In-Depth, Open-Ended Interviewing (Essential Ethnographic Methods – SSL)

In-depth interviewing, particularly when performed in an open-ended fashion, aids researchers to expand exploratory studies – identifying new domains, organizing and breaking down existing domains into subcategories and components, building rapport and trust with interviewees, and seeing how contextual and historical information plays a part in the lives of interviewees.

Many folks go interviewing thinking it to be easy, but it is a careful balance of active listening, facilitation, probing for key information, seeking elaboration, and getting the interviewee to make needed connections explicit.

To begin interviewing, there is a bit of work to be done prior to interviewing – revisiting problem statements and purposes of the study, evaluating hypotheses and developing general questions for use out of these ideas, making the needed arrangements to meet the interviewee, and double-triple checking that recording devices are charged, reliable, and functioning at an interpretable level (volume, distortion, etc.)

While asking questions may get you answers, you will certainly require elaborations on some interviewees responses. Good probes (“neutral questions that encourages the interviewee to think more deeply, clearly, or broadly about an issue” – SSL 1999, 126) can range from using hmms and neutral noises, to repeating the statement given by the interviewee, to asking for explicit clarification about statements offered (“Can you tell me a little more about that?” Or, “You said earlier that… how does this relate to this?”), to asking for an opinion on a related subject, and asking for clarification of jargon or assumed norm used.

When beginning an unstructured interview, one should consider the following steps:
(1) Introducing yourself, the project, and any organizations sponsoring it – say, your University!
(2) Go over confidentiality and privacy measures with the interviewee. How will you keep them safe?
(3) Let interviewees know why their opinions are important, and why you’ve chosen them to inform the project.
(4) Ask permission to record interviews by tape-recording and in writing.
(5) Begin the interview with small talk – how they are doing, how their day went, etc.

It is important to keep in mind that “the apparent looseness of the open-ended interview is deceptive; a good ethnographer does extensive preparation for such data collection and has developed a set of general question to guide the interview prior to beginning” (SSL 1999, 135). We do this by helping interviewees return or clarify unclear areas of discussion, asking for lists of things that frame a domain, and ask for stories, narratives, and experiences that illuminate the arena of study.

Some things NOT to do is to assume jargon to be translated easily into your own frame, to finish your interviewee’s sentences, assuming a collection of things meant by stuff or junk, asking questions in a way that confuses or upsets interviewees, or prematurely determining sequences, patterns, and episodes of your interviewee’s experience. Also, avoid offering opinions, judgements, or own biases- even if its difficult not to. Lastly, be considerate of the interviewee – if they’re trying to offer you something, take it (unless dietary – kx says OR MORAL – restrictions prohibit it), and be aware of the physical/emotional/etc. condition of your participant.


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