Interviewing people: my research experience

My field experience interviewing people relates best to my field work from last summer in 30 villages of Romania. There are many books on this subject and the way it is done depends on what your study aims at, the type of questions you want to ask, the intended methodology, etc. In my case it was about ranking photos – illustrating different aspect of the landscapes in the villages from Southern Transylvania – according to what people would like to see more of/less of in the future. The ranking was done in a forced normal distribution, according to the Q methodology, in order to find out how and what people appreciate in their landscape. Going through my interviews, I completed a list of things I learned, things to avoid, feed-backs and general recommendation. Supposedly some might be useful to anyone who tries interviewing rural population in Eastern Europe.

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Self-pieces of advice:

  1. Who surveys who? Even when playing the interviewer, interviews are a way of self-introspection all the more when applying an exploratory technique, grounded theory driven, such as the Q method. “By methodologically acknowledging and in fact incorporating the discursive nature of human subject study, Q challenges the researcher by encounter (Robbins and Krueger, 2000)”.
  2. Introduce who you are. Who are you and where do you come from. This might sound especially challenging for the ones who are on a perpetual self-discovering journey, but useful nonetheless. I tried to focus on my identity as a researcher. This might not be enough as I was often asked personal questions during my interviews to which I responded shortly but gladly.
  3. Introduce what you do, especially why you are doing it. Why are you there? Try not to settle for something like “I have to gather data for my PhD” although this is part of the answer. Try to explain that you’re a researcher doing field research although you may lose credibility when explaining that you earn your income by reading and writing. It is always a good idea to have a flyer presenting the project you are currently working on.
  4. If they ask for clarifications, try to be as clear as possible. Don’t get bored. At some point I realized I was not communicating the task they had to fulfil properly and I still wonder how they managed to do it right.
  5. Don’t pretend you know too much. Don’t make the interview seem too official. Of course that it depends on whom you are talking to, but don’t take yourself too seriously.
  6. Clarification questions are often necessary. Use people’s words in clarification questions and avoid misleading them: What do you mean by “…”?, “What does “…” mean to you?”
  7. Respect the time limit you set at the beginning of the interview. If you say that it will only take 20 minutes make sure you ask the most important things within the first 20 minutes. I felt quite guilty when I took too much of my respondents’ time. You may ask at the end of your 20 min. if they would like to continue with some more questions. I noticed that generally they seem more willing to discuss at the end than at the beginning of an interview.
  8. I also liked, where possible, to go by train or local buses or any public means of transport. You already get into the atmosphere and you can think of your interviews on the way.
  9. Be sure you do not agitate your papers, camera and other stuff in front of the recorder. It may seem obvious but it’s not.
  10. Don’t take pictures of people without asking their permission and don’t do it just because they look funny or strange.
  11. Take notes even when you are recording because it helps you remember and understand better what people are saying. Plus it makes people feel what they are saying counts.
  12. If you have ideas for your future codes or nodes (possible emerging themes) write them quickly or record yourself. You will be grateful to yourself afterwards. I recently read that in qualitative research, the analysis starts in the field (Gibbs, 2007).
  13. When a person is not very talkative ask yourself what you can do to help him/her. Start by asking that person to talk about themselves and gradually build towards the subject of interest. I noticed that people in Southern Transylvania find it easy to talk about their main occupation, their life “history”, rather than give their opinion about something. Accept silence as an answer.
  14. Let them lead you. If they want to find out about yourself or give you a tour of their household for example… or show you their new born calf, be happy about it. If the 5 (!) boys of the family you are talking to, want to play some sort of basketball with you and then make a gym competition involving high jumps and semi acrobatic elements and you’re not so sure about the whole thing, you have the right to say no.
  15. You can admire their domestic animals, the general state of their household or their knowledge about a certain topic (if you feel it is true).
  16. There’s a balance between the pleasure of the discussion and the information you want to get from the interviewees.
  17. Enjoy your interviews even when they don’t provide you with any precious information.
  18. Turn off the recorder at some point and enjoy the conversation. Maybe you will not remember the information but you will be left with a strong impression.
  19. Give children candies or Rubik’s cubes if the budget allows. Especially if you’re going into people’s houses be prepared to be beleaguered (laughed at, threw objects at) by children. Something to keep them occupied will always come in handy.
  20. When confronted with situations such as marriage proposals (quite normal within Rroma communities) it is recommended to ignore everything and focus on your questions and getting the answers.  Finding a vanishing point on the horizon line and avoiding eye contact will increase your chances.
  21. When offered food or juice, proceed as your stomach dictates. It’s always good to be sincere.  I tasted cheese, butter, drank innumerous glasses of “socata” (traditional Romanian soft drink made from the flowers of the European Sambucus nigra), ate homemade bread, cakes, etc, etc.
  22. When offered packed food in packages that you are sure will not last more than 5 minutes in one piece do not refuse them just because of that. The wonderful smell invading your rucksack will make you feel you are one of them. Cheese has a powerful smell; honey is sticky (empirically demonstrated). You can say no if you really think you will not like it.
  23. If you unexpectedly enter a room full of 20 men, (Rroma or not) and the door closes behind you with that decisive slamming door effect, don’t start imagining the worst scenarios possible. Keep calm and ask your questions to one of the guys, usually the one who actually wears a shirt (valid from May to September). Adopting a block start position is found not to help although on the spur of the moment you may judge yourself capable of breaking a new world record for 100 m flat.
  24. Remember that they are helping you; you’re not helping them per se, although that is one of your final/side aims.
  25. My main achievement: generally everybody felt well during my interviews and many told me to come back when I can. “Come as a researcher, leave as a friend”.

It is said that you need to make your respondent feel conformable. I don’t know about them, but I felt comfortable enough, and this too has something to do with the success of an interview. Every day I got back from field happier and more filled with positive energy than on the out journey.  Maybe with the exception of that day in Alexandrita where I had to wait 4 hours until I found someone speaking Romanian or when the biggest fly (of my life) went straight down my throat in Crit, or that time when I missed the bus in Agarbiciu and school kids were making fun of me. Still, interviewing people in the villages of Southern Transylvania was one of my most rewarding professional experiences.

Gibbs R. G., 2007. Analysing qualitative data.

Robbins P., Krueger R., 2010. Beyond Bias? The Promise and Limits of Q Method in Human Geography, The Professional Geographer, 52:4, 636-648.

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2 thoughts on “Interviewing people: my research experience

  1. Wonderful reflections, Andra, on your Q-method field work. I agree that it’s always best to aim your questions at the person wearing a shirt! There is good advice there, but I also enjoyed reflecting on my own experiences – how many cups of tea I drank working with Australian graziers (if only I hadn’t been three months pregnant as public toilet facilities were rare)! I always felt privileged to be welcomed into people’s homes, and grateful to be given so much of their time and effort, and enjoy ongoing relationships with some of those folks even today.

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