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Letting the Informant or Respondent Lead

If you can carry on “unthreatening, self-controlled, supportive, polite, and cordial interaction in everyday life,’’ then interviewing will come easy to you, and informants will feel comfortable responding to your questions (Lofland 1976:90). But no matter how supportive you are as a person, an interview is never really like a casual, unthreatening conversation in everyday life. In casual conversations, people take more or less balanced turns (Spradley 1979) and there is no feeling that somehow the discussion has to stay on track or follow some theme (see also Hyman and Cobb 1975; Merton et al. 1956). In unstructured interviewing, you keep the conversation focused on a topic, while giving the respondent room to define the content of the discussion.

The rule is: Get people on to a topic of interest and get out of the way. Let the informant provide information that he or she thinks is important.

During my research on the Kalymnian sponge fishermen in Greece, I spent a lot of time at Procopis Kambouris’s taverna. (A Greek taverna is a particular kind of restaurant.) Procopis’s was a favorite of the sponge fishermen. Procopis was a superb cook, he made his own wine every year from grapes that he selected himself, and he was as good a teller of sea stories as he was a listener to those of his clientele. At Procopis’s taverna, I was able to collect the work histories of sponge fishermen—when they’d begun their careers, the training they’d gotten, the jobs they’d held, and so on. The atmosphere was relaxed (plenty of retsina wine and good things to eat), and conversation was easy.

As a participant observer, I developed a sense of camaraderie with the regulars, and we exchanged sea stories with a lot of flourish. Still, no one at Procopis’s ever made the mistake of thinking that I was there just for the camaraderie. They knew that I was writing about their lives and that I had lots of questions to ask. They also knew immediately when I switched from the role of participant observer to that of ethnographic interviewer.

One night, I slipped into just such an interview/conversation with Savas Ergas. He was 64 years old at the time and was planning to make one last 6-month voyage as a sponge diver during the coming season in 1965. I began to interview Savas on his work history at about 7:30 in the evening, and we closed Procopis’s place at about 3 in the morning. During the course of the evening, several other men joined and left the group at various times, as they would on any night of conversation at Procopis’s. Savas had lots of stories to tell (he was a living legend and he played well to a crowd), and we had to continue the interview a few days later, over several more liters of retsina.

At one point on that second night, Savas told me (almost offhandedly) that he had spent more than a year of his life walking the bottom of the Mediterranean. I asked him how he knew this, and he challenged me to document it. Savas had decided that there was something important that I needed to know and he maneuvered the interview around to make sure I learned it.

This led to about 3 hours of painstaking work. We counted the number of seasons he’d been to sea over a 46-year career (he remembered that he hadn’t worked at all during 1943 because of‘‘something to do with the war’’). We figured conservatively the number of days he’d spent at sea, the average number of dives per trip, and the average depth and time per dive. We joked about the tendency of divers to exaggerate their exploits and about how fragile human memory is when it comes to this kind of detail.

It was difficult to stay on the subject, because Savas was such a good raconteur and a perceptive analyst of Kalymnian life. The interview meandered off on interesting tangents, but after a while, either Savas or I would steer it back to the issue at hand. In the end, discounting heavily for both exaggeration and faulty recall, we reckoned that he’d spent at least 10,000 hours—about a year and a fourth, counting each day as a full 24 hours— under water and had walked the distance between Alexandria and Tunis at least three times.

The exact numbers really didn’t matter. What did matter was that Savas Ergas had a really good sense of what he thought I needed to know about the life of a sponge diver. It was I, the interviewer, who defined the focus of the interview; but it was Savas, the respondent, who determined the content. And was I ever glad he did.

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