Asking questions

THE FIRST QUESTION many of us ask ourselves, when we set out to conduct fieldwork on a new topic, is “what on earth am I going to ask?” Meeting people is often inhibiting, because we don’t quite know how to start the conversation. Defaulting to small talk about the weather has thus become standard practice in a place like England, not because it’s interesting, but as an effective means of getting past that first, awkward moment. Likewise, researchers must acquire “social skills” that help them get into the more meaningful parts of a discussion.

Social sciences offer limited guidance on “semi-structured interviews,” which replace formal surveys with a set of relatively open questions designed to prompt and sustain a more spontaneous interaction. As different topics lend themselves to distinct styles of conversation, following a standardized template doesn’t create the best conditions for a lively, earnest and consequential exchange. Here are a few tricks you can use to prepare nonetheless.

First, ask yourself: what arouses my curiosity? People naturally respond positively to our genuine interest regarding what they do in life. The best starting-point is thus to map out what facets of a given topic you are intrigued or puzzled by. From there, you can think through what you are hoping to learn from others. List those preliminary questions as a note to self. Don’t worry that they may sound naïve: they should, as you still don’t know much, and will learn as you go.

Second, translate your curiosity into subsets of more specific questions tailored to others. Your topic inevitably opens several areas of investigation: group your thoughts by subcategory of issues or interlocutors. Some of the latter, for example, may be more inclined to share lived experiences, while others will contribute technical expertise. The idea is to approach interviews with a good choice of questions to draw on and shoot—much like a quiver of arrows.

Third, learn to use different types of questions, to produce distinctive effects. A preliminary list would include:

  • Ice-breakers. These are meant to get the conversation rolling. They may have a more private tone, or on the contrary be very general, bearing on “recent developments” in your field of investigation. Ice-breakers are not restricted to initial niceties: they may be used at any moment during the discussion, to mark a turning point toward a more intimate interaction.
  • Accreditations. Some questions perform the primary function of establishing your credentials and providing the meeting with its raison d’etre. For instance, your interlocutor may want to go straight to the point, and say from the get-go “how exactly can I help?” or “what is it that you want from me?” In such circumstances, you must skip any social delicacies and prove that you are there to make the most of the occasion.
  • Fillers. Not all questions need to be sparkling with intelligence. At times, you just need to keep the conversation going, until you reach that moment where your interlocutor livens up and creates momentum of their own. In other terms, make sure your quiver never empties, even if that means reloading it with relatively blunt questions aiming solely at maintaining some rhythm.
  • Bundles. Try to shoot in volleys, covering most aspects of a subtopic before moving on to the next one. Jumping around from one issue to another and back again makes for an uneven conversation. Think of follow-ups while you listen to answers, and make a mental note if you can’t jot them down in a corner of your notebook.
  • Archways. Some questions unexpectedly open onto a vast plane your interlocutor wants to take you into. This can prove extremely fertile ground for learning, or at least capturing narratives.
  • Funnels. At the same time, some conversations simply go astray, into areas your interlocutor gets excited about, but which are of no interest to you. This applies more particularly to rants, which tend to be predictable, shallow and time-consuming. Here you may want to use very pointed questions to get the discussion back on track.
  • Pushback. A diplomatic way of challenging your interlocutor is to question their statements directly: “really? Could you say more about that?” You may ask how their views reconcile with contradicting facts, or bring in competing narratives you have absorbed from others; you may request that they repeat something particularly outrageous, if only to give them a chance to add nuance or explanations; or you may inquire about how they came to form such opinions—a process which is often more illuminating than the outcome itself.

Fourth, you will develop, gradually, an instinct for what type of question, at what moment in the interaction, has a better chance of hitting its mark. Meanwhile, accept the hit-or-miss nature of the exercise: just keep shooting.

Fifth and last, there are things not to aim for, because they predictably take you off-target. Questions that put your interlocutor on the defensive likely will disrupt, not enrich, the discussion. Beware, therefore, of any framing that may appear to pass judgment. Approaching issues from a moral perspective obviously qualifies, as in “how could you support such a decision?”

But subtler questioning can produce a similar effect. Howard Becker, in Tricks of the Trade. How to Think about your Research while You’re Doing It, makes a compelling argument against asking “why,” which summons justifications and puts people on the spot. Asking “how” things happened, how they got this bad, how your interlocutor was caught up in them, makes for a less guarded, more earnest narrative depicting the issues you are trying to understand.

459px-Gustave_Moreau_005It is important to add that “why” reflects our natural inclination to expect our “subjects” to analyse themselves. Now wouldn’t that be convenient? The goal of interviews is not to collect ready-made explanations, but facts (detail, anecdotes, practices, sequences, specific roles), narratives (interpretations, perspectives, contradictions, nuances, and dilemmas) and leads (introductions to other people, hints as to what to look for, and suggestions as to where to find it).

Good interviews, all told, are the ones we leave asking ourselves the right questions, more than coming with them.

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Illustration credit: Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres Oedipus and the Sphinx; Gustave Moreau Oedipus and the Sphinx by Wikipedia / licensed by CC. 

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