Interviews illuminate powerful and textured depictions of events that help us more fully understand individuals and communities, historical perspectives and the present, struggles and joy. Interviews are an exchange between two or more people where a researcher designs a set of questions to gather information on one or more topics (Blackstone, 2012). Interviews provide ethnographic researchers the opportunity to engage and question, with an eye toward understanding a community or group being studied. An interview can reveal the roots of a cultural tradition or communal mindset by unraveling an assortment of shared and individual experiences, emotions and memories. For example, interviewers may ask their interviewees “what was something that surprised you after joining your union?” or “can you tell us the story of the first time you participated in a strike?” Interviews can reveal details that help unlock the ways your informants see themselves fitting into the world around them, as well as how they communicate in that world.
Varied in type, interviews offer a unique opportunity in ethnographic work to empower your informants to share and preserve their truths, while providing an essential research tool in building ethnographies. Often, with interviews, we are able to recover hidden stories, secrets of the past, or untold journeys that have yet to make it into the history textbooks. It is important to remember while your ethnography is built around your analysis, interviews are co-constructed; that is, they are a form of knowledge produced by both the interviewer and the interviewee.
Types of Interviews
Qualitative interviews are the most common interviews in ethnographic work. A qualitative interview is organized by open-ended questions that seek in-depth explanations of traditions, experiences and perceptions. These are generally semi-structured interviews where the interviewer starts with a list of open-ended questions, but will not strictly follow the agenda they prepared. A semi-structured format is useful for qualitative interviews because it provides room for follow-up questions and illuminate the “why” and “how” of a participant’s experience. Qualitative interviews excavate material that is typically inaccessible through quantitative interviews, structured interviews or surveys, which gather responses through close-ended questions, or collect numerical data from participants. Qualitative interviews enable participants to offer free-formed responses, as opposed to selecting from a short list of choices constructed by you, the ethnographer. They offer the flexibility to propose questions that arise in conversation, seek clarification and allow the space for unique and detailed stories to be told. (Griffiths, 2017; Blackstone, 2012) Qualitative interviews seek narratives, not statistics; not just how many or how often, but “How did that feel?” or “What happened after that?” The benefit of qualitative interviews is that they allow you as the interviewer to access the narrative most important to your interviewee through the process of open-ended responses. Further, as opposed to quantitative interviews, structured interviews or surveys, qualitative interviews give you the ability to break from a set list of questions. (Murchinson, 2010) Qualitative interviews are extremely important as they allow informants to become participants who can “co-construct” the project of understanding their culture.
Often informal interviews, which may feel more like conversations, are appropriate in the context of ethnographic research as people can be wary of being recorded when broaching difficult experiences. Informal interviews are often casual exchanges with informants to gather background information for your project, and often in preparation for a formal interview. Informal interviews are often unstructured, meaning they allow the discussion to freely venture from subject to subject, often without a written list of questions to guide the conversation. In unstructured interviewers the interviewer is following the interviewee as they tell their story. Informal interviews improve formal interviews that take place later as you become more knowledgeable about your respondent’s experience, informed on what they care about, while developing the ability to ask more relevant, fruitful, and directed questions. (Murchinson, 2010) Often held in elevators or hallways, over coffee or in a spontaneous meeting without the aid of a recording device, informal interviews can aid exploratory research, or fill in missing gaps later in the process. It is very important in formal or informal interviews to honor the story you are hearing, to show empathy, to ask questions, but never suggest that you are judging what the respondent is telling you.
Formal qualitative interviews are the most demanding form of interview for both you, as the interviewer, and for the participant(s), but they are also potentially the most rewarding. They offer the opportunity to gather depth, details, and anecdotes for your project, and are better when conducted toward the end of your research, once you know the appropriate questions to ask you informant. These interviews are often recorded, and preserved, depending on the designs of the professor and the comfort of your participants. (Blackstone, 2012) You are asking the participant to share with you their time and memories, often about emotionally exhausting experiences. It is important to remember that an interview is a vulnerable experience. Your informant is sitting down and responding to an organized list of open-ended questions that could bring back painful, intimate and buried memories. Even questions that seem simple, like “tell me about growing up with your family,” can be difficult if someone did not have an easy family life, did not grow up with their family, if a parent was ill, in another country, incarcerated or abusive. “Tell me about your job,” can also cause a strong reaction from your interviewee if the work your informant does is dangerous, if there is discrimination in the workplace, or if they are treated badly by management. While these interviews have the potential to offer you important information, it is key to remember your informant is trusting you with their story. You must handle the interaction with the respect and care it deserves. The intimacy of this exchange requires significant preparation by you, the ethnographer.
