Intro to semi-structured interviewing: class planning

In this post, I share a teaching plan as I am returning after 20 (omg) years to facilitate one session of an undergrad Intro to Ethnography seminar course by the same prof who taught me. All of my first interviewing experiences, which took place in undergrad, were directly or indirectly through this professor: through a summer in Nepal (Annapurna side, in Ghandruk) during which I tried to research interpretations of and care-seeking for mental illness; through service-learning for a medical anthropology course, helping with office work and learning about patient experiences interacting with doctors about diabetes at a local free clinic; and through interviewing farmworkers and food bank employees about food insecurity among the migrant farmworker community of North Carolina. These experiences were formative and I am incredibly grateful for them, even if I don’t think I was an excellent researcher in all cases. I suspect far more practice and feedback were warranted before I undertook any of those activities. Hopefully I have gotten better in the years that have followed.

Interviewing with Kiran Sawant (of PUKAR) in Kaula Bandar, Bombay, India. (Photo shared with permission.)

What I am sharing now

In this post, I share my draft student guide and slides and then revisit in a follow-up post with the final class prep guide and pre-work for students, slides, lecture notes, and reflections on what worked and what did not. Will be happy for anyone to pick up and use the materials at that point.

I draw on chapters in two books, to which I link below in an experiment about whether that turns out OK. The first is Chapter 9 (Interviewing: unstructured and semi-structured) from Bernard’s Research methods in anthropology. The second is Chapter 2 (A method of listening) from Cramer’s A politics of resentment.

I most certainly welcome critique and ideas in advance of lecturing/facilitating!!!

DRAFT Class session prep sheet and pre-work for students (pdf)

Objectives

By the end of your pre-work and our session together, you will be able to:

  • Objective 1: Articulate a definition of positionality and some key dimensions in your own words.
  • Objective 2*: Articulate a working statement of your own positionality, including how it may vary in different contexts and how you will approach it in your research project.
  • Objective 3: Articulate a definition of epistemic justice in your own words.
  • Objective 4: Highlight steps Cramer took to mitigate such injustice and state two more steps you think she could have taken.
  • Objective 5*: Articulate a practical working definition of active listening and a list of three things you can do to support and demonstrate this given the modality in which you will conduct your own interviews.
  • Objective 6*: List interview techniques, including question wording and probes, that you can use to get at the information you want during an interview—without leading.

*s indicate key goals for our seminar sesssion

Before class

  • (Re)read Bernard Chapter 9, Interviewing: unstructured and semi-structured
  • Read Cramer Chapter 2, A method of listening
  • Read through this learning guide and answer the key questions, including mailing in the three requested definitions. This will help you be prepared in case of cold/warm calling in seminar, to engage with the material more deeply, and allow us to rapidly move beyond definitions to invigorating seminar discussion. That is, completing this guide will allow you to learn more and avoid embarrassment.

Prep guide and pre-work

Positionality

Positionality: a definition

Some working definitions of positionality:

  • “Positionality refers to the stance or positioning of the researcher in relation to the social and political context of the study—the community, the organization or the participant group. The position adopted by a researcher affects every phase of the research process.” (Coughlin and Brydon-Miller)
  • “The fact that a researcher’s social, cultural, and subject positions (and other psychological processes) affect: the questions they ask, how they frame them…; their relations with those they research in ‘the field’ or through interviews; interpretations they place on empirical evidence; access to data; institutions and outlets for research dissemination; and the likelihood they will be listened to and heard.” (Gregory et al.)
  • “Positionality is dynamic. Our lives are in flux and, as a result, so are our subject positions.” (Correia 2012)

Prepare and send: Drawing on these and your discussions with Dr. Folmar so far, please craft a 1-2 sentence definition of positionality that works for you, such as how you would describe it to your roommate, parents/guardians, or other, older family members. Now that autumn is upon us, you might consider how you would introduce this idea of what you are learning around the Thanksgiving or other holiday table. <Submit your definition to Folmar by…>

Positionality: In A method of listening

Prof Folmar has noted that one’s own positionality is nearly impossible to describe in full but that, for data collection, there are different ways to ‘lean into’ our own positionality to create more authentic interview and observation experiences. There are also ways to modify aspects of our appearance, behavior, and shared biography to mitigate aspects of our positionality that might otherwise diminish the quality of data we collect.

