In an interview we cannot ask our research question as is, had I asked Sher Singh what Bhil
art signifies and what transformations have come about in the art practice over time,. It is
possible I would not have got much of an answer.
(Refer Slide Time: 00:22)
Is that Sher Singh and I had many conversations which led me to understand the place of
painting in his life and in the life of his community. We talked about how he started painting,
who taught him to paint and why they were painting on paper. We discussed how his status in
the community was connected to his art and many such topics. Some of these conversations
were promptedpromoted by questions that I had prepared beforehand.
But some others emerged organically. Among these are the origin story about why the Bhils
(Refer Slide Time: 01:01)
But I had to prepare for these organic meandering conversations. This involved putting
together a set of questions that would help me understand Sher Singh's relationship with his
art. For many researchers, this is where the preparatory work for an interview begins with
interview guide. At its simplest, the guide is a set of topics or questions which we hope to
discuss with our participants.
But it is not a laundry list of questions which we can rattle off and then expect participants to
answer them one by one. It is an attempt at designing and structuring the conversations we
want to have, so that we may learn about particular phenomena. So how do we exactly
(Refer Slide Time: 01:51)
First, we must understand the basic structure of an interview. It is often like a wave. It starts
slow and easy as a researcher and participant get to know each other. The intensity rises as
we near the middle where we approach more complex topics
And then it cools off with simpler discussions towards the end. We are likely to have a
limited period of time within which to conduct the interview.
In this limited time, we need to hear from the participant as much as possible, and therefore,
we need to ask questions or introduce topics that are important to us. For this to happen, we
must plan ahead to ensure we have enough time. In an hour-long interview, we can hope to
ask 8 or maybe 10 questions in all. Any more than that may leave the participants feeling too
(Refer Slide Time: 02:54)
The first few questions of any interview which may take up the first 10 minutes or so are
likely to be generic questions. With these, we open the conversation and put our participants
(Refer Slide Time: 03:08)
The next few questions are the core questions. With these, we hope to generate complex
discussions for which we need to factor in time. In this part of the interview, participants are
likely to also introduce new topics. For these, too, we need to leave sometime. We may have
30 to 40 minutes in all for 8 to 10 questions of this kind. And the last few minutes is where
we ask a couple of relatively simple questions to wind down the conversation, just like the
(Refer Slide Time: 3:51)
Let us take a closer look at the different parts of this interaction. The first few questions are
meant to build rapport between the participants and us where we introduce them to our
research. In this stage of the discussion, we try to introduce them to the interview process and
include procedural clarifications. We request for their consent to have the interview, the
permission to record and discuss their right to the recorded material and so on.
Some researchers like to prepare a small note telling the participants about themselves and
the research. A written version of this sometimes doubles as a consent form.Our initial
questions are designed to give us some background knowledge about our participants. We
can start with questions about where they grew up, what they do for a living, the different
cities they have lived in, and so on.
Something that gives us a sense of their journey so far. Introducing themselves to us in their
own way helps participants settle into the conversation. What we learn at this stage can help
us contextualise the events that are brought up later in the conversation. Let us reflect for a
moment on what kind of opening questions we may ask. Here's a scenario from an interview.
A researcher prepared a guide to interview her participant a woman in her mid 30s.
(Refer Slide Time: 05:24)
She began the interview by asking, "What is the profession of your spouse?"Do you think this
was a good opening question? Why or why not? Think for a moment and write down your
responses. Some of you may have said that this is a good opening question. It gives us some
information about the participant and starts off the conversation on a neutral note, some of
you may have disagreed.
You may have said; the question is too personal. Or that it is based on certain
assumptions.You are right. In asking such a question, the researcher is assuming that the
participant is married, and there is the additional assumption that her spouse has a profession.
Both of these assumptions are quite problematic. The assumption that she has a spouse can be
seen as judgmental and prying. Particularly in a society where men and women in their mid-
30s are often expected to be married.