Preparing for an Interview
The interview preparation process takes time, thought, and effort. You should create an environment where your interviewee feels comfortable to share their truth, and one that also accommodates your goal of conducting a clear, organized and useful interview. The six key steps in preparation include: identifying your informant, setting a time and place, conducting background research, formulating a list of questions, prepping informed consent forms, and preparing for a recording.
First, you need to find someone to interview. This often takes place in the context of participant-observation through conversations with informants. (Murchinson, 2010) People in and around your ethnographic study can serve as useful participants in your project, or they can nominate others to participate. Your interview will offer interviewees an opportunity to share their truth, something many participants will enjoy. Still, when asking people to participate in your projects, it’s important to show appreciation for their willingness to aid you in this ethnography and to be honest about how the interview may be used and preserved. This is true for both formal and informal interviews.
If you have an informant who has agreed to meet for a formal interview, you need to verify the time, date, and location of the interview. The location can determine the tone of the interview, for instance being interviewed in a law office would likely elicit a dramatically different set of responses than an interview held at their workplace, in a park, or the informant’s home. We want to make sure your interviewee is relaxed, but also that there will not be a lot of background noise that may make the recording hard to hear. You can offer to conduct the interview in English or another language you and the interviewee both speak. If people want to use words from their original language – even if you are not fluent – tell them they can, and then ask for a translation. You want your informant to be as comfortable as possible with every aspect of this process.
Third, you want to conduct background research about the historical and cultural context of the respondent and their story. Consider asking your informant some preliminary questions through an informal interview, or when setting up the time, to help you prepare for a conversation about their life. You can ask something like, “What should I learn about before I interview you so I can really appreciate your experience?” This process is also helpful as it allows informants to get a sense of what you will be asking and to begin recalling their experiences. After setting up the interview, look online, in books, journals, magazines, newspapers and in archives to become more informed about your participant’s worldview. You want to make sure you can ask about, and explain competing understandings of the context in which the story of your interviewee takes place. If you were studying political attitudes that coal miners hold of President Donald Trump, you would have to also study his presidency, his actions on the environment, healthcare and workers’ rights to understand why they might have concerns, or admire his policies.
Next, formulate a list of questions you will be asking. This is called a guide, schedule or frame. If you are interviewing multiple people for your ethnography, you want to be sure to ask everyone a similar set of questions, and then lots of specific follow-ups that are particular to each informant. This is what makes your interview semi-structured. Everyone gets the same basic questions, but with each respondent the interview travels in a unique direction. When thinking of these questions, keep in mind who your interviewee is and what insights they might, or might not be able to offer. Having a guide prepared for the interview helps give you as the interviewer confidence in your ability to remember the key questions and topics you are hoping to broach with your interviewee. You may be passionate about your topic of study, or nervous at the prospect of questioning your informant. A guide allows you to frame your questions in the best way possible, while serving as a tool to make sure the interview accomplishes what you set out to accomplish. For instance, if you have formed a positive or negative opinion of President Trump from your background research, you would not want to reveal that to your informant. Thus, you would not ask either, “what do you like about President Trump?” or “what don’t you like about President Trump?” But you might say, “can you give me your impressions of President Trump?” and then follow up with, “are there aspects of his leadership you like, and aspects you don’t like very much?”
It’s extremely important to take time in preparing your guide for the interview, keeping in mind the tone you want to set from the beginning and the order in which you want to present your questions. Practice prepared questions with a friend, family member, or in the mirror so that when you enter the interview you are not nervous or distracted, but are able to focus on being an active listener, paying attention to the subtleties in tone and word-selection of your informant. (Blackstone, 2012) During the interview, as an active listener, you will be taking notes that will lead to follow-up questions based on the responses of your informant. Never look bored, or like you want to get onto the next question (even if you do!) Try to make eye contact and show through your body language that you are interested in what they are saying. If someone gets sad or teary, agitated or starts to laugh, let them have these emotions without judgment. Feel free to ask them “Do you need a break?” “Are you ok? Sorry if these questions are difficult,” or “Do you feel able to continue, or should we stop?”
