Interviewing » Phrasing Questions and Other Techniques »

Adjust Questions to the Respondent's Situation

Qualitative interviewers bring a question guide to each interview to ensure that all pre-identified areas are covered. The guide, however, is not a rigid form to be filled. Interviewers revise questions as they go along according to the information respondents provide. Interviewers must be courageous and sensitive enough to work with respondents to explore unanticipated, newly emerging topics and issues. Leaving these clues unexplored may make the respondents feel that the interviewer is not really interested in their personal experiences.

Example: Interviewing by the Book

Interviewer: Who makes up your family?

Diane: My immediate family: just me and my son.

Interviewer: Extended family?

Diane: I would say fourteen kids. That's leaving out the nieces and nephews and both parents are dead now. I was never married.

The interviewer should ask for clarification about the "fourteen kids." Is Diane referring to her siblings?

Interviewer: Who do you live with in your household?

Diane: Me and my son.

This is a single mother household. Questions related to marriage, divorce, family formation, kinship relations, and parent-child relations should be phrased accordingly. The respondent's experiences could be a starting point for the researcher to explore family forms and experiences that divert from the conventional nuclear model.

Interviewer: How often do married people visit their parents and in-laws in general, in your community?

Diane: That would depend on the communications with the in-laws. If they're in good terms, once a week a phone call or a visit.

Strictly following the topics of the interview guide, the interviewer asks a general question about "married people" and "in-laws." The respondent cannot speak personally about this topic, and so she replies in a public voice.

Interviewer: Would you have ever considered living with them?

Diane: If the need arose I would do it.

Interviewer: What are one's responsibilities to one's parents after marriage, and is this different for the male vs. female spouse?

Diane: I'm from a big family and I'm the only one who has never been married... I have a strong family background so I'm always the one attacking because I feel that, regardless of the Bible, which says to forsake parents and cleave to your wife, I don't agree. Because I'll come back to say, "we are family." Your family came about by a piece of paper—you sign it to come into the family and you sign another to get out, but regardless to what you do you cannot divorce me. I am here to stay. So I get in lots of fights with my in-laws, sister in-laws. If you marry someone you marry the person's family... I have the advantage of being single. But if I were married I would not forsake my family.

The interviewer asks another hypothetical question about relations between married children and their parents. From her perspective as the only single family member, the respondent discusses her loyalty to her natal family and conflict with her sisters-in-law.

Interviewer: How often does the grandchild interact with grandparents?

Diane: As often. First I'd try to work on a relationship with my daughter in-law that I can get to see my grandchildren because if you don't do that you can't expect to see them. They aren't yours.

Interviewer: Do one's parents help the couple financially?

Diane: If I have, sure.

Interviewer: Did your parents have a role in taking care of their parents? Were things different then? How?

Diane: My grandfather took care of us because we were so many in the family and my father was sick.

This comment about being cared for by her grandfather is another clue pointing to family experience that differs from the conventional nuclear family model.

Caribbean Interview #2

Exercise: "Hey There, Listen to Me."

In the following except, the interviewer's standardized question, "Are there any events that would bring the whole family together now," triggers an overwhelming sense of despair and suffering. How has this come about? What information provided by the respondent earlier should have been used to phrase the question differently?

Interviewer: Are there any events that would bring the whole family together now?

Sherry: No, I can't go anywhere. It's rough. If my parents died right now, I couldn't go. I don't have any money. I have to take care of my kids. I have to pay my rent. I work all the time and I don't get ahead. I get off one day in a week, and it's so hard to make a life here. I don't have security of any sort. I try and try but they don't understand. It's just by the mercy of God that I'm getting by from one day to the next. I don't have anything to go back to, and it's tough, it's rough. I wish sometimes that they could understand. I want to get my landed, and get some education, and get a better job. Get out of this domestic work. I don't like to lean on family. My uncle is doing fine, and I have to do my best. As I don't have my landed I have to struggle on, and I'm hanging in there, with the help of God I will have faith and be strong. There is no way anyone could cope with this situation.

Caribbean Interview #12

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