Conducting Expert-interviews: some do’s and don’ts

Palm By Trineke Palm / Reading Time: 7 Minutes

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

interThe interview itself: a balancing act

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.

  1.  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!
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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:

  1. 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;
  2. 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.
  3. 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!

http://affiliate-101.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/top-affiliate-marketing-tip-for-beginners.jpg♦ 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 ♦

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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.

Summer Workshops at the Graduate School of Social Science

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By The Graduate School of Social Sciences / Reading Time: 5 Minutes

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The Graduate School of Social Sciences (VU-GSSS) is happy to announce its upcoming summer workshops which will take place in June/July 2015. The intensive workshops focus on specialized qualitative and/or quantitative methods, and provide you with hands-on experience. Summer workshops are a great way to develop and/or strengthen your skills in between busy semesters of study and work.

And in between your hard labour you can enjoy the summer in wonderful Amsterdam.

Well, here goes a summary of the courses’ content and objectives.

  • Conducting Meta-Analyses.

     (By Prof. Brad Bushman, June 15-19, 2015)

The course aims at providing you with the essential tools to conduct high-quality meta-analysis. By the end of this course, participants: (1) will be able to formulate a topic to conduct a meta‐analysis on; (2) will be able to conduct a literature review to collect relevant studies for their topic; (3) will be able to code relevant variables from the studies they retrieve; (4) will be able to meta‐analyze the effects from the studies they retrieved; (5) will be able to interpret and write up the meta‐analytic results

During the five days of the course you will review and discuss important aspects about conducting meta-analysis research. And, most importantly, during the afternoons you will apply the techniques learned on your own project!!

  •  Programming and Analyzing in R.

     (By Dr. Wouter van Atteveldt, June 22-26, 2015)

R is a statistical toolkit that is becoming increasingly popular for more advanced analyses in the social sciences. R has a number of advantages over other toolkits such as SPSS and STATA. It is free of charge and open source, and it is very easy to write additional packages to add functionality.

The good news is, once you’ve learned to use R, you have access to a vast array of statistical methods and visualization techniques and to extremely versatile data processing and visualization techniques. R. This intensive hands‐on workshop will get you started using R on your own dataset. The course will provide you with both theory and hands-on practice. After having discussed the topics related to analysing in R, you will have the opportunity to use R on both provided data and your own project’s data. On the final day of course you will finally present the progress of your analyses and visualization in R: a great chance to receive feedbacks from your fellow colleagues and from the instructor.

  • When and How to Design Experiments.

     (By Dr. Jona Linde & Dr. Camiel Beukeboom, June 29- July 3, 2015)

This course will provide you with the tools to successfully design and use experiments in your project. Experiments are a very common tool in many fields of social science (e.g. communication science; organization science, psychology) and are becoming more common in fields where experiments used to be rare (e.g. political science). This course offers you a great chance to expand your knowledge of experiments and their tailored use in social sciences’ research.

The workshop will cover the philosophy of science behind experimental research, many examples of different types of research questions and experiments, the use of experiments in different social sciences, and practical issues for designing, conducting and reporting proper experiments.

Theory and practice will go hand in hand. You will not only be taught how to successfully design and carry out an experiment, but will also have the chance to update an existing design that can be used in your own research.

  • Interviewing Individuals and Groups.

      (By Prof. Francesca Polletta & Dr. Jacomijne Prins, July 6- 8, 2015)

Interviewing is a standard technique in social research, yet it poses numerous practical challenges. How should you decide whether to do individual or group interviews? How many interviews do you need? How should you deal with sensitive topics? How should you make sense of your data? Can the things people say in an interview setting be taken as what they really believe?

These are the main questions which you will be able to answer to after having attended the course.

During the workshop you will you will cover four main topics: 1) deciding whether to use individual or focus group interviews, 2) choosing a method and sample, 3) conducting interviews, 4) analyzing interview data and writing up findings. For a further intensive workshop on part 4, you can additionally follow the next workshop.

Whether or not you have already set up your project, this course will help you in developing the required skills for reflecting critically on the practical, ethical, and theoretical issues involved in interview‐based research

  • Collecting, Analyzing with Atlas.TI, and Publishing Qualitative Data.

    (By Prof. Barbara Risman, July 13- 15, 2015)

As a researcher you observe, make notes of you observations, interview people, sometimes take pictures, use written and electronic archives and do ethnography. The workshop is designed to equip participants with conceptual tools for analyzing qualitative (e.g., interview) data. Participants will develop hands on skills with how to analyze qualitative data using Atlas Ti by completing in‐class exercises with data provided. Finally, the third objective of this workshop is to provide skills to successfully turn qualitative analysis into manuscripts that can be submitted to journals for review.

The main focus of the course is on analyzing qualitative data once you have collected them.

During the three days of the workshop you will be practically trained on understanding the conceptual background of computer assisted qualitative analysis thru coding data and analysis. If available you can practice on your own data.

