Mar 24 2013

Why Won’t Anyone Talk to Me?

Dear Dr. Phoebe,

I conducted my first interview today – and it went badly. My project assesses the 2008 NHS reform and involves interviewing many of the key decision-makers from that period. I started with former Secretary of State for Health, Alistair Carrington, who agreed to meet me in the House of Commons. The interview didn’t go as expected, and now that the word has gotten out, no one wants to talk to me. Maybe I took the wrong approach. I’ve attached an excerpt from the transcript – maybe you could look at and tell me where it all went wrong?

Desperate in Docklands,

Sam Bookantiqua, E16


# Interview Transcript
Sam Bookantiqua: SB
Alistair Carrington: AC

SB: Very nice to meet you Mr. Carrington. I’d like to start the interview with a couple of demographic questions. Is that ok?
AC: Yes.
SB: Alistair Carrington, what is your name?
AC: Alistair Carrington.
SB: What’s your gender?
AC: I would have hoped this was obvious but… why don’t you try to guess.


AC: Well done!
SB: What’s your age?
AC: …. Thank god you’re not interviewing one of the Ladies from the House — AC laugh – …67.
SB: What’s your party affiliation?
AC: Labour
SB: Right. Now… I’d like the interview to be relaxed and informal so… do you mind if I call you Ali?
AC: [Ehm, Ehm] I’m not used to it… but…well, why not.
SB: Before we get started, Ali, can I ask you a couple of things about your political career?
AC: Absolutely.
SB: Great. So, about twelve years ago you were expelled from the Labour party because you were involved in a massive financial scandal. You were arrested at your home – this was broadcasted live on TV and watched by the whole nation – do you think, you’ve recovered from this humiliation?
AC: [silence]
SB: Ali? ….
AC:…hmm….you know… I’ve been cleared of all charges on that issue. The Labour party has apologized and I’ve been… I’ve been the happy MP for Bethnal Green for about 8 years now.
SB: Would you say this was the worst humiliation you faced in your career?
AC: [silence]… It was not a happy time. But, that’s politics.
SB: Would you say this was worse than the Sun publishing embarrassing pictures of your wife and her tennis coach?
— AC looks uncomfortable —
[silence]… Well… it is certainly not nice when the press invades your privacy, is it?
Talking about that… what do you think about the topless photos of Kate Middleton?

AC: I think that’s a disgrace.
SB: Have you seen the pictures?
— AC looks horrified —
AC: No. And I don’t intend to!
SB: Now, Ali – just between you and me – who do you think is the hottest: Kate or Pippa Middleton?
(AC looks flabbergasted)
AC: What?…I thought the point of this meeting was to talk about the NHS reform!

SB:  Yes, sure… This was simply the ice-breaking phase of the interview.
[hm, hm] So, Ali, you were Secretary of State for Health from 2005 to 2008, right?
AC: No, it was David Hamilton. I was Secretary of State for Health from 2000 to 2005.
SB: Ah yes, sorry. But in 2008, you chaired the Independent Commission for the Health Reform, didn’t you?
AC: No, it was William Cash.
SB: Really??? …Well, I’m very disappointed because I had a lot of questions about the commission [sigh].
AC: [Silence] I did not chair the commission but I took part in the meetings. I think I could take the questions.
SB: No, no thanks. I’d rather talk to William Cash, he’ll be more helpful than you.
— AC looks irritated—
AC: How can I help you then?
Well … I don’t know… hmm… Tell me anything you know about the NHS.

AC: That could keep us a long time together. Could you be more specific?
SB: Right then. When was the last major reform of the NHS?
AC: 2008.
SB: Who initiated it?
AC: The Labour Government.
SB: Was it a good reform?
(AC looks, again, flabbergasted)
 I drafted and introduced the Bill in parliament, it would be hard for me to argue against it, don’t you think?

SB: Ok. But still— if you had to criticize your own bill what would you say?
AC: I’d say… have a look at the proceedings of the debates on Hansard; Look at the criticisms voiced by the opposition and look at the way I dismissed them. Now, if you would excuse me — AC rose and showed me the door of his office.

Dear Sam,

Oh dear. The only rules of research interviewing that you did not break were the ones you made up as you went along. At all times during the interview, keep in mind your objective: to gain insight from one of the insiders that you did not already know.

Let’s run down the Do’s and Don’ts – your transcript revealing mostly the latter.

First, DON’T ask obvious factual questions to which you know the answers – or should know if properly prepared the interview. For all interviews, you must be prepared, showing basic respect and interest in the interviewee. For elite interviews, it is particularly important to do background research on who you are talking to, and your topic. If your interviewees do not think you are taking your work seriously, they will not take you seriously. Don’t ask them to state their name, age, and gender – you are not calibrating a polygraph and asking a woman’s gender or age is verboten!

Second, DO ask some ice-breaker questions to establish a rapport and put the subject at ease – but be careful not to do it. The golden rule of interviewing is to take your interviewee’s point of view (see Kvale and Brinkmann, 2011), as subjects will speak most freely when they feel comfortable, respected, and understood. Well known newsy items (like the photos of Kate Middleton) can indeed be a way of breaking the ice in the right context – but a neutral topic would be a lot safer. Think of what feels natural. Once the audio-recorder is switched on, your interviewee may feel it is very artificial to engage in ‘ice-breaking’ rather than in the substance of the interview. Focus on getting a good conversation going. Think of what it is like to be asked to take part in an interview, anticipate the interviewee’s expectations, and try to develop a natural flow to the conversation.

Third, do not challenge the subject or demand justification for actions they did or did not take. You are not Jerry Springer, or some BBC bulldog speaking on behalf of all hard-working Britons who paid a small fortune for their TV licenses. At the end of the interview, you take up a challenging style, asking Mr Carrington whether his reform was good, and to criticise his own bill. This clearly did not work. Perhaps you had read Holstein and Gubrium’s (1995) book on ‘active interviewing’, which encourages interviewers to consider their questions as active probing interventions, rather than as neutral opportunities for the interviewee’s thinking to be revealed. Once rapport has been built, and a good mutual understanding is achieved, it can indeed be possible to ask the challenging questions. If you had let Alistair Carrington first explain all the positive points about his reform, he might then have been open to discussing criticisms of his bill. You could have asked him what criticisms he faced, and have been prepared to probe about particular criticisms if he was not forthcoming.

Fourth, DON’T ask overly broad questions that are difficult to answer, such as ‘Tell me anything you know about the NHS’. Nor should you ask factual questions – interviewees are not your research assistants. Good interview questions should be open, generative questions that allow the interviewee to speak at length, revealing their point of view. ‘Why was it felt in 2008 that reform was needed?’ or ‘What would you say have been the most important achievements of the reform?’ or, more daringly, ‘To what extent was their controversy within your party regarding the reforms?’

Last, DO remember to treat your subjects with respect and gratitude for their time. Remember, your interview subjects are busy and important people, and they are doing you a favour with the gift of their time. Treating them badly, or behaving poorly and ingraciously, will damage your reputation and that of the institution that you represent. Before completing the interview, make it clear what will happen with the material and offer to let the subject see your research when completed, if he or she is interested. Follow your interview up with a thank you note – or flowers if you were so gauche as to ask a lady about age and gender!

Good luck with the next interviews, Sam. May I suggest practising your interview technique with patient friends – since any friends you’ve managed to keep must indeed be patient. Come to think of it, subjecting your friends to this sort of torture this might have ethical implications. Start by reading examples of interviews and practice in front of a mirror. Then move on to your friends, and only then to the real thing.


Dr M. Phobe

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