Conducting an Interview
For Research Assignment #3, you will conduct
an interview with an individual whose skills, knowledge,
or experiences seem pertinent to the argument of your second
Because interviews impinge not only on your
own time as a student but also on the time of an innocent
stranger, it is vital that you prepare yourself adequately
in advance. The interviewee will have his or her own responsibilities,
and taking time out of that busy schedule to help a student
is an act of generosity. To repay that kindly deed, you
should prepare your questions in advance and be punctual
and organized. If an individual refuses to talk with you,
do not badger her, but seek a different respondent for this
The interview should
have a clear purpose, rather than simply being a "fishing expedition" to
see what facts you turn up. The purpose might be gaining
the perspective of an expert or insider within the field,
explaining a tricky or technical issue, or providing
reader with information normally unavailable in books.
You will need to find the interview subject early in
process and set up the time in advance. It is sometimes
more convenient to arrange for the interview to take
over the phone or via e-mail if that is preferable to both
parties. You might wish to read Carter McNamara's General
Guidelines for Conducting Interviews before you begin
as a supplement to the guidelines below:
Prepare your questions in advance before meeting
with the interviewee.
This interview is for academic purposes, not
the Jerry Springer Show or Hard Ball. Mainstream
media of lowbrow taste often engages in confrontational
or aggressive questioning in order to spark disputes, embarrassment,
or scandal. That sort of tomfoolery is both inadvisable
and unnecessary for genuine research. Often mass-media
serve primarily as a source of "sound bites," snippets
of quotation that sound neat, but end up water-down or
simplifying the debate rather than engaging in a sincere,
nuanced analysis. Collecting sound bites is not your purpose
here. You are not inflating your paper with neat-but-empty
catch phrases; you are seeking to understand something
as a part of your argument. You are seeking to become an
expert on the subject at hand.
BEFORE YOU BEGIN:
Think about what sort of person would be a
useful candidate for an interview. A professional who works
within the field? An academic who studies that issue in
particular? A published author who has already written books
on that topic? A person in the local community who has dealt
with this issue in his or her personal life? Identify that
person and make arrangements to contact her. Authors can
often be contacted through the publisher of their books
or the editor of their journals (though this may take a
week or two). Scholars can often be contacted through their
respective departments, or through campus directories. Professionals
often have listings in the yellow pages of the phone book.
Other individuals may be harder to track down. Allow yourself
sufficient time to locate them and set aside a little cash
for a high phone bill if you are contacting someone far
WHEN YOU FIRST CONTACT THE
INTERVIEWEE TO SET UP THE INTERVIEW:
1. Explain who you are, why you want to talk
to them, and what you wish to find out. The purpose of that
interview should be made clear to the interviewees before
you meet them.
2. The interviewees should know in general
what sort of questions they will be asked, and approximately
how long the interview will last. (Note that when conducting
interviews on the radio or on television, some reporters
will often not let the interviewee know specifically what
questions will be asked. The purpose in this subterfuge
is to catch the interviewees off guard, and perhaps make
them slip and reveal more than intended. It makes for good
ratings and a dramatic presentation during a live-interview,
but that sort of trick is not appropriate for a scholarly
interview; our purpose isn't to impress the audience with
3. Arrange a time
to meet, a time to call them on the phone, or a date
for an e-mail exchange. If
you meet face-to-face, pick a fairly public location, but
one with few distractions. Let them know how long you
the interview to take. Many interviewees will feel most
comfortable if you interview them at their offices, i.e.,
on their "home-turf" where they are psychologically
4. Ask to obtain permission in writing to
quote the respondents, to cut-and-paste e-mail responses
they write, or to use a tape-recorder during the session
if you will be doing any of these activities. You can type
up and mail a form for them to sign, or bring it with you
to the interview for their signature. I include an example
"I [respondent's name]
hereby give my permission for [student's name]
to interview me and quote my
responses in a scholarly research paper. I understand
that this research paper will be submitted to
professor at the University of XXXX. I understand
that I waive any claim to copyright to this material
should the student ever publish it in a scholarly
journal or in electronic format online. I understand
that the author [will / will not] maintain my
as a part of this interview. I hereby give my permission
in the form of my signature below."
5. Ask if the interviewee has any questions
to ask before you begin.
WHEN PREPARING THE INTERVIEW
1. Plan to wear appropriate apparel for the
interview. Dress a bit more formally than normal so the
interviewee will treat you seriously and respectfully, rather
than dismiss you as some punk college student who is barging
into her life demanding an interview.