And by asking about her spouse's profession and not hers, the researcher is suggesting that
the participant does not have a profession is not as important as that of her spouse. A good
opening question in this case may have been something less personal, or more casual. Like
asking someone how their day has been so far. Or asking them what their interests are. Or
simply, by asking them to tell us something about themselves.
(Refer Slide Time: 7:14)
This way, the participant can choose what they would like to share with us. From these
opening questions, we move on to the core questions. These are the questions that relate to
our central research topic. Discussions around these usually take a lot of energy and thought.
So we give them plenty of space in our guide. We try to place them right after the opening
questions so that they are not left for the end.
Because by then, participants may be too exhausted or overwhelmed to continue with intense
discussions. As we had said earlier, our questions cannot be a direct translation of the
research question. They are often formulated by deconstructing our research question.
(Refer Slide Time: 07:59)
In drafting the core questions, we try to maintain a certain focus. Not everything that we need
to learn can be formulated in words. So, we put in those topics which can be best discussed
through a verbal conversation. Interviews are best for learning about our participants'
experiences. So we design our guide to seek out personal histories and experiences. We ask
participants to share with us their personal opinions and perspectives.
And through personal narratives, we can also try to grasp how a phenomenon is situated in
the society that is how is it experienced and perceived by others like them. Let us take an
example to understand this better. Imagine that I am working on a project which requires me
to understand the use of machines and tools by workers in a factory. As part of my fieldwork,
I am going to interview a female employee who has been working there for almost a decade.
(Refer Slide Time: 09:12)
I want to learn from her about her experiences in operating machines. I also want to learn her
particular experiences as a female worker. That is, as a woman operating machines which
were not necessarily designed for different genders. And I want to learn how her experience
with these machines may have changed over the years. Can you suggest some questions that I
should include in my interview guide?
Take a moment to write them down. I hope you wrote down some questions that I can use
during the interview. Here is the list that I made and see how many of yours matches with
(Refer Slide Time: 09:58)
What are the tasks you are expected to perform? Are there tasks that are segregated by gender
or age? What task are these? Which tools or machines do you operate? Can you describe the
process? What characteristics or skills there is a person required to carry out these
operations? Does it help to be tall or short? Does it require physical strength or flexibility?
Are there certain tasks which you feel more comfortable performing than others?
Can you describe these to me? What are the tasks which you feel uncomfortable doing? Or
which you dislike? What you dislike about them? Do you feel like your ability to operate
machine in the factory has changed over the years? In what way? Through the discussion,
these questions generate I hope to understand the particular experiences of this participant.
Additionally, I may learn about the more general experiences of female workers at the
a workers who are in the same age group as her and we also learn how the machinery and the
task in the factory have changed over the last decade. This is one part of designing our guide
its structure and the content of the core discussion.
(Refer Slide Time: 11:36)
The other part is its details framing questions, structuring the discussion around every topic,
moving from one topic to another and so on. We will discuss these in our next section.
In designing the interview guide, we need to think about how to structure and frame the core
discussion and each topic in it.
(Refer Slide Time: 00:14)
How do we introduce a topic? How do we deepen the discussion through appropriate
probing? How do we move across topics? And most importantly, how do we enable
participants to introduce new themes into the conversation?
(Refer Slide Time: 00:30)
A lot of this can be worked out as we frame the questions that we want to ask. In an
interview, the differences and similarities between our participants and us often manifest in
the language we use. Sometimes, our primary language may be different from that of our
participants. So we attempt to learn the other's language or work through translators. Even
when we speak the same language as our participants, chances are that we may use it
Each of us might use words and phrases that the other does not understand. Or use references
that are common in one culture, but alien in the other. This is something that we try to be
aware of as we frame our interview guide. We try as far as possible to use words and phrases
that are commonly understood. Alternatively, we could try to learn some words and phrases
from their culture, especially those that refer to phenomena we hope to be discussing.
The risk here though is that we might use those phrases in an incorrect manner leading to
more confusion than clarity. Sometimes even words and phrases that we think of as simple
and common may have a very different meaning in the context of our participants.
