Fieldworking is happy to host a guest post by graduate student, Melike Sema Alisan, on research methods, specifically some reflections on semi-structured interviewing. Alisan is a sociology graduate from the Middle East Technical University in Turkey and is currently pursuing her master’s degree in Asian Studies. She is planning to continue her academic life next semester in the Philippines to focus on the Asia-Pacific region in terms of the effects of ethnic patterns on unity and peace through education and social life including cultural diversity, social order, and heritage of art and aesthetics. A warm welcome will be waiting for you if you visit her country one day.
For qualitative research, three interview techniques help a researcher get a deeper understanding of social trends when collecting data: structured interviews, semi-structured interviews, and unstructured interviews. Whilst structured interviews have an ordered question list fixed in advance, which can not change during the interview, unstructured interviews follow an ordered question list fixed in advance, which can not change during the interview, unstructured interviews follow a topic guide, not a question list for an open-ended and in-depth style. The semi-structured interview is in-between these other two styles with ordered questions that remain flexible for changing according to the flow of conversation. In addition to the order of questions, wording can also change when needed to make the participants feel comfortable and help them to talk to generate data. Unlike the close-ended style of structured interview questions, my semi-structured interview questions include open-ended questions that can be answered in multiple ways:
Tell me about your first coming to Indonesia. How do you feel about being in this country and how do you feel when you meet with your prospective second family members; what makes you think you should live in Turkey?
Tell me more about the process of your marriage. How does it take place in the wedding process? What kind of ceremony did you have?
How many wedding ceremonies did you have? Who decided? What was the reaction of family members attended the traditional wedding ceremony? How did you organize a marriage contract and other formal issues?
How can you describe your parents-in-law’s approach to the issue of raising children?
Tell me about your relationship with Turkish people in your work life. What kind of activities you generally do when you meet with Turkish friends? What kind of different customs and traditions do you experience in Turkey? What kind of food do you prefer when you gather? How do you feel about this kind of reunion?
If I had applied an unstructured interview by directly asking whether or not they enjoyed their parents-in-law or loved the country, the only answer I could take would be shortly yes or no. On the other hand, open-ended questions asking feelings pushing them to talk more gave me a great opportunity to take answers more than I planned. Also, an unstructured interview with a topic guide like ‘marriage related issues’ or ‘children related issues’, if I had, would make me lose my control and skip some important points in the process.
My post explores semi-structured interviews in an ethnographic study of the social integration of Indonesian brides to lives in Ankara, Turkey. The target of this study is to reach 300 brides chosen from the island of Sumatra, located in the southwest of Southeast Asia and East of Java and the second largest of the Greater Sunda Islands in the Malay Archipelago. There is a high number of brides from the island of Sumatra in Turkey because, as many interviewees explained, they knew about Turkish culture and people from the Turkish Ottoman village on Sumatra named Beytül Mühadis, in which around 1200 Turks currently live (Hurriyet.com.tr, 2015). Subsequently, the brides have held positive attitudes towards the Turkish through the support of Turkish associations like the Turkish Red Crescent (Kizilay) for their assistance in 2004 when a 9.1 magnitude earthquake off the northern coast of Sumatra caused a devastating tsunami.
For the Turkish grooms, although they originate from different ethnicity and geography as their hometown in Turkey, the common point of their parents-in-law is their shared faith, Islam. As a conservative and family-oriented society, Turkish parents-in-law agree about the Indonesian brides and give their consent easily since it is widely believed by Turkish people that Indonesians have a strong connection with Islamic beliefs, which is a core point for them when choosing a partner.
International marriage is considered as a bridge between two cultures. An increase of social integration via international marriage as a trend has spread to Southeast Asia over the past fifty years as Asian society becomes more open and accepting of intercultural relationships (Allendorf, 2013). According to the Turkish Statistical Institute’s yearly reports from 2018 (TSI, 2019), international marriage patterns among Asian and Turkish couples in Turkey were highest between Indonesian and Turkish couples with the number 176 of registered married ones in Turkey.
Yet, I had a tough time finding literature about Indonesian-Turkish couples in terms of acculturation and assimilation processes. I have aimed to collect data on social adaptation and integration of foreign brides to assist in understanding and therefore improving their living standards by analyzing the assimilation process starting from the wedding ceremonies (Kim,2010).
Primary data was collected in two ways. Firstly, I used discourse analysis methods to examine Turkish online news and print newspaper articles. I also explored five blogs written by Turkish parents-in-law about their memories of wedding ceremonies that had taken place in Indonesia. Furthermore, the interviewees I reached until now out of 150 couples (almost half of my initial target is done now) granted me access to their online social media accounts to analyze wedding ceremonies through their memories and impressions recalled while watching the wedding videos and scanning through photos.
Secondly, I conducted semi-structured interviews to collect personal experiences and stories as data. In-person interviews, with brides, their husbands, and children have allowed insight into not only the wedding ceremonies but also the assimilation process during the early stages of marriage. To reach my participants, I contacted women within my established social network and continued to reach out to many people through a snowball technique, a non-probability sampling method. To clarify, the non-probability technique is to gather the samples in a process not giving all the individuals in the population equal chances of being selected since they are selected based on their accessibility or by the purposive personal judgment of the researcher. Among types of non-probability techniques, I chose snowball sampling that is when the researcher asks the initial subject to identify another potential subject meeting the criteria of the research. In my particular case, the snowball technique started with an acquaintance of a friend. This first interviewee informed me of their ‘Indonesian foreign brides’ (yabanci gelinler) Whatsapp Groups. My remaining interviews were conducted with members of this group.