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So, what are you waiting for???  Check the Summer Workshops Manual for more information on the courses, credits, fees and timetable here.

Remember to spread the news to fellow colleagues at the VU and at other universities.

To sign up for the courses, or to ask questions and request additional information, email the VU-GSSS at graduate.school.fsw@vu.nl

In addition, there are more courses available in the Amsterdam Summer School. For instance have a look at the highly recommended course “Big Data in Society”, taught by  a number of Professors from our Faculty:

http://www.studyabroadinamsterdam.nl/en/summerschool/courses/big_data/big_data.asp

Enjoy!

Attending a summer school abroad: It’s not just back to school, it’s an experience!

Celine Klemmby Celine Klemm / Reading Time: 5 minutes

 

“Ljubljana? Where is that? Slovakia?” – “No, no Slovenia.”

“Ummm…and where is that?”

This was probably one of the most common reactions I encountered when I told friends and colleagues about my plans for this summer. I was going to attend a summer school in Ljubljana to learn about interviewing and qualitative data analysis. But I came back with much more then just knowledge about scientific methods. But you will see. So, are you also still asking yourself where Ljubljana and Slovenia actually are? I certainly did. But we are in good company. It seems to be a common ignorance – David Letterman experienced the same, with painful consequences for his sidekick. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yEyhdpaRuug

I fill you in: Slovenia is placed in between three popular tourist destinations, next to Italy, south of Austria and north of Croatia. If you put your finger right in the middle of the petite country, you find the capital: Ljubljana. My boyfriend drew this little map for you:

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Ljubljana is home to 272,220 people, roughly a third of Amsterdam´s population. It is also home to the yearly which is my reason for being here. The school promises “cutting-edge courses in the full span of qualitative and quantitative topics”, something I felt I was in desperate need of, and so I enrolled for 2 courses, each one going on for 1-week.

The faculty where the course takes place is situated out of town, about 3km north, but Ljubljana has (I know this simple fact alone will touch the heart of every Dutch), and you can easily bike up north. A half-an-hour ride later, I found myself in a small classroom with around 20 other students from all around the world and a self-confident Slovenian lady with an intriguing British accent. “Back in school!” I thought immediately and thoroughly enjoyed being back on the other side of the classroom; the simple unadulterated pleasure of soaking up knowledge. The course was on expert interviews and how to unravel the inner thoughts and personal opinions of experts. Usually being well-trained public speakers and used to giving interviews on professional rather than personal views, the real challenge in conducting good expert interviews is to get them to talk about their true and personal opinions, as we learned in the class. And so we discussed some useful strategies.

I couldn’t wait to get my hands stuck into some actual interviewing, though, which we could eventually on the third day. We eased into it, interviewing classmates first and then random campus people. Eventually, two students could interview a PR spokesperson of the government, in front of the classroom. In 2007, Slovenia had become the first former Communist country to join the Eurozone, and we interviewed Matjaž Kek, then responsible for the EU accession campaign. I learned a lot watching the interview, being able to observe what questions can open up a conversation – and which lead into a dead end. This interesting interview day tagged along painstaking hours of interview transcribing the next day – a good exercise but also a good reminder: Do I really want to conduct interviews? In all seriousness, it is worth thinking about the time investment needed for interviewing and considering it in your PhD planning, and if possible: hire an assistant for transcribing. All in all, the course was rather theoretical in nature though; the interview day was doubtlessly the most instructive.

In the second week, we were introduced to a French-Canadian teacher, now living in Spain, who left us all deeply impressed when she ordered her lunchtime coffee in fluent Slovenian. Her class was on ‘Qualitative Data analysis using NVivo’, and let me tell you, we really dug into it. We learned all steps from the storage of the interview data to the final data analysis and writing up for publication. We were introduced to a number of features of the NVivo software for developing a systematic and comprehensive coding scheme, and for getting a better feel for the data, such as words clouds, creating summaries of coding categories, visualizing data and analyzing relations between concepts through data matrices. It was a very hands-on class, a lot of work and preparation, but just as worth all efforts.

We (apart from those poor few whose duties commanded an immediate return home) ended summer school with food and drinks at the Friday markets, feeling that this was a good summer. I left Ljubljana with a sense of confidence for my upcoming interview study, both in how to conduct the interviews and how to conduct data analysis; even with excitement about the prospect of interviewing. Almost without noticing, I had also learned more about European history, Slovenian culture, about hypnosis during birth-giving (can’t hurt to know random facts), met students with such fascinating and courageous projects as interviewing convicted criminals in prison, and I made a friend in Helsinki, the place I was gonna go next on a research visit.

And if you know ask yourself, where Helsinki is…

… go back to the video and your geography book.

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Celine Klemm is PhD candidate at the department of Communication Science. Her research focuses on the role of media and journalists in a public health crisis.