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Don't Switch Topics Too Frequently

In an interview we engage in dialogue with the respondent. By asking questions, we help the respondent revisit experiences, articulate thoughts, and express feeling. It is a back-and-forth process where new questions follow on each answer. The process often requires several rounds of exchange for the respondent to exhaust one thread of thought on a particular topic, or to move from speaking in generalities to personal expression. If the interviewer switches topics too frequently, the respondent will by unable to fully express his or her thoughts on a particular topic.

Example: Following Through on Each Theme

Interviewer: Are there any ways that other Tamils affect your behaviour?

Bala: Some Sri Lankans don't like our culture and they change. Sometimes even though they're Hindus they go to church. Some couples, the wife may be Christian and the husband may be Hindu. They have a problem of where to go and what to do. That's why they change.

Even though the interviewer directs the question to the respondent, i.e. "your behavior," the respondent makes general comments about others, by referring to "they."

Interviewer: Other people are changing, but what about you? Do you feel any pressure to change or to stay Sri Lankan?

Bala: No. But, because they have come from far away and they want to get together and grow our culture here. There's more unity on that basis. There are certain Tamil organizations, Tamil Eelam Society and World Tamil movement. Every week they celebrate some cultural events, dance, music and lots of Sri Lankan activities. Everybody gets together and watch and they create the culture here. It's easy to maintain.

The interviewer continues to encourage the respondent to talk about himself. The respondent still talks about general others.

Interviewer: Is it important to you that these activities are happening?

Bala: It's not actually important but some people have no recreations at home. That's why they go to the festivals.

Interviewer: Do you feel that your family has adjusted to life here?

Bala: Yes.

The respondent finally provides a personal answer, even though it's about his family, not himself personally.

Interviewer: What was that process like? What changes did you have to go through before you felt you had adjusted?

Bala: It's a good question, a very deep question. I have to think.

The respondent shows signs of willingness to move toward speaking in an inner/private voice.

Interviewer: What kinds of things did you miss from back at home?

Bala: Not only me, everybody who leaves their own country faces these things. My birthplace, my mother, my friends, my scenic beauty, my weather—a lot of things I missed from my country. But at the same time, step by step I forget and I liked this country, and I developed my knowledge and I live peacefully. Now this is my home.

The respondent begins his answer by locating himself in the larger group. After that, a personal voice emerges with "I" and "my." Even though the narrative remains rather general, there is a shift from talking about "them" to reflecting about "me."

Interviewer: As you were adjusting, do you remember noticing what is different here when it comes to your day to day life?

Bala: Here it's a systematic life. Time is very important. And my wife never worked in Sri Lanka, but she's working now. She also changed a lot! She had to learn telephone answering techniques, and the timetable, how to go out and behave, how to move with the people, how to answer, many things she learned after she came here. At the time she was at home she didn't know what to do. She never lived... She was like a family member and my wife, that's it. But here she's my partner. She's helping me in many ways. That's why I'm very happy.

This is the first time the respondent talks about changes in concrete detail. It is interesting that he talks about changes made by his wife, not himself.

Interviewer: Did you have to change in any way when your wife started working?

Bala: Me? Yeah! I have to do a lot of work at home.

Daughter: [giggling] Cooking.

Interviewer: You mean housework?

Bala: Yeah, I am doing housework because when she goes to work I have to cook.

Daughter: [contradicting her dad] Not really housework, but backyard work, work on the car...

Bala: [ignoring his daughter] Housework, backyard work, work in the garage, cleaning, the laundry, cooking and many things I have to do. In Sri Lanka I never did like that but here I have to do.

The question is excellent because it is not-threatening, yet continues to press the respondent to talk in a personal voice. It indicates to the respondent that his comments about his wife have been received, and it is fitting for him to talk about his responses. This leads him to identify specific household chores he has come to carry out.

Interviewer: How did you feel about taking on this work?

Bala: I was very happy because I understood the situation. We need money to maintain the family. I'm very happy. Without doing like this we can not live here. Now I'm mixing with this culture. We changed a lot. Everybody.

It is remarkable to hear the respondent talking about his feelings. It takes persistence from the interviewer, and several rounds of exchange, for the respondent to move from a public voice to a personal voice.

