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UNSTRUCTURED INTERVIEWING

Unstructured interviewing is truly versatile. It is used equally by scholars who identify with the hermeneutic tradition and by those who identify with the positivist tradition. It is used in studies that require only textual data and in studies that require both textual and numerical data. Ethnographers may use it to develop formal guides for semistructured interviews, or to learn what questions to include, in the native language, on a highly structured questionnaire (see Werner and Schoepfle [1987] for a good discussion of this). I say that ethnographers may use unstructured interviewing in developing structured interview schedules because unstructured interviewing also stands on its own.

When you want to know about the lived experience of fellow human beings—what it’s like to survive hand-to-hand combat, how you get through each day when you have a child dying of leukemia, how it feels to make it across the border into Texas from Mexico only to be deported 24 hours later—you just can’t beat unstructured interviewing.

Unstructured interviewing is excellent for building initial rapport with people, before moving to more formal interviews, and it’s perfect for talking to informants who would not tolerate a more formal interview. The personal rapport you build with close informants in long-term fieldwork can make highly structured interviewing—and even semistructured interviewing—feel somehow unnatural. In fact, really structured interviewing can get in the way of your ability to communicate freely with key informants.

But not always. Some people want very much to talk about their lives, but they really don’t like the unstructured interview format. I once asked a fisherman in Greece if I could have a few minutes of his time to discuss the economics of small-scale fishing. I was about 5 minutes into the interview, treading lightly—you know, trying not to get too quickly into his finances, even though that’s exactly what I wanted to know about—when he interrupted me: ‘‘Why don’t you just get to the point?’’ he asked. ‘‘You want to know how I decide where to fish, and whether I use a share system or a wage system to split the profits, and how I find buyers for my catch, and things like that, right?’’ He had heard from other fishermen that these were some of the topics I was interviewing people about. No unstructured interviews for him; he was a busy man and wanted to get right to it.

 
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