Embarking on Research Interviews
Dr. Sherifa Zuhur
(I want to encourage scholars and students, in the face of severe cuts to academic, scientific and humanities funding, to continue doing interviews, but to learn how in a less teleological manner than I did, when I was a student in Egypt. I’m also a big supporter of free journalism and believe that academics must read journalists, but develop and pursue their own hypotheses. )
You’re writing a paper, a senior thesis, need interviews for your master’s thesis or dissertation. You aren’t a journalism student, you aren’t even comfortable carrying on conversations at a party or during a class break. While interviewing you must adopt a new persona – to the extent that you can — loosen up and act like an old-fashioned bartender or maître d’ who takes the time to get to know his/her customers, asking questions in a friendly manner – but not as pointed as those of the amateur detective. You are a person meeting someone else for the first time (usually) who wants to obtain relevant facts about them and from them. You should practice such conversational interrogation skills with classmates, colleagues, friends, roommates, significant others prior to interviewing. Imitate or channel your elders who swiftly interview unknown guests at family dinners. If you have no-one in your life to help you with this, then you should at least rehearse your questions once you develop them (see below).
Whether you have excellent social skills or not, you’ve demonstrated your intelligence and perseverance in your coursework, and these qualities will assist you in the interview process. Your first step is to prepare yourself to describe yourself and your research very succinctly and clearly in one or two sentences. You must describe yourself so your subjects understand your positionality vis a vis the topic. I am from country X, at university X, in X major, my advisor is X (many people won’t know or care who this is, but a few might). Some respondents will want to know how you speak the language. Explain. I took X many years of language X, or I learned it as a child.
**** Oops! So you think you’re going to do interviews without knowing the language of your respondents? Yes, you can, but it will be difficult. You can bring a translator (but you’ll be relying on their interpretation). If your language skills are sub-par, then explain to your respondent that you want to interview them in English, but be prepared with an accurate version of your questions in the relevant language.****
Rejection of an Interview Opportunity If you are a foreigner, you may then receive a curt rejection. “I don’t speak to Americans.” Or as I did “I don’t speak to anyone at an American university.” Somehow you must phrase your request so that it becomes a desirable invitation. You can mention that you’ve spoken to another interviewee, or persons in nearby town X. Or, “Well, I could write the topic without doing interviews, but I want to know what people really think, instead of taking Western reporters’ views as the only perspective.” You can add, “If you aren’t interested, do you know someone else who will speak with me” (And if they agree, you should also ask them about other possible interviewees if you want multiple interviews and are using the snowballing method). If they are dead-set against being interviewed, then politely apologize and continue on to the next prospect.
Purpose of Your Interviews.
You must explain to your interview subjects what you’re doing and also why you are interviewing them. You cannot set out in a fog of theoretical prefacing; saying that you are contextualizing your subject as many of your interlocutors won’t understand that, nor will your readers. I recognize this is more difficult for some types of interviews than for others and that history students keen to avoid teleological methodology may not do very well here – because interview material SHOULD help you form and state hypotheses. But you cannot fish blindly – so try rephrasing your main research question in the form of a purpose, i.e.
(drawing from my own field interviews)
- a) I am trying to find out how much of an impact Hizbullah had on residents’ lives in this area.
- b) I want to know what women think about Islamist ideology on gender.
- c) what if there is a war with Iran – what will happen to oil facilities?
- a) was acceptable but a more neutral introductory question was
I want to know how the war has affected the lives of people in this area (the area chosen is where HZB dominates, although not in the entire area) – granted, I did that research in ’99 and the hawadith, the pseudonymic, apologetic term for the war, were still an important trope of political/social orientation.
- b) is a fail – because I had to construct a model of Islamist ideology on gender FROM my respondents’ visions and reactions. But everyone I spoke to aimed towards a positive or negative interpretation of Islamism & was concerned that I was representing the opposite of whatever they thought.
Here were other ways of getting at that:
b revised) I want to know if the Islamiyyun (because Islamists was a disputed term then) are affecting society/women/politics …. I used all 3 of these terms.
- c) was fine when addressed to CEOs, upper level officials, but made others inappropriately nervous.
After you plan how to describe your research – then ask yourself what you hope to uncover, or reveal (the verb I used in my own first book title) through the interview process. Do not decide on your findings before you obtain them!
