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Probing by Leading

After all this, you may be cautious about being really directive in an interview. Don’t be. Many researchers caution against ‘‘leading’’ an informant. Lofland (1976), for example, warns against questions like, ‘‘Don’t you think that...?’’ and suggests asking, ‘‘What do you think about ...?’’ He is, of course, correct. On the other hand, any question an interviewer asks leads an informant. You might as well learn to do it well.

Consider this leading question that I asked a Nahnu Indian: ‘‘Right. I understand. The compadre is supposed to pay for the music for the baptism fiesta. But what happens if the compadre doesn’t have the money? Who pays then?’’ This kind of question can stop the flow of an informant’s narrative stone dead. It can also produce more information than the informant would otherwise have provided. At the time, I thought the informant was being overly ‘‘normative.’’ That is, I thought he was stating an ideal behavioral custom (having a compadre pay for the music at a fiesta) as if it were never violated.

It turned out that all he was doing was relying on his own cultural competence— “abbreviating,” as Spradley (1979:79) called it. The informant took for granted that the anthropologist knew the ‘‘obvious’’ answer: If the compadre didn’t have enough money, well, then there might not be any music.

My interruption reminded the informant that I just wasn’t up to his level of cultural competence; I needed him to be more explicit. He went on to explain other things that he considered obvious but that I would not have even known to ask about. Someone who has committed himself to pay for the music at a fiesta might borrow money from another compadre to fulfill the obligation. In that case, he wouldn’t tell the person who was throwing the fiesta. That might make the host feel bad, like he was forcing his compadre to go into debt.

In this interview, in fact, the informant eventually became irritated with me because I asked so many things that he considered obvious. He wanted to abbreviate a lot and to provide a more general summary; I wanted details. I backed off and asked a different informant for the details. I have since learned to start some probes with ‘‘This may seem obvious, but. . .’’ (box 8.2).

BOX 8.2

LISTEN FOR WHAT’S LEFT OUT

Informants abbreviate all the time, and this means that you have to listen carefully for what's left out, not just what's in the interview narrative. Laurie Price (1987) collected tales of misfortune from very poor people in Quito, Ecuador. In one story, Maria talks about her crippled 6-year-old daughter. As Price tells it, Maria does not mention that, for months, she carried her daughter every day ''down a 200-step flight of public stairs and 4 blocks to the nearest bus stop so the girl could go to physical therapy'' (p. 318). The child's father, it turns out, drives a bus that he parks every night next to their house, but during the Herculean effort to help the daughter, the father never pitches in or rearranges his schedule. ''Such efforts are the unmarked case for mothers,'' says Price (p. 319).

Directive probes (leading questions) may be based on what an informant has just finished saying, or may be based on something an informant told you an hour ago or a week ago. As you progress in long-term research, you come to have a much greater appreciation for what you really want from an interview. It is perfectly legitimate to use the information you’ve already collected to focus your subsequent interviews.

This leads researchers from informal to unstructured to semistructured interviews and even to completely structured interviews like questionnaires. When you feel as though you have learned something important about a group and its culture, the next step to test that knowledge—to see if it is idiosyncratic to a particular informant or subgroup in the culture or if it can be reproduced in many informants.

 
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