I realized that conducting semi-structured interviews is not an easy job. I needed to remember many details while taking notes at the same time, and I found that I should not diverge far from my initial questions while at the same time, both myself and the interviewee found ourselves talking about some irrelevant things. The voice recordings I made, also, unfortunately, did not provide a vivid record of the interview atmosphere, so I found I needed to continue to take notes with a notebook and pen at the time of the interview.
I found that it was a good idea to have some warm-up questions while I related to daily events to put my interviewees at ease. Sometimes, I found myself in some surprising situations, which part of the beauty of qualitative, ethnographic research. In one such instance, although I had a translator with me for women who did not speak English or Turkish very well, sometimes I found women forced themselves to communicate with me without the translator and I was surprised that we did not need someone to translate at points during the conversation. It surprised me because, despite broken English, I see people who get excited telling their memories very willingly.
Being flexible on the order of questions and topics, which is the way and system of a semi-structured interview, might give you some advantages. To illustrate, during one of my interviews with an Indonesian bride, I did not need to read many of the questions my interview guide as the interviewee was quite open and willing to talk, and she answered many of my questions through her stories. However, this way of interviewing can also easily go off-topic and sometimes I felt rude trying to guide the bride back on topic, but I knew that was within the context of my role in the interview.
I also had to be careful to not change the direction of the conversation, especially at times when I wanted to keep talking about enjoyable topics and memories with my Indonesian classmates back to my college years. For example, when the interviewee would Indonesian food, I could not stop myself from sharing with them my feelings about my favorite Indonesian foods.
A disadvantage of semi-structured interviews is that they can be hard to control and difficult to predict the answers you will get. For instance, one Indonesian bride started to insist that I interview her with her husband by claiming that her husband knew more about the process leading up to their wedding and aspects of their marriage while I was more interested in how she recalled that time leading up to her wedding. It was difficult to keep my opinions to myself about how upset I was about she was not aware of her contribution to my research topic and also to society as an individual.
Another challenge of face to face communication in interviews is that I found I needed to be ready for people to sometimes not listen to me very carefully. Although I repeated information twice about my university and department, some interviewees asked me about this information again and again. This is just one example of how important it is to remain attentive and how good communication skills are surely needed for a healthy interview.
Timing was another part of semi-structured interviewing that was hard to control. While some of my interviews lasted two hours, some took longer, and some women even wanted to meet on another day. This made me happy because it is the best feeling at the end of an interview to see that your interviewee is not bored and would want to continue talking. It was even better to receive text messages after interviews telling me more information they remembered later for questions. Similarly, sometimes the interviewee felt that the amount of time for the interview was insufficient to fully convey all the information they wanted to share with me. At the end of one interview, my interviewee told me, “If you come to my home, I can reply with more details, but now you asked me at the moment and I could not think of some answers immediately.” I did not realize she thought there were good/bad or satisfying/dissatisfying answers and I felt bad that I had made her feel this way. I was not dissatisfied with our interview and; she gave me more information than I wanted in the end, but it caused me to reflect on my position and the interview process.
When I began my interviews, I wanted my research to be unique and full of subjective stories. However, when one of the brides criticized Turkish people (especially men), I tried to maintain my objectivity. It was nice to know that she was relaxed and sincere and I wanted to make my interviewees feel comfortable. To remain objective while also creating a rapport of common interests, I found it was always kind to show my interest in their culture. They were happy when I would tell them that I know how to cook some Indonesian foods and that I love Indonesian dance, like the Saman Dance. Also, although my level of understanding Indonesian, or Bahasa Indonesia, is limited, it made my participants happy and comfortable to know that I was interested in these aspects of Indonesian culture. And in the moments I worried about honesty I remembered how one of my professors told me that, “Even if your interviewee lies to you, you should take what they claim since it is also a fact and reflection of the society.”
I strongly believe that the semi-structured interview method is not only helpful for the researcher but also for the participant. It provides a means for interviewees to look at themselves and their understandings of what the interview is focused on.
Needless to say, a researcher is always learning both about the topic of research and about ourselves. During one of my interviews, I felt that my understanding of Asian studies was lacking since the interviewee had traveled to every Asian country and could talk about meeting so many different people. I felt that I should be lucky to be able to interview her and her husband since they had visited these countries. I also learned that she traveled and gained excellent skills in observation. In the end, learned a great deal from her because of her strong ability to analyzing social realities and events.
The analyses she made about Turkey was so valuable for me. She could compare what she observed in Turkish culture to practices in other countries (like the Philippines, Thailand, and Malaysia). In the end, she said, “Before getting married to a Turk, I traveled here as a tourist. I was visiting before, but now I am living here as a part of this society and I go there (home to Indonesia) for holidays.” This statement is important to understand the kind of belonging she feels now and was able to be communicated through our semi-structured interview together.
Doing this project, couples felt important and special being able to contribute knowledge to the academic world (international marriage practices). Despite the challenges, qualitative interviews give researchers a chance to learn about stories from individuals’ perspectives and by seeing and witnessing other people’s lives and experiences, we can understand each other better.
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