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Pacing the Study

Two of the biggest problems faced by researchers who rely heavily on semistructured interviews are boredom and fatigue. Even small projects may require 30-40 interviews to generate sufficient data to be worthwhile. Most field researchers collect their own interview data, and asking the same questions over and over again can get pretty old. Gorden (1987) studied 30 interviewers who worked for 12 days doing about two tape-recorded interviews per day. Each interview was from 1 to 2 hours long.

The first interview on each day, over all interviewers, averaged about 30 pages of transcription. The second averaged only 25 pages. Furthermore, the first interviews, on average, got shorter and shorter during the 12-day period of the study. In other words, on any given day, boredom made the second interview shorter, and over the 12 days boredom (and possibly fatigue) took its toll on the first interviews of each day.

Even anthropologists who spend a year in the field may have focused bouts of interviewing on a particular topic. Plan each project, or subproject, in advance and calculate the number of interviews you are going to get. Pace yourself. Spread the project out if possible, and don’t try to bring in all your interview data in the shortest possible time— unless you’re studying reactions to a hot issue, in which case, spreading things out can create a serious history confound (see chapter 4).

Here’s the tradeoff: The longer a project takes, the less likely that the first interviews and the last interviews will be valid indicators of the same things. In long-term, participant observation fieldwork (6 months to a year), I recommend going back to your early informants and interviewing them a second time. See whether their observations and attitudes have changed, and if so, why.

 
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