Before the Interview

Preparing for the Interview

  • Prepare yourself:  The first thing people learn about media production is that things do take longer than they think they will.
  • If you don’t already know them yet, get to know your interlocutor(s) before filming with them. Discuss some of the topics that you are interested in talking about in the interview. Do they have the perspective you expected them to have?
  • Whenever possible, do a test recording and play it back in advance so you can prepare your setup before you record the actual interview. Set up your software and equipment before your interlocutor joins you so that don’t unnecessarily take up too much of their time.
  • Be sure to tell your interlocutor about how interview will proceed, and how it may feel different from a typical conversation.
  • Avoid questions with simple Yes or No answers. Ask questions that open up complete sentences that incorporate the terms of your question. To get past such simple answers, ask for further explanation, a why question, or ask for specific examples.
  • The key to interviewing is listening closely. Pull on specific words or phrases by asking what they might mean by that or for examples of a general idea.
  • Return to compelling topics, ideas, or even specific words and ask about them in different terms or what they might mean by them.
  • Avoid the impulse to respond immediately, especially while your interlocutor finishes talking. Take a pause before you speak to create the sonic space for clean editing between utterances in your dialogue.
  • Additionally, leaving pauses after responses can elicit further and more interesting insights from your interlocutors.

Interview Styles

Interviews are guided conversations. Consider these three main interview styles:  structured, semi-structured,  and unstructured. They can serve different research purposes ranging from comparing tendencies and variations among a number of interlocutors to ways of deepening conversations and revealing what interlocutors think is important about a subject, in the context of their own experiences. It is important to consider the benefits and limitations of each style and how they might affect your interpretations and film styles. Read through each description and consider which style(s) may best suit your project.

  • Structured interviews are typically formal and standardized. They are similar to surveys.
  • All interviewees are asked the same questions in the same order with as little change as possible.
  • Prepare an interview guide ahead of time that lists all the areas that would be covered in the interview along with each area’s topics or questions.
  • Consult the interview guide at the end to make sure everything has been asked.
  • They might conclude with an open-ended question such as, “Is there is anything else you think we should know about the topic?”

You may choose to conduct a structured interview when you know a lot about the topic and are trying to form or prove a hypothesis. This style of interview allows for the researcher to easily categorize and compare information that they gather across interviews with multiple interlocutors. One drawback of this interview style is that it may stifle the responses of your interlocutors. You could run the risk of asking leading or presuming questions and manipulating your interview to suit a hypothesis that you already have rather than remaining open to new information or ideas that your informant and their unique perspective may add.

  • Unstructured interviews are generally free flowing conversations.
  • Ethnographers do not need to prepare questions in advance and should ask questions that engage the interlocutor in a natural conversation.
  • You may have in mind topics of discussion and even some particular questions of significance, such as “why” an interlocutor says or does something.
  • This style digs deeper by selecting and pulling threads, such as, “You said this was important to you. Why?” Or, “You used this word ‘X’, what did you mean by that?”

You may choose this style of interview when you do not know much about a topic but your interlocutor does. This style of interviewing allows deeper insight into the perspective of your interlocutor and gives them most control over where the conversation leads compared to the other interview styles. This could be useful collecting knowledge that you may not have thought to ask about and privelaging the perspective of the interlocutor over your own. However, this style of interviewing does not make categorizing or comparing information across interviews easy. The information collected from this style may be more anecdotal than hypothesis forming or generalizable.

  • Semi-structured interviews my start with an interview guide but allows the ethnographer flexibility.
  • The ethnographer can modify or improvise new questions based on the interlocutor’s responses.
  • Think of this style as a “branching” pattern that tailors questions to the interlocutor and to the direction they might take the conversation.

You may choose this style of interview if you have a basis of knowledge on the subject you are researching and have a sense of what topics you would like to discuss with the interlocutor. This style of interview gives the interlocutors more flexibility to express themselves than the structured interview. This is valuable because you may learn more about the specific topics that you are interested in as well as garner  insights from the interlocutors. This style of interview presents the challenge of discerning when to step in and steer the conversation to the researcher. Because the direction of the interview is not entirely up to one person, but rather a mutual effort, it requires the researcher to be extra considerate to maintain a good rapport with the interlocutor.

Other Important Concepts

Snowball method
  • In addition to the three interview styles, the snowball method is a great way to recruit other interlocutors.
  • The snowball method describes a situation where an ethnographer works with one contact in the community and this contact then brings in more contacts. This is repeated and the ethnographer is able to engage in more interviews to gain a wider understanding of typical responses as well as variation.
  • An important limitation of this method to keep in mind is that it may lead the ethnographer to an “echo chamber” of similar perspectives that may not be representative of the range of perspectives available.

Question Ordering

  • Consider starting with less pertinent questions or even a practice questions so that you and your interlocutor have time to adjust to the delay on ZOOM
  • Do not start with sensitive questions, allow for time to build trust and a good rapport between yourself and the interlocutor

Suggestions for Further Reading about Interviews

  • Briggs, Charles  1986 “Interview Techniques vis-à-vis native metacommunicative repertoires; or, on the analysis of communicative Blunders.” In Learning How to Ask, pp. 39-60. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Leech, Beth 2002. “Asking Questions: Techniques for Semistructured Interviews,” PSOnline 665-668.
  • Weiss, Robert S. 1994 “Preparation for Interviewing.” In Learning from Strangers: The Art and Method of Qualitative Interview Studies, pp. 39-53. Free Press.
  • Barbash, Ilisa and Lucien Taylor. 1997. “Interviews.” In Cross-Cultural Filmmaking, pp. 341-356 Berkeley: University of California Press