Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The Evolution of Interviews

A huge part of what I was doing during my time in South Africa was interviewing young adults to determine their perceptions of tourism and natural protected areas in South Africa, and particularly the Eastern Cape (piece 3 in Shaping my Field Study). I initially wanted more of a central focus around ecotourism (defined in A New Direction or the TIES website), but very few of the people I talked to knew about ecotourism (outside of those people who are involved in some way in the tourism industry), and even fewer had very well-formed opinions about it. In fact, bringing ecotourism into the equation, even if I tried to explain it simply and thoroughly, usually just confused my interviewees and made them less confident in their answers to my following questions. So, after the first few interviews, I shifted my questions to more general tourism, with a focus on community benefits/consequences and nature-based tourism. I also moved from asking about their opinions for the whole of South Africa and centered in on the Eastern Cape, the province East London is in and the poorest South African province.

One of the first lessons I learned in my interviews was that the less I talked, the better. I had a list of questions I wanted answered, and initially I would focus in on this list, asking the questions one at a time, with awkward attempts to transition from one to another and little deviation in the order. I usually found what I wanted, but the interviews were choppy and there was too much pressure to stick to the topics and points that I'd selected, without much room for things that might be more interesting to them, which is really much more important. In the end what worked really well was for me to just ask, "What do you think about tourism in the Eastern Cape?" and let them take it away from there. I still had the same main points I wanted to hit, having to do with community, positive and negative aspects, environmental effects/sustainability, challenges, and so on, but when I let them start the direction of the conversation, I was always able to find a natural place to fit those questions in, and a surprising majority of the time they brought up these issues on their own, without me having to ask. Asking such a general question also allowed for the interview to stay at much more of a conversational level, shaped by each individual and free from the pressure to have the 'right' response that can become such a problem when asking specifics. My first few interviews were really stressful, and initially I tried too hard to get the answers I wanted (in some cases I really wanted to get a 'for' or 'against,' when really they just didn't care), but once I was able to relax I genuinely enjoyed hearing each person's perspectives and opinions.

There were some challenges with the actual gathering of the interviews that always kept things interesting (and frustrating), which I'm going to address in my next post.

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