Despite the challenges in fully articulating our positionality, it is important for us to reflect deeply on it when deciding what to research and how to prepare for and conduct data collection in particular contexts. Positionality matters for the quality of data we collect. For this reason, there is value in stating aspects of stating those dimensions we think are likely to influence our work clearly, as Cramer does, so that readers of our research can take these factors into account when reading our work and determining whether our results seem credible to them. That is, why should they think you got close to ‘the truth.’ We should not strive for “a gaze from nowhere,” but, instead, to be honest about our own gaze. Some dimensions of positionality map onto Bourdieu’s discussion of capital, including cultural capital, and this can be useful additional reading and may provide an organizational principle that resonates with you.

Prepare: As you read through Cramer’s ‘A method of listening’ from her book The politics of resentment, please consider and note down your answers the following questions.

  • In what ways does Cramer identify herself as having an emic perspective on the people and places she investigates? (Be sure to refresh yourself on ‘emic’ and ‘etic’ if you don’t remember.)
  • In what ways does Cramer identify herself as having an etic perspective on the people and places she investigates?
  • Overall, do you think that Cramer was well-suited to conduct research in/on/with the participants and topics she did? Why/not?
  • Throughout the chapter, Cramer lists multiple dimensions of her positionality and how it might influence her work. Note down each dimension or characteristic she suggests and prepare to speak about one that was particularly interesting to you and why.
  • Throughout the chapter, Cramer suggests steps she took to adjust her positionality or how she would be perceived. Note down each adjustment she makes. Prepare to discuss either: (1) one alteration that resonated with you, which you might consider as you prepare for your own data collection or (2) if none of her alterations resonated with you, or you don’t think alterations should made, be prepared to explain why. If Bernard’s examples in ‘presentation of self’ resonate more with you, you can also speak about those.
  • Provide an example from popular media and culture (such as podcast, other interview format, movies, or TV shows) in which you think the questioner or presenter does a good job of being honest about his/her/their positionality and how it might influence what follows.

One thing that becomes clear from reading Cramer’s chapter is that the interview—including rapport-building and positionality-defining work—begins far before an interview starts, including how you arrive, how you introduce yourself, how you set things up before you ask your first “formal” question.

Prepare: Revisit the lists you made of Cramer’s dimensions of positionality and steps she took to play up or play down some of these dimensions.

  • Mark or sort the lists you made above, distinguishing between those that are particularly relevant before interviews, those that are particularly relevant during, and those that matter as you close and leave the interview.
  • With these lists in mind—and with reference to your intended research participants and setting you have in mind for your own research project—what is one thing you will plan to do (1) before your interviews, one thing you will plan to do (2) during your interviews, and one thing you will do as you (3) close your interviews to support more honest, authentic, and rich exchanges?
  • With reference  to your particular research topic and intended participants, what are three key dimensions of your positionality you need to own, modify, or otherwise address?

Epistemic justice and shared sense-making

Epistemic justice: A definition

The theory of ‘epistemic justice’ has been articulated by Fricker (2007), and indicates that “we can be unfairly discriminated against in our capacity as a knower based on prejudices about the speaker, such as gender, social background, ethnicity, race, sexuality, tone of voice, accent, and so on.” We can also discriminate against others, such as our research participants, interpreters, and so on in their capacity as ‘knowers.’ We usually seek people out to interview because they are expert in something (including their own lives, jobs) and yet we may undervalue their role as ‘knowers’ as we analyze, interpret, and report findings. Issues of epistemic injustice have recently been raised and anthropology and related applied fields, such as global health (such as in Tsosai 2017 and in Bhukani & Abímbọ́lá 2021).