For semi-structured, or formal qualitative interviews you should be asking open-ended questions, and avoid questions that will elicit yes or no responses. To create an open-ended question, make sure you are gathering stories or addressing the “how” and “why” of a subject. While it’s important to know the one-word responses to questions like “Where are you from?” this is the sort of information that can be gathered through an informal interview, a survey or a quantitative interview. Formal qualitative interviews offer an opportunity to ask open-ended questions that will go beyond inquiring, “Where are you from?” to ask “Tell me a story about where you are from?" or “Why did you chose to leave where you are from to come to New York City?” Through open-ended questions you can gather significantly more detailed responses.
In some classes you will be required to fill out paper work with your interviewee that affirms their willingness to participate in your ethnography. You should print out and organize the informed consent forms that you will be presenting to your informants. These forms are designed to give the interviewee an opportunity to declare in what context they are comfortable with their oral history being used. You should have the forms prepared beforehand, as they will explain the project to informants and ask their permission to use the contents of the interview. It is helpful to practice how you are going to introduce these consent forms to your interviewees. Depending on your goal, or that of your professor, you may be preserving this interview not only for your ethnography, but also for people to look back on in the future. For this reason, you need to make sure you have the proper paperwork to get permission to either use or archive your interview.
People need to be able to opt out of certain questions if they are uncomfortable; they might want the tape recorder turned off if they are giving you sensitive information they do not want recorded. Perhaps they are anxious about you recording and making public their immigration status, why they quit their job, or a personal trauma they experienced, but they still feel you should know.
Finally, before the interview, if you plan to preserve the recording, you must make sure you have audio equipment and it is working properly. For most interviews, cellphones are perfectly acceptable recording devices. Both Apple and Android phones have applications that generally serve the purposes of this project. Recording the interview is extremely helpful in the ethnographic process and offers possibilities for preserving the historic artifacts created with your informants. If permission is given to record the interview, this allows you to focus on active listening, as opposed to writing down every significant observation made by your participant. While taking notes is still a pivotal part of the interview process, even while that interview is being recorded, simultaneously recording the interview allows you time to formulate new questions and think about the informant’s key points, as opposed to endlessly jotting down whole phrases or ideas.
Conducting an Interview
Ideally you will record the interview to come back to and build upon for your ethnography. After turning on the recording device, and testing to be sure that it is recording, begin the formal interview by stating your name, the date, the name of your interviewee and the location of the interview. Then on the tape you will ask your interviewee for permission to record the interview, either exclusively to use for class work, or to have their interview preserved and archived. If you are not recording the interview, informed consent forms are still helpful as they help your interviewee understand how the information they give you will be used. Explain what you are doing, why you selected this informant, how special you think their story will be. You can tell them that there are no right or wrong answers.
The first few minutes are important for setting the tone of the interview. You want to make sure your informant is comfortable so they are as open and honest as possible. You generally should not start the interview with difficult questions that will make your interviewee uneasy. You would not start with a question like, “Tell me about the time you felt most hopeless when working at the factory.” Instead, start light, ask something like, “Tell me something about yourself that I would not know by looking at you?” “How did you become interested in working at that factory?” or “How did you imagine your career path when you were a child?” The first few questions are extremely important. If you make your interviewee uncomfortable at the beginning of the interview you will get less in-depth and candid responses than if you work your way up to the more difficult questions. (Murchinson, 2010) Starting slow can be a great way to get into a rhythm for both you and your informant.
You should attempt to remain respectful of your informant’s narrative, even if it provokes anger, doubt or suspicion in you. You must be careful not to ask questions that give away your opinions on an issue you are asking about. Do not say, for instance, “This seems like a really nice place to work” or “You seem really frustrated with your boss.” Something more like, “How do you feel about working here?” or “If someone you cared about wanted a job here, what would you tell them?” Oftentimes interviewees will look for cues on how you feel about their answer to a particular question. If you show that you either approve or disapprove of their response, it will likely change the way the interviewee responds to future questions.