You may have multiple purposes – you may wish to understand your interlocutors social, economic or political status. That goes into the profile you construct of interviewees prior to research questions to be asked of many – if you are doing multiple interviews. If it’s a single interview, then this information is still quite important. If you are developing a structured interview, then these questions pertaining to profile will help you in any quantification – of age/background etc. to particular attitudes for ex.
This requires some background research on your own part. Look the person up on the Web, review any statements by or about them, and birthdate, place, education, known associations, employment. Familiarize yourself with micro-areas, villages, towns, suburbs. Go visit them if possible and try to find out what they were like at the time your respondent was growing up. You may well say, oh Sherifa, you could take the buses all over Syria at the time you lived there, but I can’t do that. At least make an effort to know the physical, social, and political ‘location’ of your respondent for ex. that Giza was once quite individual villages which now appear to blend together as empty spaces were filled in – and that their inhabitants included important families A, B or C. Don’t leave this background information out, telling yourself that you’re not an anthropologist and you don’t need it. You most certainly must combine the roles of anthropologist, historian, police investigator, general snoop dog on your subject, and learn to discern accurate information from gossip along the way.
If you can’t visit these places, make that part of the interview – it’s usually useful to know your subject’s perception of his/her own environment and how and when your subject became conscious of his/her own social location.
Here’s a good general reading on interviews –
Please note, he presents the option of an open-ended interview as if it is ‘unstructured.’ In oral history, the open-ended interview is a desirable path, but it need not be unstructured. Rather, you add on questions to encourage your respondent to keep speaking when they become engaged in the conversation with you. In oral history, one guideline is to ask “historically relevant” questions. You are seeking a bigger picture, not simply chronically the life or thoughts of an individual.
Many of these guidelines are relevant
However, if you aren’t an oral historian, some of this isn’t relevant. You are responsible for clarifying the situation of ownership over the material of the interview itself. You aren’t required to give your materials to a repository (I didn’t, but wish I had) but you may wish to do that if you see that others could benefit from this material.
How Many Interviews? Another interesting possibility is to interview multiple subjects who necessarily view one event or experience differently than others. For example, you might be interviewing people of one faction or group opposed to another, or whose families fought one another, or who were part of the same organization or institute, and yet had decidedly different experiences. Then, a ‘history’ becomes the meeting point of differing perceptions of an event, and its impact.
Your field, finances, time and access may determine how many interviews you carry out. More is not necessarily better. Perhaps your research focuses on a single figure, those who knew that figure, or you plan to publish the interview in full – which will necessarily limit the number of interviews. If you’re studying a philosopher, or a theorist, for example, you might only research that individual. You might submit questions in advance to an interviewee, but then expect more polished and less spontaneous responses. In this case, it seems the researcher had read an early (1993) interview of Butler, but should perhaps have informed her in advance of her questions. (See where Butler says she doesn’t remember, doesn’t reread her own work) Yet there is value in her response on performativity. http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/1363460716629607?journalCode=sexa
If you are in sociology, economics, or politics, you may need to select a representative sample and the size must relate to the total size and composition of your topic, or population. A recent study of Syria’s millions of refugees used a sample of only 130 people, and acknowledged that it wasn’t representative, but nonetheless issues recommendations on the basis of the information. Any large study will more likely require a questionnaire and you must decide if you are additionally interviewing in order to obtain qualitative as well quantifiable responses. Snowballing is another method – just acknowledge your use of this method. Public opinion surveys aren’t the same as research interviews! Treat the material accordingly.
Questions The next step is to formulate questions. In a qualitative interview, you want to use open-ended questions; those which cannot be answered by a mere ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ If respondents answer with a yes or a no, you need to rethink and then reformulate the question. As my research combined sociology with history, political science and also religion, I frequently failed in this effort. For example, in one questionnaire (which I memorized) I asked “Should Egypt be an Islamic state?” To my dismay, all of my respondents answered that it was an Islamic state and tended not to elaborate on that & we then got off-track discussing Saudi Arabia or Iran. On the one hand, that in itself was informative on their views of Wahhabism, revolutionary Iranian Islamism, and their opinions that Egypt wasn’t similar.
