Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Four Stages of Interview Success

Camp! Ranomafana National Park, Madagascar, 2007
Fieldwork is often the bread-and-butter of many researchers' work. This ritual of going 'out' to collect 'data' forms the core of how both natural and social scientists build their understandings of the world. I fell into field ecology my second year at university, doing fun things like counting the number and size of trees in a certain area, or seeing how many different types of bugs we could catch in pitfall traps set at regular intervals. The methods were pretty much the same if we went to the rainforest in southern Mexico, a deciduous forest in northern New York, or across the globe to the temperate humid forests in eastern Australia. Expeditions could require a fair amount of logistical magic - between wrangling gear (like massive measuring tapes for transects or containers for sample collection) and obtaining appropriate permits (particularly if in a foreign country or accessing protected areas). Something will inevitably go wrong - inclement weather, malfunctioning equipment, lost luggage - and it can get lonely. But it can also be peaceful, contemplative, and rejuvenating (...anyone need a field assistant?).

I don't think we made it to the village... Central Ghana, 2014
But this 'fieldwork' has changed a fair bit for me since the last excursion in ecology just over a decade ago, as more of the natural gets replaced by social. Yet, particularly in a school of biological sciences, I get the feeling that social science methods are underestimated in terms of their complexity and questioned for their legitimacy and robustness. In becoming more familiar with the social sciences over the last few years, though, I'm coming to terms with their own methodological challenges not too dissimilar from carrying out an ecology fieldtrip. Yesterday, while trying to sort out a few remaining interviews for a study here in Indonesia, we were discussing all the behind-the-scenes activity involved in the final 45-90 minute interview. For your benefit, I've detailed the four stages of "interview success" below:

First Success! Obtain contact information for the target interviewee, either directly, or through circuitous process of snowballing. For example, you know someone, who knows someone, who used to work at the organisation the right person might still be affiliated with.

Second Success! Make contact with target interviewee, and proceed with a long series of WhatsApp messages, often missing vowels or half the word. Then, you realize that your explanation in bahasa Indonesia implied you are implementing a “project” and not “studying” something on the topic of interest, and you spend the next exchange of messages explaining that you’re doing something else entirely, and you really just want to talk to them and hope it eventually makes a difference in the world.

Third Success! Set a time, date, and location for the interview. Change said time, date, and location because of heavy rains and flooding. Then realize the location is actually perfectly situated for acoustic augmentation of motorbikes revving, which is all a dictaphone or mobile actually picks up. 

Fourth Success! Actually meet target interviewee, conduct congenial interview, shake hands (maybe taken token photo), and part ways. This does eventually happen. 

Bonus Success! Interpret your notes scribbled during the interview and somehow manage to fit them into a framework you thought was applicable to the "study system". Proceed with analysis and writing up, ultimately trying to make some sense of the messy world we live in.

A recent paper reviewing the use of interviews in conservation research provides some useful insights into good practices when choosing interviews as a methodology.

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