(Refer Slide Time: 01:55)
To understand this, Martha Norkunas suggests an exercise to her students. Ask a senior
citizen and a primary school child this question. What do you do in your free time?" What do
you suppose could be the answer the researchers caught? Perhaps the children said that they
spend their free time playing outdoors or watching television. Or that they play games on
their parents' mobile phones.
Senior citizens may have said that they spend their free time indulging in hobbies such as
music or art. Or that they try to spend time with family and friends got no such answers from
their participants. Instead, they found that children and seniors alike had trouble answering
the question. The senior persons were no longer going to work and so had a more or less
organic routine to their day.
The children on the other hand, spent their day in one activity or another, including learning
music, always busy, always doing something. For both, there was no clear concept of 'free
time'. The question drew a blank. Sure, 'free time' is a common phrase, but it refers to a
concept that is identified by a certain group, perhaps those who have formal jobs. It makes
little sense to participants whose days are not structured by regular work.
We cannot always predict what will or will not make sense to our participants. However, we
can have a fairly decent idea of their language. The simplest thing to do is to go through
drafts of our guide and remove any jargon or words that may be unclear. It helps to start a
new topic start by talking about specifics. Answering questions that are simple and
straightforward makes it easy for participants to settle into the conversation.
For example, some researchers wanted to learn about the financial behaviour of their
participants. They started by asking participants to list the various bills they needed to pay
every month or every quarter. For many householders, this is an easy question to answer. It is
a calculation they do almost every month. So the question proved to be a good start to the
discussion, and the researchers got to learn about various expenses of their participants'
Asking specific questions need not lead to a close-ended discussion. On the contrary, we can
use our initial questions to open up a new topic. For this, we often use follow up questions or
what are sometimes called probing questions. For example, if we want to learn about a
dancer's relationship to their art, we may begin by asking how long have you been learning
hip hop dancing.
See this is a closed-ended question with a pretty specific answer. But we can build upon it
using an open-ended probe.
(Refer Slide Time: 05:13)
Such as, what made you take up this form of dance?", or "what was it about hip hop that
appeals to you? And were there some people who influenced your decision to learn hip hop?"
(Refer Slide Time: 05:26)
Open-ended questions enable the participant to reflect and give descriptive responses. The
idea is to encourage them to speak at length and elaborate upon their ideas and experiences.
In reflecting on their experiences, they are likely to introduce new themes and topics into the
conversation. And these new themes often bring new and invaluable dimensions to our
research. So finally, we are ready to interview our participants. We have prepared our guide to help us
steer the conversation, but the interview itself tends to be lot less predictable. It is, after all, a
conversation between two persons and not simply a list of questions that we ask one after the
other. Both participant and researcher take turns listening and responding to each other.
Words, silences, gestures and non-verbal expressions are used by both in expressing
themselves and in responding to the other and sometimes not on commonly interviews
include difficult interactions and conflicts too.
(Refer Slide Time: 0:47)
Being aware of some basic dos and don'ts can help us navigate this terrain. First and
foremost, we must respect the time given to us for the interview and not exceed it. We should
try to keep the conversation fluid, avoid abrupt beginnings and endings and sudden jumps
between topics. We should make written notes or jottings as we converse, but we should not
be so enthralled with note-taking that the participant feels they are speaking to a recorder.
And we should ensure the participant's comfort at all times, starting with their agreement to
(Refer Slide Time: 1:27)
In this section and the next, we will discuss some practical aspects of the interview. This
includes how to begin the interview, how slow or fast to move the conversation, the role of
silences and non-verbal expressions in our interview, how to navigate difficult or delicate
topics, how to respond to participants, how to avoid digressions while still allowing for new
topics to be introduced, how to transition from one topic to another and finally, how to close
We will discuss some of these in this section and the rest in the next one. As we begin, we
may feel a bit awkward around each other. Being the researcher, the onus is ours to put our
participant at ease. We need not rush into the interview questions but can start with some
general observations or questions that create an environment of comfort. We can make small
talk like talk about the weather or picking up topics that may or may not be related to the
interview like pointing at some artefacts in their house, complimenting them on it, asking
them if they made it themselves.
