In the spring of 2013 I stayed in Brussels for 3 weeks to interview policy-makers, military, diplomats and politicians on the development of the EU’s military operations. Interviewing is great fun, but also requires specific skills. Since there is relatively little guidance for doing interviews with elites & experts, let me share some first-hand experiences with you.
The people I spoke with, all have expert knowledge on EU military operations and the ability/opportunity to influence decision-making in this policy domain. Hence, they can be classified as both elites and experts (Littig 2009). This really sets those interviewees apart from conducting interviews with “normal” people who do not have a particular professional expertise and influential position in society. Expert interviews are all about: interest, power, control and hierarchy (Abels & Behrens 2009). How did I deal with these issues? Here are some practical tips:
Pre-interview: gaining access
Experts and elites are busy people. So, they’ll probably suggest to do it by phone or email. Don’t settle for that! Indicate that you are very flexible (make sure you really are!) and available to meet anywhere in a particular period of time (a few weeks). To make sure that your interviewees make some time for you, they have to see you as a competent scholar who is worthy to spend their valuable time with. This means that in your email you make abundantly clear that speaking to the particular interviewee is of great importance to your research. For this it helps to show that you know their CV. Also, attach two documents to your email:
- A topic list indicating the topics you want to address in the interview. Although one could argue that you run the risk of too much transparency (e.g. you may steer the interview by explaining too well what you are after), I argue that it helps you gain access in the first place, and that this outweighs the potential disadvantages.
- An informed consent form. Although anonymity may be required, this way you can at least “proof” that you actually spoke with people and you were not just inventing your data. Moreover, while elites are well aware of the sensitivity of the information they provide, their influential position makes them vulnerable as well. Hence, to explicitly agree on the way the interview data is dealt with is part of a scientific and ethical approach towards conducting interviews – including expert interviews. Moreover, I had the impression that it contributed significantly to presenting myself as a competent scholar.
Since experts are accustomed to talk about their field of expertise and aiming at conveying a particular message (for strategic purposes), during the interviews itself some balancing acts are required.
- Central to all introductions of conducting good interviews is that you have to ask open questions: You have to be open to what the interviewee is about to say and allow the interviewee to lead the conversation (Littig 2009). Take care however, that you do not end up listening for more than an hour to information that is irrelevant for you. You don’t want to leave the room without having raised the issues that are important to you!
- Hence, you’ll have to complement this open approach with leading questions. These induce the interviewee to go beyond the strategic message he/she aims to deliver. Of course you should make sure not to end up in a discussion with your interviewee – it’s not about what you think. Yet, by referring to other interviews, statements in newspapers/policy documents, or hypothetical situations you can confront your interviewee with competing viewpoints/explanations.
- Dare to drop a silence. Your interviewee may need to think for a while, and a silence subtly encourages them to further elaborate on the topic.
- Moreover, summarize what your interviewee has said, not only to make sure that you understand the interviewee correctly, but also as a follow-up to another question.
The avoidable risks
Abels en Behrens (in Littig 2009) distinguish some typical risks in the conversation with elites/experts. You have to know the risks to avoid them:
- The interviewee may take a paternalistic attitude, and not take you very seriously. Instead of answering questions about the topic of interest, this type of interviewee may want to give you some “advice” on your research design. Either allow the interviewee to make his main point in this regard, or propose to come back to this issue at the end of the interview. You may partly use this to your advantage – at least the interviewee does not see you as a threat;
- The interviewee may act as an iceberg, i.e. is not really willing to share information. This is a difficult, but in my experience also quite rare, situation. You can avert it by starting off with an open question about his/her position: this allows the interviewee to say a little more about him/herself, which make most icebergs melt.
- The interviewee may ask your opinion on the topic. This one is the most challenging, as you are indeed usually knowledgeable and enthusiastic about the topic. Yet, make sure that you don’t fall into this trick, as the interview is not about your opinion. Smile, thank the interviewee for asking and state that you are more than happy to provide him/her with the report once the research is finished.
Post-interview: stay in touch and keep control
After the interview, transcribe the interview and send it to the interviewee for a final check. This is a nice opportunity for dissemination of your data and a great way to stay in touch! Although some scholars (Dexter 1970/2006) argue that elites use “their roles as gatekeepers to information to control the conclusions the researcher may draw”. I have, however, luckily never experienced that. The informed consent form may also help in this regard because you’ve clearly discussed how you will deal with the transcription beforehand.
After having conducted a number of interviews, you’ll notice that not all interviewees have been of equal importance. While it is important to detect patterns and find a red thread, when interviewing experts and elites it is not so much about the consensus and the numbers. Rather, exceptions, deviations and unusual interpretations may be of great value to your research, particularly when provided by interviewees whose account is comprehensive, plausible and consistent.
In sum, when you are aware of the particularities of interviewing experts, they are a rich source of information. Moreover, because of their influential positions, they may turn out to be an important channel for the dissemination of your research.
Be well prepared, don’t get too much impressed and gently keep control. Good luck!
♦ Need to develop or refresh some fundamental interviewing-skills? Check out the summer course “Interviewing individuals and groups” offered by the VU Graduate School of Social Sciences ♦
Trineke Palm MSc is a PhD Candidate at the Department of Political Science and Public Administration. Her research is funded by a NWO Research Talent Grant and deals with the character of the EU’s foreign policy.