2. Prepare a list of questions in advance.
Decide if you want an informal, chatty interview (which
often puts interviewees at ease), or a more formal, structured
interview (which often is more time-efficient and covers
material more completely).
3. Since relying on one's memory is haphazard,
be prepared to record responses in some way. Take a notebook
for jotting down answers, or bring along a partner to take
notes. Even better, bring along a tape recorder and ask
permission for the interview to be recorded.
FIRST MEET THE INTERVIEWEES:
1. Explain any issues of confidentiality.
Explain who will get access to their answers and how their
answers will be analyzed. Do note that it is often difficult
to promise absolute confidentiality. Court orders may supersede
their request for anonymity if you are interviewing someone
who has engaged in illegal activities (something one should
only do with caution--if at all. Professional reporters
are paid good money to interview dangerous individuals, and
they have the staff of their publication to help ensure
their safety. College students aren't and don't.)
2. If these comments are to be used as quotes,
get written permission to do so.
3. Explain the format of the interview. Explain
the type of interview you are conducting, its purpose, and
4. Explain how to get in touch with you later
WHEN ASKING QUESTIONS:
1. Ask only one question at a time. Don't
jumble the response by trying to combine multiple questions
2. Attempt to remain
as neutral as possible. Often researchers suggest that
the interviewer should not
show any strong emotional reactions to their responses
to avoid altering the responses. One researcher, Patton,
acting as if "you've heard it all before."
3. Encourage and elicit
responses with non-committal body language, such as nodding,
or murmuring "uh
huh," and so on. Don't suddenly jump up to take notes,
or it may seem that you are unusually surprised about
may influence the subject's response to the next few questions.
4. Don't let the respondent stray to another
topic, but steer them back to the topic at hand with your
5. Phrase your questions in such a way as
to ensure an open-ended response. Don't put words in the
interviewees' mouths, but let them choose their own vocabulary
and phrasing when responding.
6. Keep questions neutral
in tone. Avoid judgmental wording or evocative language.
Asking someone, "what
do you think the effects will be of higher levels of acidity
in the Mackenzie" is less likely to direct a response
than, "What do you think the effects will be of callously
leaking industrial waste into a freshwater river?"
7. Word the questions clearly. Make them concise.
8. Pick pertinent inquiries. Part of this
is also becoming familiar with the vocabulary of that field
or topic, so you can ask intelligent questions.
9. Use caution when
asking "why" questions.
This type of question suggests a cause-effect relationship
that may not actually exist. These questions may also
a defensive response, e.g., the interviewees may feel they
have to justify their response, which may inhibit their
responses to future questions.
1. Begin the interview with simple, factual
questions that the interviewee can easily answer. This will
help put the interviewee at ease, and make her more talkative
for later, more complicated questions.
2. A good way to start
is to ask about the interviewee's qualifications or knowledge.
For example, "How long have you studied or worked on X?" "What
first made you interested in X?" These questions,
called ice-breakers, help establish a rapport with the subject.
3. After easing into the interview with simple
questions, you can seek information about personal opinions
or about more controversial issues.
4. Ask questions about the present before
moving into questions about past events or future events.
People have an easier time talking about what is taking
place currently than they do recalling the past or speculating
about the future.
4. The last question should be an invitation
for the interviewee to add any final points or comments
of his own.
5. If you are using a tape-recorder, check
to to see that it is working over the course of the interview.
AFTER YOU ARE DONE:
1. Go over your notes and make sure you can
read your writing while it is still fresh in your memory.
2. It is polite to send a thank-you card or
letter expressing your gratitude to the individuals interviewed
and offer them a copy of the final paper, if they wish to
have one. If your paper is later published, it is also polite
to acknowledge the interviewee's assistance in a section
thanking those who helped in the creation of the paper.
3. Be sure to include an entry for the interview
in your Works Cited or Bibliography page of your final essay.
Congratulations. You have engaged in first-hand
research, and found information that may never have been
recorded before in any publication. You are one step closer
to becoming an authoritative writer on this topic. Other
writers may end up quoting you and your publications on
Turn in to your teacher
by Week Eight the following information:
1. Name of the person
2. Date scheduled for
3. A brief explanation
of why the interviewee seems like a pertinent source (i.e.,
what qualifications, knowledge, or experience does he or
she have regarding your topic).
4. A list of a dozen
questions for the interview.