The Art of Interviewing

I have been conducting interviews with beekeepers and gardeners over the past few weeks in order to get a sense of what their thoughts and opinions are on bees and bee-friendly plants, as well as what a garden means to them.

It has been interesting to learn more about the interviewing process which, in this discipline, is centered around putting as little as possible of yourself into the dialogue. It involves giving someone a topic and letting them run away with it whilst making sure they stay somewhat on point and do not stray too far. It is a fine balancing act between getting them to talk about the issues you are investigating in depth, without constraining them so that they may miss talking about something that may seem irrelevant, but turns out to be key. It is a skill, I can tell, that takes years to master.

I have been fortunate enough to interview some extremely interesting people; from those who have spent years teaching in universities and researching conservation, to people engaged in long term observation of honey bees, to craftspeople, ornamental rose gardeners, and permaculturists. It is clear to me that there is a diversity of opinions on bees and the engagement people have with bee-friendly plants, but even a skimming of the data so far collected suggests some common themes are cropping up. Furthermore, every single interview I have conducted has resulted in fascinating stories and unique points of view, something that has been inspiring in showing me the value of listening. When you force yourself to shut up and just listen to someone you learn more, I would conjecture, than when you talk yourself. It is, however, not so easy to implement this strategy outside of the interviews.

Some points on interviewing technique:

– Learning how to ask questions has been interesting. The ‘probe’ is a means by which you get someone to elaborate further on a point when they stop talking. The ‘uh-huh’ probe is used when you continue to say uh-huh at regular intervals to show you are listening. Matarazzo (1964) found that when the interviewer purposefully introduced a chunk of affirmative uh-huh noises the responses from informants were around 30% longer than without the probe.

– I have had particular use for the ‘Grand tour question’ in which you ask a broad overarching question like; ‘tell me about what a bee is, how you first learned about bees, where you hear about them and engage with them etc etc…’ this broad question gives the informant scope to give more of a response and so more information can be collected.

– Avoiding leading questions is generally accepted as good practice but at times specific information can only be elicited by precise questioning. In these situations it is better, of course, to ask something like ‘what do you think…?’ rather than ‘Don’t you think that…?’. Small nuances like this can make the difference between good information collection and terrible data collection that is entirely biased. In interviews, therefore, you have to be constantly mindful of your thoughts, words, and actions, and how they may convey to the informant while at the same time be trying to take in all the verbal and non-verbal information that is being presented to you.

– The ‘silent probe’ is by FAR the hardest thing I am trying to learn. By this, you simply remain silent and allow an informant to take the time to think through what they want to say. I rapidly become excruciatingly uncomfortable after just 5 seconds or so if someone stops talking and constantly find myself coming up with a question for them rather than let the ever increasingly awkward silence  continue. This is a skill that takes time to develop, especially in England where silence in conversations is not acceptable. Of course it is not necessary to do this all the time but even just once in an hour is difficult, I challenge you to attempt it next time you talk to someone in a semi-formal setting.

As the interviews continue I find myself gaining a rhythm which is healthy, but the need to continually assess my own words as well as what the informants tell is, I know, the most important aspect of my research if I am going to gain good quality information that is tainted only a little by my own opinions.

References:

Bernard, H. (2006). Research Methods in Anthropology: Qualitative and Quantitative Approaches, Altamira Press.

Matarazzo, J. (1964). Interviewer mm-humm and interviewee speech duration. Psychotherapy Theory, Research and Practice, 1, 109-114.

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