This post is the second in a tripartite series of lecture summaries from the fieldwork methods class which I co-teach this term at SIT New Delhi.1 Before Azim Khan spoke about interviewing in more practical detail in the second half of our lecture, I framed the practical issues he raised by looking at the difference between research questions and interview questions. This post sums up my key points from this framing exercise; the rest of the series is here:

Description, interpretation, evaluation
Research questions, interview questions
Doing research as a foreigner

Let's first look at today's picture, taken at one of my earlier attempts to interview Maulana Khaled Rashid in Lucknow. All the practicalities are sorted: tea is being served, the Hadith commentaries provide a nice background, cameras and mikes are set up (the latter are not mine, of course - it was the time of the Salman Rushdie controversy, and I had to share my appointment with a dozen journalists). But the central piece is missing: the Maulana, with whom I hoped to have a conversation.

Wait a moment. Did I say conversation? Wasn't this supposed to be about interviews? Here comes my first main point: a conversation is precisely what an interview should be - and not a set of clever questions designed to trick people into "correct" answers. Unfortunately, many students (me included at earlier times) somehow develop the latter idea during their research methods training, probably overpowered by advice literature written for far more experienced people, who can afford to look at the nitty-gritty of interviewing because they have a firm grip on the basics - which first-time researchers don't. And these basics, for all means and purposes, are to strive for a real conversation with real people, about real issues.2 Such conversations are in turn usually based on curious questions asked by someone who is keen to listen to unexpected answers, who cares about not just what people do, but also about what their doings mean to them.

Yet these kind of conversations are not the only ones in which researchers (including student researchers) engage. The second conversation researchers have is one with fellow scholars, driven through published argument. This second conversation is again based upon good questons - research questions - asked about puzzling aspects of social life that scholars should care about, and to which answers are sought and supported by argument. Again, many students tend to overlook this and try to write about "topics" rather than "questions" - which prevents them to achieve both focus and analytical argument. In the words of Booth et al:3

You can start with the standard journalistic questions: who, what, when, and where, but focus on how and why. To engage your best critical thinking, systematically ask questions about your topic's history, composition, and categories. Then ask any other question you can think of or find in your sources. [...] When you run out of questions, evaluate them, because not all questions are equally good. Look for questions whose answers might make you (and, ideally, your readers) think about your topic in a new way. [...] [Finally,] questions that ask how and why invite deeper thinking than who, what, when, or where, and deeper thinking leads to more interesting answers.

At the core of research lie thus not one, but indeed two overlapping conversations: one with the subjects of our research, and another one with the scholarly community. Both conversations evolve around good questions, yet - and this is the main point of this lecture - what makes a good question is different in either conversation.

Research questions, interview questions on Prezi

How so? I believe that there are at least two differences worth mentioning. Firstly, and very pragmatically, there is a difference in the language and terminology one should use to phrase one's question. Owing to this alone, one can rarely just take a research question and pose it in an interview setting.

But there is a deeper epistemological reason as well for why interview questions should often be different from research questions: since "we cannot understand the X [...] by confining our study to the characteristics of the X, [...] an explanation of X needs to be configured in terms of the non-X".4 Or, in other terms: most social scientists need to engage in an abductive logic of enquiry. If we say, for instance, that health consists of the overlap between subjective wellbeing and certain medical indicators, we could accordingly ask either about health in our interviews - or about wellbeing and medical indicators. The former strategy would result either in deductive or in inductive enquiry - and would lead to better theories of health. The latter strategy, however, would constitute an abductive enquiry - and would lead to a better understanding of empirical reality. Which is what most people want to achieve through an interview.

In order to ask good interview questions it is therefore surely important to phrase open questions, to ask for clarifications when they seem necessary, and to set up your equipment properly (as demonstrated in today's picture). But getting these technical aspects right will only help if we don't forget the basics: that we should strive to have a real conversation (rather than an elicitation of responses kind of technical trick) - and that we need to reflect why the questions we are asking should be similar - or different - from our research questions...