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Ask for Clarification

With in-depth interviews, the interview structure is emergent. Every round of exchange between the interviewer and respondent establishes the context for the next set of questions and answers. Not asking for clarification when the interviewer does not understand has serious, compounding effects. For one thing, confusion can cripple the interviewer's listening ability. Subsequently, she or he ends up asking contractory questions, missing opportunities to ask effective follow-up questions, or embarrassedly stumbling through the rest of the interview when the cumulative effect becomes too overwhelming to handle. When such problems become evident, the respondent may lose enthusiasm at the very least. She or he may very well become impatient and resentful. The quality of the interview suffers.

Here is an example of how the interviewer misses opportunities to ask for clarification, and how it affects the interview.

Example: Ask for Clarification

Interviewer: What year did you get married?

Gerry: The first time, 1961.

The interviewer should immediately ask for clarification. How many times has he been married, what years, when did he divorce, and what other significant relationships has he had? Without asking for clarification, it is difficult to ask other related questions later. Earlier in the interview the respondent commented: "It was a curious situation perhaps, but this is what the Caribbean is all about. Lots of people have children outside of marriage. It's just a part of life, these things happen and there is no stigma attached." This should have reminded the interviewer that formal marriage is not the only form of relationship practice among the Caribbean. The interviewer could have asked questions such as: "How many relationships have you had?" or "Could you say a little bit about the relationships you have had?"

Interviewer: Was she from St. Vincent?

Gerry: No she happened to be from Montreal, a black and Canadian Indian woman. We had one daughter. She went to Toronto to do Urban Planning, and now she lives in Toronto, married, and has one child.

Interviewer: How many children do you have in total?

Gerry: One, two, three, plus that daughter. Those happened in the West Indies and they are all living in the States now. New Jersey, New York, they come to see me or I go to see them.

Here, it becomes clear that the respondent has had more than one relationship prior to his current relationship. For clarification, the interviewer could ask: "Could you say a bit about your previous relationship with each child's mother in the West Indies?" This is another opportunity to ask for clarification.

Interviewer: Who lives in the household now?

Gerry: Just me and my wife. We started to live together in 1981. She is a Vincentian. I knew her from my childhood. She was a lot younger than I was, and then she went to England and I was in England in 1976 and I saw her then, and I went back to England in 1978 and saw her again, and then she moved to Canada in 1980. She is a nurse, RN. she still works as a nurse.

Even though he referred to her as "my wife," they may have a common law marriage. If formal marriage is not commonly practiced, divorce may also have different social meanings than it would in dominant Canadian culture. We cannot assume there is the same set of social norms and practices that govern the formation and termination of male-female relationship. Unfortunately, the interviewer's framing of questions on marriage and divorce has prevented her from exploring this thread.
The respondent initially stumbles later on when he was asked to comment on divorce in the community.

Interviewer: …How is divorce looked upon in your community?

Gerry: There used to be a lot of that… that was something that was not… a lot of women, a lot of families didn't go through that final stage. If people came to a stage when they couldn't live together any more, divorce might have been an option, but they didn't they just drifted apart, and that was that. There were divorces, but the whole idea was to stay together anyway for the sake of the children. When it got too bad, people would just leave, but not get a divorce. So it wasn't really an option that was exercised among people I was familiar with. Maybe in the upper class. Now we have got quite modern, and it is part of living in a modern society and it is quite prevalent among St. Vincentians. I know one guy who went back to St. Vincent with a Canadian wife and he has divorced three of them now.

This is a very revealing response to a standard, non-personal question. The interviewer failed to get a clear picture of the respondent's personal history, i.e. whether he had got divorced or "just drifted" away from the relationship. The respondent helpfully placed the issue of divorce within a context of tradition versus modernization, and commoner versus "upper class" relationships. His answer reveals the bias embedded in the question. The marriage-divorce frame continues to prevent the interviewer from exploring other types of heterosexual relationships. It also prevents the respondent from speaking in a personal voice. The closest he could get was to talk about his friend, but not about himself.

Caribbean Interview #10

Exercise: "What Do You Mean?"

Comment on the following excerpt. Your comments should center around:

  1. the effects of yes/no questions;
  2. attentive listening;
  3. asking for clarification;
  4. conceptual baggage;
  5. interpreting laughter.

Interviewer: How many times have you visited family in St. Vincent and the Grenadines? How much contact do you have with them?

Bob: Once every two years.

Interviewer: Do you write otherwise?

Bob: No, I use the telephone.

Interviewer: Do you consider sponsoring any of your relatives to immigrate to Canada?

Bob: No, they don't want to come and I'm the last in the family. I spoke to my one brother but he doesn't want to come. Sometimes I want to see him, this telephone will kill me. My sisters there established a business and are married, they won't come. My other sister is married too, in England. My parents are dead.

Interviewer: Do you ever consider going back or going elsewhere?

Bob: Yes. I would move back if it's necessary.

Interviewer: What reason would make it necessary?

Bob: I can go back and join the business. I live with my brother there, I have a little business and he takes care of it. If there was ever any major expansion I would go. Get a little old and I would need more sun, but I have an obligation to see my kids through school and Canada is all they know. Once they're born here it's a different concept. So I have to stick with them here until they reach adult level. It's easy for me to go back but not them, they'd miss their friends, the winter, skiing,...We grew up in a different environment. I grew up in the sea, playing cricket. I long for it sometimes. At first when I came here I would switch the channel all day but there's no cricket coming. I gradually looked at the hockey and tried to understand it and American football... When you can't get what you want, you absorb it gradually.

Interviewer: Who makes up your family, today?

Bob: My wife and kids.

Interviewer: How many kids do you have?

Bob: [laugh] I have two. The rest don't live with me.

Interviewer: How old are they?

Bob: Eleven and nine.

Interviewer: Gender?

Bob: Two girls.

Interviewer: Who do you live with in your household?

Bob: My wife.

Interviewer: Your wife and your kids?

Bob: Yes.

Interviewer: When did you get married, and how old were you both?

Bob: I was twenty, and her too.

Interviewer: How well did you know each other and for how long?

Bob: From primary school.

Interviewer: Is this the woman who was your girlfriend when you came to Canada?

Bob: Yes. But I had kids before.

Interviewer: They're in St. Vincent?

Bob: One. But they're mainly in Toronto and the United States. They come in summer and they come and go when they feel like but they will go back to their mom.

…Interviewer: Do you want to have more children?

Bob: No. I made some early mistakes so I try to correct it. Sometimes I find myself wondering when a mother calls and says he's behaving bad, I feel guilty that maybe he's reacting because I'm not around. The mistakes I made, I would like to correct it through him. You lose a grip on them. See, I'm a disciplinarian, so when they come here they have to straighten up.

Caribbean Interview #1

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