There are two dimensions of such injustice (drawing on Bhukani & Abímbọ́lá):

  • Testimonial injustice: occurs when a hearer (such as an interviewer or analyst) prejudicially ascribes lower credibility to a speaker’s (such as a respondent’s) word. This can include silencing, undervaluing, or distorting the knower’s contributions, marking them with a ‘credibility deficit.’
  • Hermeneutical/interpretive injustice: occurs, in part, when ‘knowers’ are not included in interpretive processes (are interpretively marginalized), such that their efforts to make sense of and share their experience of the world is not heard.

A call for epistemic justice might be summed up as, “nothing about us without us.”

Prepare and send: Drawing on these definitions, please craft a 1-2 sentence definition of epistemic justice that works for you, again with the Thanksgiving/family/friend table in mind. <Submit your definition to Folmar by…>

Epistemic justice, sense-making, and member-checking: In A method of listening

In a 1986 paper, But it is rigorous?, Lincoln and Guba articulate the idea of ‘member-checking,’ as one way of co-interpreting findings with research participants. They define this as “the process of continuous, informal testing of information by soliciting the reactions of respondents to the investigator’s reconstruction of what she/he/they have been told or otherwise found out, and the constructions [or sense-making] offered by other respondents/participants or sources. It also includes a terminal, formal testing of the final report with a representative sample of stakeholders.”

Prepare:

  • In her chapter, in what ways, if any, does Cramer pursue member-checking or, more broadly epistemic justice, in her research? What is one additional step you think she could have taken (and which you may wish to pursue in your own research)?
  • In his chapter, Bernard also raises examples of positionality, valuing what the ‘knower’ has to say, and co-creating answers. Reviewing the example of Bernard and Savas, what do we learn both about positionality and joint sense-making?

Getting what you came for with interviews

Active listening: a definition

“Assure  your respondents that their participation is crucial and that you are truly interested in what they have to say (and you’d better mean it or you’ll never pull it off)” (Bernard).

Both Bernard and Cramer provide examples of ‘active listening,’ although they never provide a precise definition for the term. It is useful to have a working definition as well as some tactics to pursue it in the modality in which you plan to conduct your interviews.

Prepare and send: Using what Cramer and Bernard apply, as well as the internet[1], develop a 1-2 sentence Thanksgiving-table definition of ‘active listening.’ <Submit your definition to Folmar by…>

Active listening: In Cramer and Bernard

Like Moliere’s protagonist, Monsieur Jourdain, as you read more about actively listening to others, you may find that you and those around you have been doing it all along. You may also see how other professionals–medical, journalistic, and others–use (or fail to use) solid active listening techniques. In data collection, it is important to intentionally cultivate context-appropriate ways of demonstrating that you are really attending to what a participant is saying and feeling. you may have to adapt these for the modality you plan to use (for example, face-to-face, Zoom-to-Zoom, or over-the-phone).

Prepare:

  • Drawing examples from Cramer and Bernard, make a list of techniques think you can use to demonstrate that you are actively listening and attending to a research participant in your planned interview context/setting and modality.
  • Send: To practice active listening, please record a short 3-10 video of yourself demonstrating how you actively listen when Folmar is lecturing. It can be a selfie video or you can ask someone to film you. Nothing fancy! <Submit your video to Folmar by…>
Probing and encouraging deeper reflection: In A method of listening

As Bernard explains, effective probing is key to successful interviews, as that is how we pursue high-quality, rich data that isn’t just a reflection of ourselves. He provides seven probe types (separate from tactics to encourage particularly verbal and nonverbal respondents).

Prepare:

  • Make a list of the seven types of probes Bernard suggests that you can use.
  • Do you think there are any probe types that Bernard overlooked? If so, please add them to your list.
  • For each, include an example from Cramer, Bernard, or another class reading that shows the type in action. If you cannot find an example, you can note down how you think you might be able to use that probe type in your own research.

Slides

[Draft slides to follow…]

Share your thoughts, please! The more minds, the merrier

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