Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The Trouble with Interviews

No matter how good interview methods might be, they don't do any good without people to interview. This was the biggest challenge I faced in my project, and was a huge issue, because a study on people is worthless unless you have people to study. The main reason that this was so difficult for me was that my population was too broad for me to find them easily from one organization or location. I wanted to interview men and women between 18 and 30, from various backgrounds and education levels, to give me an overall perspective from the up-and-coming generation - those who will have the most control over the near future, and who have lived most of their lives in the New South Africa outside of Apartheid. It seems like it should be easy to find a bunch of people around my own age, which is what I thought initially, until I tried to actually do it.

My first batch of people came from Fort Hare University, where I was able to pass around a sign-up sheet to a couple classes for those students willing to be interviewed. It wasn't hard to find some people who were happy to participate, but I had some serious challenges actually meeting with these students - mostly scheduling issues. There were a number of them who I tried to meet with many times, setting up a time, checking multiple times to make sure that time worked, arriving at the agreed-upon meeting place and then finding out that they had to change the time . . . over and over again. This got old very quickly. Another problem was the method of contacting. I quickly learned that email didn't work well, since a lot of people don't check their emails regularly, if ever, but I spent a lot of time making calls before I figured out that texting was the way to go. Most people respond pretty quickly to texts, and written no one has trouble understanding another's accent through text. Those people I did manage to meet with from Fort Hare were great though, and some even connected me with other people to talk to, which was a big help.

Unfortunately, Fort Hare does not have a very diverse population - everyone there is educated beyond high school, and the majority of the student body is black. Also, once exams started in October, there were no regularly scheduled classes for me to pass sign-up sheets around in, and it became more difficult for students to find time for interviews. So I had to turn to other sources.

An easy fallback was always members of my church, since I saw them twice a week, but I didn't like to abuse that population too much (or introduce that additional bias into my data), and one of my fellow students interviewed most of the women (17-29) from our church for her project. I felt it would be too much to ask of them to be interviewed again, and it seems wrong to have exactly the same study participants, so I kept my church-gathered population to a few of the men.

Other than those two sources, my participants came from random acquaintance or referral. I interviewed one worker from the internet cafe I frequented, two men who talked to me on the street, two friends/acquaintances of men who talked to me on the street, one co-worker of someone from church, and a number of other very diversely gathered people.

Besides the issue of finding participants and working around schedules, the biggest problem I met was in communication. Most people I interviewed had a first language other than English, and though they were usually fluent enough that it didn't pose any problems, occasionally I found someone who just couldn't quite understand me, or who I couldn't understand, and that would lead to a very awkward and usually painfully short interview. It also made it more difficult when I wanted to ask questions having to do with environmental issues or conservation, because my participants were unfamiliar with a lot of the terms I wanted to use in these questions (like conservation, or environmental), and it was hard to see whether it was the terms or the concepts that people were unfamiliar with. For all of these issues, I just had to do my best to work around them, and try to learn something new from every interview I completed.

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