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The Long Question Probe

Another way to induce longer and more continuous responses is by making your questions longer. Instead of asking, ‘‘How do you plant a home garden?’’ ask, ‘‘What are all the things you have to do to actually get a home garden going?'' When I interviewed sponge divers on Kalymnos, instead of asking them, ‘‘What is it like to make a dive into very deep water?’’ I said, ‘‘Tell me about diving into really deep water. What do you do to get ready and how do you descend and ascend? What’s it like down there?’’

Later in the interview or on another occasion, I would home in on special topics. But to break the ice and get the interview flowing, there is nothing quite as useful as what Spradley (1979) called the grand tour question.

This does not mean that asking longer questions or using neutral probes necessarily produces better responses. They do, however, produce more responses, and, in general, more is better. Furthermore, the more you can keep an informant talking, the more you can express interest in what they are saying and the more you build rapport. This is especially important in the first interview you do with someone whose trust you want to build (see Spradley 1979:80). There is still a lot to be learned about how various kinds of probes affect what informants tell us.

Threatening questions—those asking for sensitive information—should be short but preceded by a long, rambling run-up: ‘‘We’re interested in the various things that people do these days in order to keep from getting diseases when they have sex. Some people do different kinds of things, and some people do nothing special. Do you ever use condoms?’’ If the respondents says, ‘‘Yes,’’ or ‘‘No,’’ or ‘‘Sometimes,’’ then you can launch that series of questions about why, why not, when, with whom, and so on. The wording of sensitive questions should be supportive and nonjudgmental. (See below for more on threatening questions.)

 
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