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Ask Open-ended Questions

The virtue of in-depth interviews is in how they bring individuals' personal experiences into the entire process of knowledge construction. This is especially important for marginal groups whose knowledge and experiences traditionally have been dismissed or excluded. We are, therefore, interested in the events, incidents and trajectories of respondents' lives, as well as their subjective experiences. To explore the former, we often ask the question, "what happened?" and for the latter, "what does it mean to you?" and "how does it feel?" Such open-ended questions invite respondents to provide testimony and to reflect upon their personal feelings.

Here is an example where the interviewer invites the respondent to reconstruct her memories of the community that she entered upon her arrival in Montreal.

Example: Tell Me What Happened?

Interviewer: Did you have any problems integrating into the greater Montreal community?

Judy: Yes because we stayed within our area and we needed that because there were so many of us around that had nothing to do and no place to go. We didn't know the ins and out and we were young, we needed to mix and go to clubs but they didn't allow you. You know, there's always this sort of thing. So we kept to our own and formed associations and clubs... So we were completely away from what was happening in society.

The interviewer asks the respondent to describe what happened as she experienced it. Based upon the answer, the interview could further explore various aspects of the "problems" by saying, "I am not sure I know. What sort of thing do you mean?"

Interviewer: How many were you in your circle at the time?

Judy: There were a lot, about twenty girls a year came.

Interviewer: How did you meet?

Judy: We knew because when we came they met us. As a group comes, the other group will meet them and they'll tell you the ropes and bring you to apartments. Some of them by that time would have their own. And there were a few guys who were studying here at the University…

Interviewer: How did they hear?

Judy: The girls that came before knew that it was an ongoing thing so they would know, there was this council, the West Indian and Eastern Caribbean council [or consulate] and they were sort of responsible for us in a way. So we'd report to them when they got here and they knew exactly who was coming and so the other girls would know that we were coming. And we had their numbers, St. Vincent is a small place so we know that somebody's there. Their parents would give us their address.

Interviewer: How did you get your first apartment?

Judy: There were some friends of my family who lived here, they had come, one brother was a doctor, and he was working in Toronto, and one brother was an accountant and he married a Black Canadian who was born here. I lived with them for a while. I had their number when I came because they're from the same area that I'm from so I knew them. Then another bunch of girls came, classmates, they had finished their year and two of us got together and got an apartment. She was working at [large Canadian company]. We paid $90.00/month for the apt. By that time there quite a few guys coming up to go to university, on student visa. We knew them because they were going to school around the same time as us, so we'd mix with them…

The above questions mainly get at "what happened." To elicit subjective experiences, the interviewer could ask questions such as, "How did it feel to meet up with friends from St. Vincent in Montreal?" "What was it like to live with your friend and his wife?" "How did it feel to have your own apartment with your girl friend?"

Caribbean Interview #5

Exercise: "How Does it Feel?"

In this segment, the interviewer asks about both events and subjective experiences.

  1. Identify the questions that get at "what happened?" and "how did you feel?"
  2. Based on answers to the "what happened" questions, develop a set of follow-up "how did it feel?" questions.

Interviewer: Tell me about your experiences when you first arrived. Any problems integrating?

Carl: There were definite problems and I lived with my sister and a friend and my main concern was to get an education and so I didn't socialize much. I played cricket and we played with people from other commonwealth countries, Jamaica, India, etc. and that was my only form of socialization then.

Interviewer: How many people did you know here in Montreal that you knew earlier in St. Vincent?

Carl: Quite a few, about 50, I'd say.

Interviewer: What was your experience with the community?

Carl: I was quite a loner. The girls that came in the domestic program had to work in somebody's home for a year, and they had little chance to get out. Usually they got every Thursday off and they would meet in somebody's home and celebrate birthdays, and just get together and chat. Most of the objective was just to go to school and work. I went to work in the day and did my degree at night.

Interviewer: The first place you lived in with your sister?

Carl: Yes.

Interviewer: How did you find your first place after you moved out from your sister's?

Carl: That was when I got married. And there was some trouble, some discrimination, when I was looking. There was one apartment and the guy showed it to me and he told me I couldn't afford it, it was very expensive. I said, "Never mind that, I am looking for an apartment I need some details." Obviously after that initial contact I didn't want to live there. Another place they told me that when I got there it was rented, and I later found out it was not. I eventually got an apartment rented from a doctor, a very wonderful guy, and I lived there 16 years until I bought my own home.

Interviewer: What year did you get married?

Carl: 1963.

Interviewer: Where did you meet your wife?

Carl: At home, before I came here. She came here in 1963 just to get married.

Interviewer: Was there a plan? You first planned to go home.

Carl: She wanted to go home after she came. She still doesn't like it here and wants to go back to live.

[interruption of a phone call]

Interviewer: You were telling me about your wife.

Carl: Yes, I met her four or five years before I came here. I met her through her place.

Interviewer: Were you engaged before you came here?

Carl: No, I don't believe in engagements. No, I just knew her and then I came here and we corresponded and I asked her to marry me, and she said yes, and that was it.

Interviewer: Did she work when she came here?

Carl: Yes, she has already worked since she came. She works in [university in Montreal], at the Faculty of Music. And she has worked at the Faculty of Medicine, and that was the end, because she stopped working a few years ago.

Interviewer: How much contact do you have with other Vincentians here in Montreal?

Carl: Quite a lot, and I can phone my friends freely, but then my wife is not interested, and so I don't socialize a lot. There was a time when we attended parties and like that, but we still have a fair amount of contact.

Caribbean Interview #7

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