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Avoid the "Why" Question

"Why?" questions tend to be followed by overly intellectualized or simplified answers rather than rich, descriptive narrative. They also pressure respondents to justify their actions or at least to provide a socially-acceptable answer. Since the focus of qualitative research is not on finding causal relationships, "how" questions are more fruitful than "why" questions. "How" questions invite respondents to discuss the specific conditions or circumstances under which specific decision were made.

Example: The "Why" Question

Interviewer: Who was the first of your family to come to Canada, when and why?

Bob: My girlfriend came to Canada first... in the 1970s.

Asking a few factual questions at the beginning of the interview gives the interviewer and respondent a chance to get to a feeling for one another (mannerisms, body language, accents) and to establish trust. However, this three-part question is difficult for the respondent to handle. The question should be rephrased: "Let's start with the story of how you and your family first came to Canada. Can you begin by telling me who was the first member of your family to immigrate?"

Interviewer: Why?

Bob: She had her sisters here.

Interviewer: Was she sponsored through her family?

Bob: Yeah...

Interviewer: Did she sponsor you to come?

Bob: Yeah...

Interviewer: How did you become a Canadian citizen?

Bob: You get sponsored, become a landed immigrant and after three years you become a citizen... I had no relatives.

When a question receives a standard, impersonal response, the interviewer can follow up with another question such as, "As you remember that process, what stands out in your mind?" Or "What was that experience like for you?"

Interviewer: What was her occupation before she left?

Bob: She was just out of high school.

Interviewer: Why did she come and why did you want to come?

Bob: Her family was here and then I came to join her.

The interviewer's "why" questions have been ineffective in eliciting detailed narrative. We only learn the bare facts. Follow-up questions would help, such as:
  • "How was her decision made?"
  • "What were the things that affected your decision to come after her?"
  • "What prompted you to leave St. Vincent and the Grenadines at that time in your life?"

Interviewer: Was there something in the Canadian experience that you came for?

Bob: I didn't know much about Canada when I came to meet her. Home was okay. She said she prefer me to come... She was not coming... Somebody had to move.

The phrasing of this question is more effective than "Why did you come to Canada?"

Caribbean Interview #1

Exercise: "Don't ask me 'why'!"

Locate a "why" question in the data set of interviews. How would you re-phrase the question?

«Don’t Switch Topics Too Frequently Avoid Asking for Little Known Facts»