Further, you must be aware that interviewees may knowingly or unwittingly evade a question, exaggerate a story, provide incomplete information, or lie. This does not mean you should shy away from asking challenging or difficult questions. However, it is important to remember people generally want to present themselves in the best light possible. If you think someone may be misleading you, you can ask something like, “You mentioned you were the best athlete in your school, do you think all the other students would agree?” You may get more detail, you may not, or you may be interviewing the best athlete in the school!
What you hear from your interviewee is subjective, but it is this person’s truth; or at least what they want you to know. Often the interviewee will present an ideal, as opposed to real versions of themselves and their culture. Like any primary source, what your informant says during the interview offers you important insights into their worldview. Still, you must always be aware of your interviewee’s lens. Their narrative is shaped by their experiences and the historical moment in which they live. Always ask yourself how might the informant be attempting to shape your opinion with their explanation of events, traditions, daily routines, and personal experiences. Whether their perspective supports or challenges your conclusions, you must recognize the possibilities, as well as the limitations of this interview. (Murchinson, 2010) Your interviewee cannot give you objective truth, therefore, your projects should not uncritically use anything that the interviewee said. Any assertions or insights that the interview provides should be backed up by other sources of information. We must utilize interviews as only one significant part of an ethnographic study. (Esterberg, 2002)
You, as the interviewer must guide, but not direct the interview. You need to allow the informants to tell their stories, but make sure the interview does not stray too far from your topic so it remains useful to your ethnography. People might wander off topic, let them go for a bit, but always, delicately, get back to your questions. Something like, “That’s interesting. Can we go back to talk more about how your political views were formed?” If you do not understand a response, it is okay to ask your interviewee to explain what they mean. You can say, “Sorry I did not get that,” or “Can you explain that a bit more, I am not sure I understand.”
As an interviewer, you should also make sure that you do not finish the sentences of interviewees. Try to be comfortable in silence after asking a question. This is one of the most difficult, but important parts of the interviewing process. By doing this you are giving interviewee time to think and craft a response in their mind. This is essential to seeing the world as your interviewee is explaining it. If you are asking about a delicate topic, sometimes you can offer a wide-range of possible responses so that respondents feel free to say something not so positive. For instance, “can you tell me about your growing up–some people have wonderful stories about family, some have difficult stories, some have both. How would you describe the family situation in which you grew up?” or “I wanted to ask you about your job. Some people are really focused on what they like about their work, others complain about aspects and lots of people seem to feel mixed. How would you describe your work situation?”
Throughout the interview, take notes on insights you find interesting or important, words or phrases you find to be compelling, or questions you want to follow up on. This exercise both helps you formulate follow-up questions and will remind you later of your preliminary thoughts. Some interviewers take two-column notes; writing notes on a page with a line down the middle. On the left they jot down notes of what was said verbatim and on the right they write follow-up questions, ideas for future research, or comments for when they revise their notes at a later date.
While it’s extremely important to have prepared a range of topics and questions, especially in formal interviews, you must also be an active listener, adjusting your questions and creating new follow-up questions based on the responses of your informant. If you find yourself too focused on your next question, you might miss something crucial in your informants’ response. What you missed could have altered your line of questioning, or help you realize you are making assumptions that do not apply to your interviewee. (Murchinson, 2010) Being an active listener is not an easy task, but it is essential to being a good interviewer.
Be careful around particularly sensitive topics such as immigration status, illicit activities, gender, sexuality, religious race or class identity, abuse, money, and politics. If we engage in this line of questioning we must make sure the interviewee is prepared for these types of questions, that they fit into subject of the interview, and that the informant knows they do not have to answer any questions they are not comfortable answering. It is completely acceptable to say, “I have some questions that may be delicate. If you would rather not answer, just tell me, that’s fine.”
After finishing your list of questions, it is advisable to ask the interviewee, “Is there anything I should have asked, but didn’t?” or something like, “I am going to interview many people like yourself. What questions would you be interested in asking others like you?” These types of questions can give us additional insight into the most critical topics according to the interviewee. Sometimes the answers to these types of questions are quite revealing and will often lead to a new set of questions. You should be prepared for this type of question to extend the interview.
Before you leave, make sure your informant has signed all of the necessary informed consent forms. Then ask if your informant has any pictures, journal entries, newspaper clippings, or other primary documents that they would be willing to lend you for your ethnography. This will help verify and expand upon the information they shared with you during the interview process, but this new data may also lead to a follow up interview. Offer to send your interviewee a copy of the recording, or the resulting ethnography. Finally, follow-up the interview with a note of thanks.