Try to cleanse your questions of pre-formed judgments which ‘lead’ the interviewee. For example, don’t say “You have a reputation for being very controversial,” but instead formulate a question about the source of that controversy … i.e. “you wrote a book on the non-existence of God .. what was the immediate or later response to it?”
Obtain permission from your respondents. Use a release form with a signature or obtain their oral permission. Depending on your field, topic or goals, you may be concealing or including their names. I found that promising and holding to anonymity was extremely useful in interviews of individuals who fear oversight by their countries’ security apparatuses. But in other cases, I interviewed officials or leaders who could either speak freely, or not, however it was understood their names would be used. It is understood that in academic research, the lens and opinion of the researcher determines how material should be presented. Some members of the general public don’t understand this. You may encounter individuals who won’t allow you to publish their views unless you show them the quote, or section on them prior to publication. This is NOT the preferred journalistic or academic standard as it encourages self-censorship, censorship or promotion of that individual’s stand or position to the detriment of your own. Be careful here! If you want to interview a president in office or a CEO by name, expect such an outcome, or be prepared for some sort of negative response post-interview – it may happen, or not. As an academic, you only have a responsibility to correctly convey your own insights. You are not bound, as I was, in DoD to correctly interpret national security policy (which is itself, often vague and therefore more open than one might think).
Now here’s where your rehearsal or practice session comes in – ask some version of these questions to your roommate – or if you can, a classmate. Yes, I know your roommate doesn’t know anything about X – but he does know about some other matter/event/person. Also practice reading your questions aloud and try to eliminate sub-clauses and extremely complex terms. You should not sound as if you’re reading, but speaking with your respondent. You also want to practice recording an interview, either on an I-Phone notes, IPod, or an old fashioned recorder – make sure you know how to start, stop and review. Yes, you want a recording! E-questions or those submitted in writing lack the same authenticity and tone of recorded or in-person interviews. You can hear emotion (or lack thereof) in your respondent’s voice. He or she may get angry. That’s important too. Back off. Apologize and start over. Or don’t apologize, but just shift gears into a new topic area, make up a different question. In a written questionnaire, the problem is that your formal phrasing provides a shortcut – a highly educated respondent will be able to respond with some text you can use immediately, but you won’t have learned or sensed what your respondent thinks about the question.
When your respondent is especially animated about something, ask a second question, or just say “can you tell me more about that?” When you complete your questions, ask your respondent if s/he would like to add anything, or invite them to speak on something that you might have skipped over before.
Here I want to paraphrase and cite Marlyn Tadros from her chapter on humor, Twitter & the revolution from our forthcoming book on Egypt: After Egypt’s revolution, Hazem Isma’il was his party’s favorite to run for president (but he was bypassed from this opportunity because his mother was a U.S. citizen). He answered every journalistic question with the very American phrasing “I’m so happy you asked me that question, and then blah, blah.” People made fun of this tendency as it seemed that he did this to give himself a second to answer the question which he certainly wasn’t prepared to answer. She quotes a series of tweets on this such as:
@M7mdAboSoliman iwaa tisma’a lihad yo[q]illak fi bidayat kalamuh ana sa’id innak sa’altni al-sua’al da. Ummu amrikiya [don’t listen to anyone who begins his sentence with ‘I am happy you asked me this question’. His mother is American.][i] “
The irony to some Egyptians was this salafi leader’s pretense at authenticity though he had this American styling (and it did not help that it was revealed that he had plastic surgery to alter his nose).
You may interview a dissembler or a distractor – the Distractor may stall on a question or actually ignore your question and then begin speechifying on his/her own favorite topic or a point that he/she wishes to make. Let him do this. Then ask the question again.
Perils of Outside Interference in Your Questions. To newbies who use fixers. (For journalists, and some traveling researchers, a fixer is a person – sometimes, a local journalist — who is hired to help arrange an interview, or the entire story. This person may drive you, guide you, translate and will suggest interviewees to whom s/he has access) Don’t let your fixer suggest questions in the interview; you need to shape your own interview. Yes, you will have conversations with the fixers in which they are trying to determine what you want to know. I should probably write another blog entry about using fixers as the important differences between journalism and academic research play in here; and also the topic of keeping safe while interviewing.
Sometimes another person attends the interview, a relative, a cohort or colleague of the individual you are interviewing and that person may interrupt or attempt to lead the interview in a different direction. Just let them know you’ll be happy to hear their comments as soon as you conclude your questions.