(Refer Slide Time: 2:46)
At this point, we can introduce the participant to our research and to the interview process
and we can carry out procedures such as getting consent for interviewing and recording. Here
we should again consider the practical concerns of interviewing and recording. Is the
environment suitable for audio and video recordings? Is the participant comfortable with
being recorded? , do we need to protect their identity and anonymise them? If the participant
seems reluctant or uncomfortable with being recorded, we can just stick to making with
The small talk, procedure and explanations flow to the opening parts of our interview, where
we try to learn about the trajectory of our participants' lives. And we find ourselves settling
into the dance that is the interview. As with any dance, there needs to be a rhythm to our
(Refer Slide Time: 3:45)
The idea is to create a conversation where both researcher and participant have equal control
over the content and flow. As a researcher, we try to understand the pace of conversation,
which is comfortable for the participant and then try to match it. And listening is a key part of
this. Some participants expect a Q&A kind of session where one question rapidly follows
another. In an ethnographic interview, we try to develop an introspective discussion.
(Refer Slide Time: 4:18)
And so we try to find a pace which allows reflection and also keeps the conversation going.
As we have emphasised earlier, a careful balance of speaking and listening is required to do
(Refer Slide Time: 4:38)
Some researchers suggest that by adopting a slower pace for the interview we can encourage
the participant take greater control of the conversation. In a slower conversation, we may tend
to speak more with less nudging from our end. A slower-paced interview creates room for
greater reflection and introspection on both sides.
(Refer Slide Time: 4:59)
We can decrease the pace of interview by using probes and follow-up questions, spending
more time and thought on a single topic. Short pauses and silences, gestures such as a nod, or
sounds such as hmm, huh, can have a similar effect. Responses such as these encourage the
participant to speak more on a topic, to expand upon their thoughts. In the space between the
two topics or two questions, the participant can reflect some more remember related
incidence or connect topics.
Let us pause here for a moment and revisit a part of our discussion. We have some questions
for you here.
(Refer Slide Time: 5:44)
The first one is, why are slow-paced interviews preferable in ethnographic research? Note
down at least 3 reasons. And the second, how do you achieve the desired pace in an
interview? You may write down single sentence answers for these questions. The answers to
these questions are present in the discussion we have had so far. The pace of the interview is
decided by the participant and the interviewer, but a slow-paced interview is preferable. This
is because a slower pace allows for greater reflection and introspection.
(Refer Slide Time: 6:24)
And how can we slow down an interview? Here are some of the ways that we have discussed.
Among these silence and non-verbal expressions play a prominent role. In fact, throughout
this module, we have been talking about the importance of silence and non-verbal
expressions in an interview.
(Refer Slide Time: 6:45)
Silence on the part of the participant can be as expressive and evocative as speech. It may
indicate something that is implied but not spoken about explicitly. It can express powerful
emotions and memories. Facial expressions and body gestures often indicate emotions and
thoughts that the participant associates with the topic of discussion.
(Refer Slide Time: 7:11)
Recall the experience of Roger Gatchet as he listened to the old farm worker describing her
work and what he learned from her silences and gestures.
(Refer Slide Time: 7:22)
Non-verbal expressions also denote cultural norms. The same expression can mean different
things to different communities.
For instance, in some cultures, not looking into the other's eyes as we speak is a way of
showing respect. In others, it may imply disinterest or boredom or worse still arrogance. The
idea is to be able to differentiate between the wink and the twitch and to understand the
meaning of each wink and more.
For instance, in some cultures not looking into the others’ eyes as we speak is a way of
showing respect. In others, it may imply disinterest or boredom or worst still arrogance. The
idea is to be able to differentiate between the wink and the twitch and to understand the
meaning of each wink and more.
