One-to-one Interviewing

One-to-one interviewing is similar to the kinds of interviews conducted for studies in the social sciences, and is possibly the least used method in ethnographic study. However, it is still a useful tool, especially for exploring a particular issue in-depth or for gathering information from a key participant who is central to your topic or research site.

One-to-one interviews may be recorded with a dictaphone or other device, or notes may be taken before or after the interview. The advantage of tape recording is that a truer account of the participant’s words are taken – however, a tape recorder may make a participant feel nervous or uncomfortable. Note taking is less threatening, but can distract from the interview itself and is less likely to allow you to quote directly from the participant. Note taking after the interview allows you to pay your full attention to what’s being said, but you may lose a lot of the information in the time between conducting your interview and writing up your notes. As is often the case in ethnography, it’s important to judge the situation and use your intuition to find the best method.

Attentive listening is extremely important in one-to-one interviews – it shows you are interested in what the participant has to say, and allows you to elicit as much information as possible from them. It also allows the participant to become more at ease and creates a respectful environment in which the participant is seen to have important things to say.

Some tips for being an attentive listener:

Pay attention. A primary goal of active listening is to set a comfortable tone and allow time and opportunity for the other person to think and speak. Pay attention to your frame of mind, your body language and the other person. Be present, focused on the moment and operate from a place of respect.

Withhold judgment. Active listening requires an open mind. Even when good listeners have strong views, they suspend judgment, hold their criticism and avoid arguing or selling their point right away. Tell yourself, “I’m here to understand how the other person sees the world. It is not time to judge or give my view.”

Reflect. Learn to mirror the other person’s information and emotions by paraphrasing key points. You don’t need to agree or disagree. Reflecting is a way to indicate that you heard and understand. Don’t assume that you understand correctly or that the other person knows you’ve heard him.

Use questions to double-check on any issue that is ambiguous or unclear. Open-ended, clarifying, and probing questions are important tools.

  • Open-ended questions draw people out and encourage them to expand their ideas (i.e., “What are your thoughts on …” or “What led you to this conclusion?”).
  • Clarifying questions ensure understanding and clear up confusion. Any “who, what, where, when, how or why” question can be a clarifying question, but those are not the only possibilities. You might say, “I must have missed something. Could you repeat that?” or “I am not sure that I got what you were saying. Can you explain it again another way?”
  • By asking probing questions, you invite reflection and a thoughtful response instead of telling others what to do. You might ask, for example, “More specifically, what are some of the things you’ve tried?”

Restating key themes as the conversation proceeds confirms and solidifies your grasp of the other person’s point of view. Briefly summarize what you have understood as you listened (i.e., “It sounds as if your main concern is …” or “These seem to be the key points you have expressed…”). You could also ask the other person to summarize.

More information on conducting ethnographic interviews can be found here.

You can also watch these videos on good and bad qualitative interviews to gain an idea of what is (or is not) appropriate during a one-to-one interview.

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