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LEARNING TO INTERVIEW

It’s impossible to eliminate reactivity and subjectivity in interviewing, but like any other craft, you get better and better at interviewing the more you practice. It helps a lot to practice in front of others and to have an experienced interviewer monitor and criticize your performance. Even without such help, however, you can improve your interviewing technique just by paying careful attention to what you’re doing. Harry Wolcott (1995) offers excellent advice on this score: Pay as much attention to your own words as you do to the words of your respondents (p. 102).

Wolcott also advises: Keep interviews focused on a few big issues (1995:112). More good advice from one of the most accomplished ethnographers around. Here’s a guaranteed way to wreck rapport and ruin an interview: An informant asks you, ‘‘Why do you ask? What does that have to do with what we’re talking about?’’ You tell her: ‘‘Well, it just seemed like an interesting question—you know, something I thought might be useful somehow down the road in the analysis.’’

Here you are, asking people to give you their time and tell you about their lives and you’re treating that time with little respect. If you can’t imagine giving a satisfactory answer to the question: ‘‘Why did you ask that?” then leave that out.

Do not use your friends as practice informants. You cannot learn to interview with friends because there are role expectations that get in the way. Just when you’re really rolling, and getting into probing deeply on some topic that you both know about, they are likely to laugh at you or tell you to knock it off.

Practice interviews should not be just for practice. They should be done on topics you’re really interested in and with people who are likely to know a lot about those topics. Every interview you do should be conducted as professionally as possible and should produce useful data (with plenty of notes that you can code, file, and cross-file).

 
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