Rather than dedicating my last blog post for 2014 to a review of the year gone by, I will briefly sketch what lies ahead and highlight one book in particular, which has helped me prepare for my future work.
Finding myself comfortably settled into the second year of my PhD, and having finally succeeded in answering the question ‘What is your PhD on?’ with sufficient succinctness so as not to lose my listener while answering their question, I look forward to 2015 anticipating that it will be the most exciting year of my project. 2015 will be the year of fieldwork: of interviews and short-term ethnographic observations (and desk-based research, but that is less novel).
Having spent a good part of my first year of research gathering information on how to collect data, I am now eager to finally go into the field and put my notes to practice.
Reaching this stage was not easy. There are dozens of books out there – on social science research methods, methodology more generally and on ‘real world research’, which theorise the pros and cons of any given method, how it should be documented, verified and triangulated and when it should be used. These are certainly important considerations for any research project.
Yet, lacking a social science background and being trained as a black-letter lawyer, I was less interested in the books which explained at length why or when to choose interviewing as a method, or the difference between structured, unstructured and semi-structured interviews, and much more so in the books which focused on how to actually go about conducting interviews.
There is one book, in particular, which I found extremely useful as a hands-on guide on interviewing. The book is written by Lewis Anthony Dexter and bears the title: ‘Elite and specialized interviewing’. It was first published in 1970 and re-published in 2006 by ECPR Press because it is just as relevant to an interviewer today as it was nearly 45 years ago.
I know what you must be wondering – what kind of an elite will I be interviewing? Dexter demystifies the notion of an elite interview in the first few pages of his book. It is an interview with any interviewee whom the interviewer treats in a special non-standardised way, for instance by stressing the interviewee’s definition of the situation and letting the interviewee define to a large extent what they regard as relevant rather than relying upon the interviewer’s notions of relevance (Page 18). Essentially, this type of interviewing is based on the recognition that the interviewee is well-informed or influential in the given research area, so the interviewer is willing and eager to let the interviewee teach them what the problem or the question is.
Dexter’s book is a real gem for the pragmatic way in which it covers all the relevant stages and themes of interview preparation, conduct and analysis. He consistently elucidates more abstract ideas with specific examples from his own experience, which really helps the reader understand how to implement the strategies put forward by the author. Dexter also sheds light on the notion that an interview is not a self-serving endeavour but that there is value in it for the interviewee as well. It is mainly the responsibility of the interviewer to ensure that his respondent can get something out of the interview situation.
Some of the topics covered in the book include: how to introduce yourself and succeed in arranging interviews; what to consider when deciding on the order of your interviewees; how to begin the interview; how to take notes and write them up; and, what I found particularly insightful, what makes a good interviewer.
On the latter theme, Dexter, quoting Sidney and Beatrice Webb , makes what I consider a very valid observation:
“[…] people hear some isolated point and instead of listening to the sentences that follow it, they proceed to build upon it some notion of their own of what the speaker is trying to say; and this notion is what they attend to, finding a confirmation of it in any fragments which reach their minds afterwards. In fact, they theorise, instead of trying to experience; and usually their theory is based on their own experience […]” (at page 58)
The point Dexter makes is on the importance of efficient attention and of really hearing what others have to say.
In the last two chapters of the book, the author considers the limitations of interview data and how to mitigate these as far as possible. He concludes with the importance of self-assessment in the interview process: the interviewer tends to affect what is said, the author argues, because they are themselves a set of stimuli in what is quite simply one form of social interaction.
Having read this book, my conclusion is that preparing for an interview extends far beyond reading up on the substantive themes that one intends to discuss. Preparation involves nurturing self-awareness, improving your attentiveness, keeping an open mind, being reflective and, ultimately, being a bit of a psychologist. Last, but not least, preparation will certainly involve a lot of practice.
On this note…Happy Holidays!
 Webb, Sidney and Beatrice Webb, Methods of Social Study (1932) Reissued: A.M.Kelley 1968.