Baiting: The Phased-Assertion Probe

A particularly effective probing technique is called phased assertion (Kirk and Miller 1986), or baiting (Agar 1996:142). This is when you act like you already know something to get people to open up.

I used this technique in a study of how Nahnu Indian parents felt about their children learning to read and write Nahnu. Bilingual (Spanish-Indian) education in Mexico is a politically sensitive issue (Heath 1972), and when I started asking about it a lot of people were reluctant to talk freely.

In the course of informal interviewing, I learned from a schoolteacher in one village that some fathers had come to complain about the teacher trying to get the children to read and write Nahnu. The fathers, it seems, were afraid that studying Nahnu would get in the way of their children becoming fluent in Spanish. Once I heard this story, I began to drop hints that I knew the reason parents were against children learning to read and write Nahnu. As I did this, the parents opened up and confirmed what I’d found out.

Every journalist (and gossip monger) knows this technique well. As you learn a piece of a puzzle from one informant, you use it with the next informant to get more information, and so on. The more you seem to know, the more comfortable people feel about talking to you and the less people feel they are actually divulging anything. They are not the ones who are giving away the ‘‘secrets’’ of the group.

Phased assertion also prompts some informants to jump in and correct you if they think you know a little but that you’ve ‘‘got it all wrong.’’ In some cases, I’ve purposely made wrong assertions to provoke a correcting response.

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