/tense situations and holidays are a bad idea). The summer and other similar low-key periods are often more suitable. Early summer is often better than mid-summer when you run the risk that people might have gone on vacation. For state officials and other key personalities, start your contacts from Canada to ensure that they are not on official business abroad when you visit.

Carrying the Interview:

Technical issues--There are a number of technical issues to think about to ensure that your interview will be as fruitful as possible.

** The first is securing a quiet location where your conversation will not be troubled by interruptions and background noise. This also implies good timing. Ideally, you want to carry out the interview when your interlocutor is not too tired and when his/her concentration (and yours) is at its best. Try to secure interviews early on during the day or toward late afternoon. Nothing is more distracting than phone calls and secretaries incessantly disrupting the conduct of the interview.

** Tape recorders are often useful but they might also be a hindrance if the interviewee is concerned that his/her words might be used for other purposes (opposition leaders tend to be particularly paranoid in this respect). Often, interviewees will make long general statements when being taped and they only relax after the tape recorder has been turned off. This is when they are likely to give you interesting inside information. If so, do not turn the tape recorder on again. Try to take notes or memorize the information. You will have to transcribe this part as soon as the interview is over.

** Note-taking is another means of recording the facts of a conversation. This requires speed and a lot of concentration on your part. You must be able to take down the answers of your interlocutor as literally as possible without however interrupting their thought and asking them to repeat something they had said a little earlier. You must also be able to reflect on the answers to modify, if need be, the next question. If falling behind in your note-taking, it is often better to ask the same question in a slightly different guise or to restate the opinion of the interviewee (If I understand you well, ...) This permits you to appear as if you are seeking confirmation rather than as another slow writer who just can't keep up. different guise or to restate the opinion of the interviewee (If I understand you well, ...) This permits you to appear as if you are seeking confirmation rather than as another slow writer who just can't keep up.

** Language is the essence of communication, if you do not possess the qualifications to carry out the interview in the native language of your interlocutor you may want to bring a translator along. If your interviewee is fluent in another language that you speak (english, spanish, or french are usually quite common in former colonies) make sure that they agree to hold the interview in that language (this has to be done in advance of the actual interview). If your interviewee goes back and forth between a couple languages (something most interviewees did to me) and you are having difficulties to follow, do not hesitate to politely mention this and seek clarifications on the words/sentences that you did not fully grasp.

Format--This deals with the substantive contents of the interview.

** Background--Typically, an interview will start with some historical background. This is a tricky part, as the interviewee does not necessarily know the extent of your knowledge of the topic at hand. Also, interviewees may feel that your knowledge is only partial because you did not live the events and know of things only second hand. It is therefore up to you to make the best out of this historical overview. You could try to steer your questions so as to get the interviewee's personal account of the history, retracing his/her involvement in the events you want to know about. acing his/her involvement in the events you want to know about.

** Formulating the questions--If you are interviewing a number of persons about the same topic, it would be interesting to compare and contrast their answers. To this effect, you may want to come up with some "generic" questions that will allow you to determine with more accuracy the perspective of your interviewee. However, you must also try to take advantage of each person's particular knowledge by asking them more specific questions tailored to suit their profile and experience. If you are unsure about the role a person has played, the first part of the interview may provide you with some guidance. Think about your questions well in advance and make sure they follow some sort of logical progression (from earlier date events to later ones for example). Do not hesitate to digress if your interviewee brings up interesting issues in his/her answer. This is often the surest route to get information you had not counted on. Writing down your questions will also ensure that the digressions will not distract you from your original concerns. erns.

** Leading the interviewee along--Although you want to respect your interviewee's view of events, it is often useful to suggest counterpoints and/or alternative explanations of an event. People are sometimes reluctant to offer more than half-truths and they need a little prodding if more complete answers are to be gathered. How you introduce alternative viewpoints and additional elements of information will largely depend on the attitude of the interviewee. If he/she is quite reluctant, make sure you present the information as the analysis of someone else (you do not want to make them even less comfortable by conveying the impression that you might disagree personally with their interpretation of events). ysis of someone else (you do not want to make them even less comfortable by conveying the impression that you might disagree personally with their interpretation of events).

** Is it better to have one long interview or two shorter ones? Here, opinions differ. Some interviewees have expressly set a time limit to the interviews I carried out with them. In such a case, I tended to respect their busy schedules. However, if the interviewee did not specify a time-limit and if he/she was being quite talkative and helpful, I would let them go as long as they wanted and took my cue from them as to when the interview was nearing its end (there is no guarantee they will have the same positive attitude the next time around; in some cases, there is no guarantee you will be able to get another interview so why not take advantage of it while it lasts...).

Post-Scriptum--What do you do after an interview is over?

It is always useful to maintain contact with interviewees. You may want to leave a contact address (your business card) and ask for a phone/fax number if the person volunteers further assistance. Interviewees have sometimes asked me for a copy of the completed research and you might actually send it to some (who you send your work to will depend on further considerations). If you feel that you need a follow up conversation with the same person, mention this eventuality at the end of the interview while warmly thanking him/her for their time and trust. It is also important not to chat about the interview with people you do not know well enough (other hotel customers, people you have met at your embassy, NGO people, etc...). The last thing you want is to find that information which can be traced back to your interview has filtered to some newspaper or other media and that you have become a persona non grata.




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Rex Brynen
Associate Professor Department of Political Science
McGill University 855 Sherbrooke Street West
phone: (514) 398-5075 (office)
Montreal (Quebec) H3A 2T7
fax: (514) 695-5474 (home)

email: cyr6@musica.mcgill.ca
homepage: http://www.arts.mcgill.ca/programs/polisci/faculty/rexb.html
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