Interviewer: It sounds like you had a rather easy time?

Bala: [chuckles]

Daughter: I guess it wasn't that hard because now there are more Sri Lankans here. We didn't really change a lot. Like in the school I go to, 75 percent are Indians. It's like our culture too. Now there are people with different backgrounds. Each of them have their own culture. They understand ours and we understand theirs. We didn't really change. I don't feel like that. I feel like how I was back there.

Bala: Yes. Only the language has changed. Most immigrants have the same cultural background too. Wherever we go there are Indians and Punjabis... Many people like Sri Lankans. And people from South America, many people.

The exchange indicates that the interviewer, the respondent and his daughter have developed certain degree of rapport and thrust.

Interviewer: Are you saying you get support from other immigrants because you know they are going through the same things?

Bala and Daughter: Yeah, yeah.

The interviewer refers back to the original question "Are there any ways that other Tamils affect your behavior?"

Tamil Interview #5

Example: Switching Topics Too Frequently

Interviewer: Have you ever had a disagreement on family matters? Who usually makes the final decision?

Dongming (husband): It is impossible not to have disagreements. But I usually do not insist on my opinion. I follow her about 80% of the time because she knows much more than I do.

Jia-feng (wife): For example, shopping. I have more information. I make the decision.

There are three problems with the interviewer's question:
  1. First, the interviewer asked two questions at once. The husband responded to the first question only. The wife complemented his answer, and indirectly answered the second question.
  2. Second, the interviewer phrased the question about disagreement as a Yes / No question instead of asking the respondent to describe the nature of a disagreement. The question is followed by a multiple-choice question (Who decides: husband or wife?). Neither question encourages rich, detailed narratives.
  3. Third, the term "family matters" is confusing and problematic because it covers widely varied tasks, from decisions on child-rearing to the division of housework, from grocery shopping to major purchases. In response, the husband ends up assuming a public voice. The questions can be re-phrased to focus a specific aspects of family matters, how decisions are made and disagreements resolved.

Interviewer: As I see it, after having a child, a couple no longer has enough time to spend on themselves, say, on their work or trips.

Dongming: I think it is very hard to reach life goals as expected, even if I am trying my best. So, I play with my son in most of my spare time.

Jia-feng: I used to very much enjoy leisure activities before my child was born. Now as my son grows up, I spend more and more time and energy on him.

(Dongming leaves to take care the child to sleep.)

Jia-feng: My husband takes care of his bath, even takes care of toilet-tissuing him.

Here, instead of asking a question, the interviewer expressed his opinion. In a situation like this, it is hard for the respondent to figure out what to say. The interview loses focus.

Interviewer: How have you tried to raise your son?

Jia-feng: We have tried our best to provide him with what the local children have.

Dongming: (comes back from his son's bedroom.) I intend to follow the way the local people teach their children. The Chinese way makes children repeat what they learn. The way here encourages children to think creatively.

The question is rather vague. As a result, the couple answers in rather abstract terms. The interviewer should follow up by asking for clarification, elabouration, or particular example.

Interviewer: How much money do you usually spend on yourselves?

Dongming: It's hard to say. We usually consider one another. When she goes shopping alone, she never buys clothes for herself. When we go shopping together, I always say the lady's clothes are cheap, although I don't know the market price at all. But we do not hesitate to spend money on our son.

This is another vague question, which leads to a rather vague answer. Such answers are of limited interest when it comes to data analysis. The interviewer should ask the respondent to be specific about the household budget, such as the amount they would spend in a particular period for a particular category of items.

Interviewer: Who governs the family financial budget?

Jia-feng: I do. Our monthly expenditure is about $1,800.

Dongming: Our custom is to keep a balance between income and consumption. We never borrow money from others.

Interviewer: Do you often contact other Chinese people?

Dongming: We consciously avoid keeping in touch with people who come from the mainland of China. Because there were some sorrowful events happened in the past. We are glad to approach the local people.

The respondent's answer begs a follow-up question such as, "Could you say more about exactly what happened?"

Interviewer: How many close friends do you have?

The interviewer switches topics again.

Chinese Interview #2

Exercise: "Cover the Ground Slowly"

Rephrase the interview questions in the preceding example. Write down follow-up questions appropriate to respondent's answers.

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