(Refer Slide Time: 7:57)
We pay attention to subtle changes of tone and breathing patterns. For instance, when
someone is nervous, their speed of breathing tends to increase, and the pitch of their voice
rises. The same may happen when someone feels excited. We need to observe all such subtle
expressions during the interview. We also need to include them in our notes either by
drawing or writing or recording in any acceptable form.
(Refer Slide Time: 8:25)
In all cultures and communities, there are topics that are not spoken about publicly or
explicitly. People use euphuisms, metaphors or particular phrases to refer to these. Often the
use of tangential references or metaphors indicates that the subject is taboo or difficult to
speak about. For example, in many cultures, segregation on the basis of caste, race or gender
is not spoken explicitly.
I found such an incident in my field notes from my work with the Kaavad storytellers. I was
travelling with my primary participant, Kojaram, a Kaavad storyteller. We were visiting the
homes of his patrons in different villages. He would visit each of their houses and perform his
Kaavad recitations. Often, the patrons would invite us to eat with them after the recitation. On
one such recitation Kojaram's patron, Askaran Singh invited us to stay on for lunch.
Askaran Singh offered us tea and lunch. He showed us the different bowls he had for
different communities to eat from. We sat in a round hut, Kojaram did the recitation. Askaran
Singh called his family members and others who had attended the recital to also sit around.
One person was from the Rayika jaat, a community of camel herders, and he was made to sit
outside. Even the food was served to him in a different bowl. When we invited him in,
Askaran Singh removed the durrie, and so he had to sit on the bare floor.
It was uncomfortable for me to be an observer and participant to this incident. However, I
was a guest in Askaran Singh's house and an outsider to their community. It would have been
presumptuous and judgmental on my part to question their practices. Moreover, it would have
embarrassed each of them and perhaps most of all, Kojaram who had brought me there.
Later, after we had left Askaram Singh's house, I asked Kojaram about the incident. He
explained it by simply saying, "oh, because he is a Rayika". Thus, without speaking of caste
segregation or its rules, he explained the social structure underlying the incident. It was up to
me to understand the depth of information behind his brief sentence. Often, subjects such as
discrimination or certain beliefs and practices evoke judgement from outsiders. For this
reason, communities prefer to simply not discuss them. In situations such as these, we have to
build our knowledge from sources other than from our participants.
(Refer Slide Time: 11:23)
We do this by reviewing literature or by asking other participants who are more comfortable
explaining such matters to us. It helps to ask these uncomfortable questions a little later after
the incident has passed. And when there is greater trust between our participants and us, they
are more likely to share at that point.
Sometimes it helps to discuss a difficult subject indirectly. By talking about incidence,
stories, objects and spaces that are associated with that subject. For instance, asking Raniben
about the loss of their homes could have been a very difficult conversation.
(Refer Slide Time: 12:03)
Instead, we talked about the embroidered narratives she had made about the migration and
the earthquake. This made it possible and relatively easier for her to speak about the loss. In
describing the embroidered narratives, she was able to recount anecdotes and feelings related
to that loss. In discussing difficult topics, we should be careful and conscious in our
approach. We should frame our questions with utmost care to ensure that our interest in the
subject is not perceived as judgmental.
And that in bringing up such a topic, we are not being offensive or triggering emotional pain.
Throughout the discussion, we need to be keenly aware of any signs of discomfort. On
sensing any, we can either pause or change the subject. Whatever the situation it is important
we do not push the participant into a discussion they do not want to have. As they build trust
in us, participants are likely to feel increasingly comfortable in having conversations around
difficult and delicate subjects.
Before we further on, let us review what we have learned so far. Here are some questions that
I would like you to reflect on and answer.
(Refer Slide Time: 13:25)
A, what can we learn from silences and non-verbal expressions of our participants? B, as
researchers how can we learn about topics that are taboo in a society? Some of you may have
gone through our discussions to find the answers. But you may also have thought of answers
that we did not mention. Please post your answers in the discussion forum. Remember to
include points we have already discussed and be encouraged to add new words.
And then join us in our next section as we discuss more on the practice of interviewing.
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