In ethnographic research, one of the most important sources of information is the interview. Every researcher’s dream is an ideal interview, where the interlocutor is engaging, revealing a world view that not only changes and augments the scope of your research, but also of the field. And despite the daunting task of transcription afterwards, that interview is worth it. But, hold up, this project changing phenomenon can only occur if you get that interview in the first place…which is easier said than done.
Over the last three years, I have been involved in several research projects, two of my own and one for a professor. For each project, the experience of rustling up participants, nailing down a date for an interview or meeting, and everything actually going as planned (hardly ever), are odds even George Clooney in Ocean’s Eleven wouldn’t test. Despite this slightly over dramatized version of my past experiences, I have found two tried and true methods to put to use. One speaks to connecting with people to interview and creating a network of interlocutors. The second method focuses on how to ask interlocutors in your network for an interview.
First, you’ll never get the interview unless “you try”. It sounds so very obvious. If you don’t ask interviewees for their time and information, you will be interviewee-less…but let’s unpack. During the second semester of my master’s degree studies, I was enrolled in a qualitative methods course. The assignments consisted of five different qualitative methodologies, three of which were interview based. The ideal scenario would be that all the five assignments would be on the same topic. My research ended up being about three: a yoga studio’s community involvement, study abroad experiences, and neighborhood foot traffic. Perhaps not the best set up for a comprehensive interlocutor network. Moreover, I was not allowed to interview friends or my host family, in an effort to expand my research and research skills. With those rules in mind, I started speaking to the people I knew, asking friends and coworkers for advice on who to reach out to for interviews. When that yielded only a few people, I talked to the instructors at my yoga studio to reach out to the yoga community for me. I felt as if I had cheated, by hiding behind a listserv to make my interview requests for me. In my mind, I thought I should follow a linear logic often taught to undergrads regarding how to find interlocutors. If you are researching a yoga studio’s community involvement, then, you should go to the yoga studio to find and directly ask and speak to interlocutors, then maybe also visit the gym or local recreation center. But linear logic does not account for the context of where research is being held and the networks a researcher may already have. In my case, yoga is a huge phenomenon in DC (where I live), and I am sure I could have found participants all over the place. Instead, I scraped by with a bare set of interlocutors, and, as already discussed in Jessica’s interview post, learned the valuable lesson of semi-structured interview styles.
I tried, but my fear of being rejected or, ironically, not getting enough interviews, made me freeze. In the end, while my research could have been interesting if I had pursued contacts and perused networks with confidence, I curtailed my own research’s potential by not trying outside of the familiar. You never know where and when potential interlocutors will be. In my most recent research project with a professor, I have reached out across all my networks, relying on “snowballing” – or being introduced to new people in my network’s networks. The joke in DC is that everyone is only 2 degrees separated from each other. While that may not necessarily be true, understanding the depth and breadth of a network is very important to finding interviewees and building connections. In reaching across networks to find interlocutors, I found how much these networks merge and, more importantly, reach out far beyond what I thought I had access to. And that, trying outside of the familiar, is not only the core of anthropological thought, but also nests perfectly with the second method: “do you”.
In much of academic and professional life, we are asked by teachers, mentors, parents, and ourselves to identify and define our strengths and weaknesses. We are told, in order to be a good applicant, student, human being, etc., we should know ourselves and mold our skills to fit the best and (especially) the worst of our capabilities. Colloquially, do you. Again, it sounds easy to try and excel at being yourself or being what you excel at. However, this advice often gets tossed aside by a rigidity in education regarding standard research methodologies and the need to follow a predetermined set of methods according to a certain disciplinary form. We all know the templates. In order to get a job, you need a certain type of resume with the right buzz words. Or, in this case, in order to get an interview you need to script an informative but persuasive email, elevator pitch or Facebook post, which will catch the interest of peers and other persons to participate in your research.
One of the most rigid forms to follow is the Institutional Review Board (IRB) and their standards for ethical research. The importance of conducting ethical research is worth the often perceived burden of the IRB, but only if the respect for the need for ethics is balanced with the knowledge it takes to work with the requisites of the IRB. The hard part is the order of operations, mainly, a pre-determined plan of research, project hypothesis and expectations. Anyone in the social sciences will expectedly cringe at the thought of knowing before you conduct research the expectations of the project. Similarly, researchers shudder at the thought of pre-determining who – in terms of demographics and level of vulnerability to the research – you will approach for the interview. It is also daunting to go up to a person and detail each specific field of the grant before allowing a conversation about your research to go forward.
While conducting my research on traditional music in Guatemala, I had written my IRB grant that I would speak with musicians. But upon arrival, finding interlocutors who were musicians in traditional instruments was not so straightforward. I was lucky to have a host family who connected me to 85% of the interlocutors I interviewed for my project. In some cases, a family member would literally walk me to a house in order to ensure I spoke to the right person. But for the additional 15%, I tried everything I could think of to connect with strangers. I realized very quickly that it was hard to identify musicians on sight. I awkwardly approached people at events and I volunteered with a group of youth to woo them into participating. During my attempts to get to know people, I was unsure how to proceed, should I walk up to someone and ask them point blank “are you of X profession? May I interview you?” or should I draw them into conversation first, and include a synopsis of my project along with a general spiel about myself, hoping that they will happen to be a good resource? After all that, I was exhausted and not nearly as successful at securing interviews as I wanted. I learned that there was a difference between only speaking to a determined demographic to ensure my project avoided risks, and participating in behaviors which were cognizant of risk and vulnerability when speaking with people.
Moreover, I found that the least painful way to advocate for a project I cared about was not to follow form, but to play to my strengths. And strengths are not necessarily tied to one’s academic or disciplinary training. You don’t need to take fifteen qualitative courses in order to conduct a good interview. Expertise is not a certificate or a degree but, I argue, tapping into yourself as your biggest resource as you learn and grow in whatever you are doing. In my case, I have worked with kids for most of my life, I was on the speech and debate team, worked in an office throughout college and bartended between graduation and my master’s program. In sum, I know how to and enjoy talking to people. In retrospect, I should have used my talking skills in an informal and conversational manner to meet and enlist interlocutors, instead of bending to modes of communication which make me uncomfortable. That big lesson really didn’t hit home until working on my current project with a professor. Often in conversation and by email, I speak or write about what I’m doing, hoping interested people will ask me questions, prompting a contact or a connection to a contact. And I also try to make parallel connections, caring and showing my enthusiasm for what it is I am working on, so people will want to speak with me and be a participant in my research.
All this being said, that doesn’t mean conversation is the only way to meet and engage interviewees. If the standardized set of methods which includes approaching people with an informational form and/or introducing your research via pitch is your cup of tea, then by all means, use the method that best suits you and how you best communicate in spaces that augment that. By asking for interviews in a medium you’re comfortable with and a method that you like, it can help soothe away any fears that there is a particular way to go about it and when you come across as comfortable, people are more likely to engage with you. Moreover, knowing yourself will give you an edge in situations where you need to ask for interviews when you may feel less comfortable. So while the odds may not always be in my favor, I am more confident asking for the interview in the ways I like best.