Evaluating Information from Interview
Immediately after you part ways with your informant you should jot down any thoughts, questions, or ideas you took from the interview. By taking these notes, you can place what you just felt and heard in conversation with the larger ethnographic project. In the next day or two, listen to the recording. It is extremely helpful to take detailed notes on significant ideas and quotes to use for your ethnography while the interview is fresh in your mind.
In many cases transcribing the interview is the best way to start the evaluation process. A transcription is a typed-up version of the interview that either you, or someone else creates while listening to the recording. The best transcriptions document every word spoken during the recording including comments like [laughing] or [um….], words in other languages, or not in standard English. This makes it easier for you to code the interview, to mark patterns, commonalities and differences between events described by an individual, or in comparison to other narratives collected. It is best practice to transcribe the interview word-for-word for both use in your ethnography and to make it accessible for a wider audience. Further, if you have the time, it is best to transcribe the interview yourself. You will remember important details by listening again while transcribing yourself, details that a professional transcriber might miss because they did not experience the interview. (Blackstone, 2012) If your interviewee has an accent or speaks in a language other than English, you will likely transcribe fewer errors than a professional transcriber. The text will serve as an important source for your ethnography, as well as a potential historical artifact for future researchers. Often, interviewees want a copy of their interview for themselves, their children, or their grandchildren.
Preserving the Interview
By conducting an interview you become a producer of knowledge, influencing the ways a community, culture or individual is understood. Thus, the interview process is a tremendous opportunity, but it is also a great responsibility for interviewers, as you have been entrusted with someone else’s story. If you are archiving your interviews for future researchers, you have produced a primary source that documents the story of the person, community, or culture you were studying. The interview also reveals the types of questions people were interested in during the time you lived. Often the consent forms you have collected will allow you or your professor to archive this recorded interview in some sort of collection. When appropriate, you should discuss with your professor ways to make sure this testimony can be used by future researchers and can be of use to the person, family, and community who contributed the interview. And of course, be very careful never to archive information that you have not received permission to archive or information that would make a respondent vulnerable.
Interviews are crucial methods for documenting the history of the present. They allow us to gather stories about how people live in the world today so that we better understand the range of experiences of the present moment and so that people in the future have a record of everyday, non-elite experiences in the 21st century.
The chapter outlined distinct kinds of interviews.
This chapter covered the best practices in prepping for interviews.
It detailed how best to conduct an interview.
It explained the process of evaluating interviews.
This chapter explored how best to archive your interviews as a way to preserve them and educate future generations.
Why are interviews useful in ethnographic work?
What are the different types of interviews and when is each useful toward building a strong ethnography?
What are the six steps to preparing for an interview?
What sort of background is useful before the interview?
Why is it important to think about your informant’s point of view?
How would you explain the difference between real and ideal culture?
How does a guide, schedule or frame help make you an active listener? How does a recording the interview help make you an active listener? How does being an active listener improve the interview process?
Why are informed consent forms important?
How should you start an interview?
Why is it important to frame questions in a neutral way?
What types of notes are useful when you are recording an interview?
Write a paragraph detailing the how a subject that requires sensitivity might come up within the context of your interview and how might you address this subject with your interviewee.
Come up with five open-ended questions to ask an interviewee, on topics related to your class?
Informed Consent Forms
Esterberg, K. G. (2002). Qualitative Methods in Social Research. Boston, MA: McGraw-Hill.
Fine, M. (2018). Just Research in Contentious Times. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.
Griffiths, Heather, Nathan Keirns, Eric Strayer, Susan Cody-Rydzewski, Gail Scaramuzzo, Sally Vyain, Tommy Sadler, Jeff D. Bry, and Faye Jones (2017). Introduction to Sociology 2e. Suwanee, GA: 12th Media Services.
Murchison, Julian M (2010). Ethnography Essentials: Designing, Conducting and Presenting Your Research. San Francisco, CA: John Wiley and Sons.
Paris, Django (2011). Language across Difference: Ethnicity, Communication, and Youth Identities in Changing Urban Schools. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Amy Blackstone (2012), Principles of Sociological Inquiry: Qualitative and Quantitative Methods. Saylor.org.