Other Problems. You may run into a person who is or is not an academic, but feels ownership over the topic and who may give you trouble, or even threaten you during or following an interview. If you are a student, alert your professor or dissertation supervisor of any such a threat, but know that the respondent has no right to threaten you, particularly if they agreed to meet with you or be interviewed in the first place. Don’t let people with psychological problems or jealousy derail your efforts, or radically change the course of your research.
Several of us have experienced this with regard to closed movements – religious movements which try to control information about the group in question. It’s fine to shift gears and use secondary sources, or seek a different respondent if this particular person gives you trouble.
Or, maybe you start out in an interview and it disintegrates for some different reason. You may want to apologize to the respondent and just call it a day. If you are a single woman do be professional, and yet aware that male respondents might flirt or act unprofessionally in an interview setting. It may help if someone else is present, but that might not be possible.
Post-Interview. Make written notes prior to transcribing your interview. Where it took place, what time and date, any special circumstances (terrible storm, gunfire made some of my interviews memorable – were other people present). Then write out the profile information you’ve gathered.
Next, a useful technique is to make headings on 3 x 5 cards – especially if you have multiple interviews, but also otherwise. What stood out to you? What did you hear that you hadn’t even imagined or thought about prior to the interview? For example, I wrote one heading under ‘PR’ for a theme in a leader’s interview in which he complained about not being able to speak to Americans and I had played along saying – “Ok, if you could, what would you say?” Was he propagandizing to me, or responding to a previous interview? I had to decide how to interpret this information.
Analyze what you learned from the interview. This process may take longer than you think. You may decide you need additional interviews, or to narrow or broaden your approach to the topic. For example if I couldn’t interview people who were contemporaries with a particular figure, I might decide to write about another contemporary or rival of his in the same piece. What have you learned from this primary source – interview responses that you weren’t aware of? Can you limit this to a series of key findings? What if your respondent presented nothing new or unexpected? Did he or she verify any key fact for you?
Decide where to directly quote your interviewee and where to paraphrase. If your respondents have said they MUST see the material before you publish (you are highly advised NOT to offer such review) then you must contact them prior. In such cases, the use of anonymity or partial anonymity is quite useful.
Re-read your secondary sources and other primary sources on the topic. Maybe something from your interviews is reflected or hinted at here and you will notice it. Do this after completing or at least embarking on your analysis so you won’t be so influenced by pre-existing analyses.
For the Quantifiers. Re-check the neutrality of your phrasing. Run your numbers and consider what the interesting correlations mean. People under 30 think X but people over 50 think Y? Yes, that’s important. I was warned that people wouldn’t be interested in my data, but I devoted a chapter of my dissertation to it anyway and I’m glad I did as it illustrated a growing trend that many sought to deny. However, be prepared to summarize your findings for those who don’t want to read the nuances or complications in that data.
Visuals. What about documentaries or research questions which are part of a video project? Here, you need to more carefully edit your questions with your audience in mind. Ideally you could tape more than one session and then edit down to your needs. Your product will be more of a cameo of the interviewee than is the case in a standard interview & you have to think about it visually. Yes, you can conduct a ‘talking heads’ interview, but it is much more appealing to present an interviewee in the context of the subject of the interview or in his/her residence, along with something meaningful to them. It depends whether your primary aim is as a videographer or an academic; and you may choose to introduce other materials, photographs etc. A useful course, or part of a course could be taught by professional filmmakers/videographers along with academics as their intentions differ.
If you don’t use video, consider taking a photograph of your interviewee if s/he agrees (and remember if it was an anonymous interview, you can’t use this without permission).
Citation Your interviews are primary sources. As such they should be listed separately in your bibliography or reference list. The source is the respondent, not you – don’t list them under your last name (unless your publisher requires you to do so). If you have promised anonymity, then the form is Personal Interview with Mr. X, give the location and date, or Personal interview by the author/your full name with Mr. X.
Never, never, never falsify this information! Journalists and academics who do so are committing an intellectual crime.
If you feel that oral information is important, but this wasn’t a true interview, then use the format: Personal communication by Full Name of Respondent on date and the method (telephone, email, or the location if it was in person).
[i] Abu Sulaiman, [M7mdAboSoliman] October 23, 2012, accessed, December 18, 2016,