Influences (or Why I Write the Way I Do)

Natalie Goldberg (free-flowing writing)
Clarissa Pinkola Estes (wild woman writing)
Jane Hutchison (direct-to-the-point writing)
Ernest Hemingway (simple words writing)

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Interview 101

this is a continuation of my blog yesterday of my bloopers in interviewing. but after approximately 81 household interviews (and 20+ institutional/ org leader interviews) what have i learned that are worth sharing:

1. conversations are still the best interviews. first, because you put the respondent at ease and the telling of stories gathers a flow that makes your questions less regimented. likewise, the questioning too becomes smooth and it could get surprising, how a seemingly-hard to ask question could be asked so effortlessly within conversation.

2. takes notes even though the recorder is running. i lost 40% of my very first interview because the tape (not yet using the digital recorder at this stage) would not wound. in one interview in pacol, i didn't notice, the digital recorder ran out of memory, of a 40-minute interview, only the first 5+min were recorded. in another, when my interviewee stopped for awhile to accommodate someone buying from her sari-sari store, i pressed the pause button and forgot about it after she got back. i lost like 15min of very interesting stories of how they used to cope with flooding in triangulo.  but in all these, i was saved by my notes, sort of. the notes could never replace the richness of specific experiences retold but it suffices nonetheless, the key points. but anyway, i'm still returning to the woman in pacol (5-min interview). her story is so rich i really need the juicy details.

3. insist (on your respondents and yourself) on a quiet environment while interviewing. sometimes, perhaps borne of hiya and respect, i would interview despite a transistor radio running, children inside the house screaming, or TV blasting off. just now, on my 78th interview, i missed a lot of key information because of blaring radio, the cries of my respondent's apo and would you believe? a cock crowing at 5 o'clock in the afternoon! gosh, i feel like i want to stone that cock to death! so do not, at any rate, allow conversation to continue under noisy circumstances. the technique is to stop, to repeat and to confirm whether the info you just heard is as what you've heard.

4. insist on recording. my last 10 interviews in pacol are all based on notes and so flimsy, i believe i would have to return to them when i get back this october. i know now that i should re-frame how i explain the uses of digital recording to my respondents: less than the issue of privacy but more on accuracy, the gathering of information from my respondents in their words, without fear of them being misquoted or misrepresented. the trade-off of course is sensitivity to comfort as i could only ask for answers that my respondents are comfortable in sharing.

5. listen more, concentrate more. this is where digital recording helps. when you need not transcribe what your respondent is actually saying because it is being recorded anyway, then you could concentrate more on probing the answers, other than just focusing on the next question on the interview guide.

6. interviewing is a trial and error, iterative exercise. my interview guides (IG) underwent 4 revisions from march to june. first, on style. the first IG consisted of 5 pages (back to back) with questions occupying the rows, followed by straight lines to write answers into. with my work in consulting before, i'm normally used to instructing my surveyors to do the questioning. little did i know, and how heartless i was, thinking now how they must have struggled writing cramped on those tiny white spaces. so i changed the IG by making 2-column tables, each divided according to section. in each table, the narrow left column contains the questions while the wide right column consists of white space, one can freely write on. each question is separated by a row to keep it uncluttered.

next, on content. you learn after every interview that there are needless questions, there are questions that need re-wording, and there are new ones to add (the pre-testing phase).  until now that i'm transcribing, i still picked up additional questions or rewordings to help me revise the latest IG for the second phase fieldwork.

your questions would also vary depending on the type of respondent you're interviewing. so the third related change was on structure. this was helped greatly by my style of arranging questions in table form. so in well-defined rows, or tables, i was able to highlight questions to a specific respondent type.

fourth, is structure. the IG should occur in a flow that would help unfold the structure of what you want to know. first, respondent and household level socioecon info; next rental and settlement history including investment patterns and practices in existing property; membership and participation in the community organization; repayment performance and status; views on the program, and views on tenure security. in more than one occasion, i was asked why the hell am i asking sensitive, disturbing questions. with my IG, i was able to explain to my respondents how i'm centering on their experiences and the meanings of their participation in the program, including the dynamics of why they do or feel XXX and not XXX. my being systematic helped show that my questions are not just random musings of a wanton mind but instead, focused on a well-defined research purpose.

fifth, on specification. i couldn't find a more appropriate term. in phase 1, i supposed to interview households only. but along the line, of course, based on my research protocol in gaining permission first from organizations before going to each household, i also decided to make a separate guide for gathering org-level histories. thus, i came up with 2 guides: one for household and one for organizations. around april, i used to have three: household (original awardee-OA), household (non-original awardee-NOA) and organization.  but bloopers of all bloopers, in one interview, i mistakenly started the interview of an OA using the guide for NOAs. it was so embarrassing, i had to stop the interview to awkwardly pick out the right guide. before any interview, i would prepare my guides such that they are neatly folded one by one. in this case, i forgot the ordering so i mistook a NOA guide for an OA. after that, i just decided to integrate my questions for OAs and NOAs in one guide, but separated by tables.

7. find a good fieldwork sling bag.  when you interview, you cannot survive with just a pen and your questionnaire. in my case, other than the digital recorder, guides (2 sets for household and org of at least 10 and 5 respectively), and pens (at least two pens and 1 pencil; the pencil for mapping), i had to bring an umbrella, a water bottle, business cards, cellphones (i have three but in the phil, i use two - actually i should write too, find a multi-sim cellphone he he!) and charger, medicines (just in case, for asthma attacks, ulcer and diarrhea), and a personal vanity set containing spare feminine napkin, cologne, face powder, hand sanitizer, sanitized wet towel pack, and mosquito repellent (i found the need when i had to wait for a doctor's apptmt at the Bicol Access Medical Center, right after a day's work, which is stormed by mosquitoes starting 5pm and up). these do not include my wallet and purse. so all these i had to fit in one bag! i found a sling bag to my taste because it leaves my hands free and during interviews, the bag also serves as a makeshift rester (as in 'patungan') for your guide during the interview. i found the perfect sling bag, a LINA brand, i bought for PhP200 pesos (A$5) at the ukay-ukay with 8 compartments! the main compartment is very roomy i could fit in 20-page photocopied materials in it along with the guides, water bottle, umbrella and wallets.


8. and the most important, with a lot of regret, transcribe after you interview or if you're too tired, still, fit transcribing into your fieldwork schedule as much as you can. don't take transcribing for granted and for later. first, it matters much that your mind is still fresh with the details. just this evening, i could not make sense of my scribbles in one org interview that unfortunately had no accompanying recording. other than not understanding my handwriting, i could not connect the sentences which would not have been the case if i transcribed this immediately. secondly, just look what happened to me. i spent 80% of my three months here in perth just transcribing. but of course, the three months were worthwhile as i got to speak with jane and brainstorm with her before she left for service leave. that i think made up for all the lost time that would have otherwise been devoted to writing. the 80% transcribing does not include data processing even! so imagine if i would have finished my transcripts last june. then i would have processed the data here and ended up with a chapter or two this september.  but then, i would've not known if i haven't undergone it myself. doc chona (echavez), one of the excellent consultant-researchers i know, have advised me before of this golden rule in qualitative research. now that i've gone through it, i know na. no sense repeating it then for phase 2 fieldwork.

so here i am. down to my last 11 interviews, scrambling even further down the road to prepare my org timelines and tally sheets before i leave on october. a tedious effort really this data organization and analysis but i look forward to the rewards in the future, of having organized and well-prepared data sets. thanks for the lessons learned, even though these are just in the interviewing.

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