Questions to Structure the Interview Research Proposal

1. What?

Proposal writers need to ask themselves some simple questions. These can be divided into several groups. First is a group of questions I put under the heading of “What?” In what am I interested? What am I trying to learn about and understand? What is the basis of my interest?

Interviewers begin with an interest in a particular area. At the beginning of interviewers’ research lurks the desire to understand what is going on. But how did that desire begin? Important questions that must be asked in interviewing research and that are seldom asked in experimental or quasi-experimental research are, What is the context of my interest? How did I come to this interest? What is my stake in the inquiry, and what do I get out of pursuing my interest and learning about it? What are my expectations about the subject of inquiry?

Research, like almost everything else in life, has autobiographical roots. It is crucial for interviewers to identify the autobiographical roots of their interest in their topic. (See Locke, Silverman & Spirduso, 2004, pp. 217-218, for a compelling discussion of this issue.) Research is hard work; interviewing research is especially so. In order to sustain the energy needed to do the research well, a researcher must have some passion about his or her subject. Rather than seeking a “disinterested” position as a researcher, the interviewer needs to understand and affirm his or her interest in order to build on the energy that can come from it. Equally important, researchers must identify the source of their interest in order to channel it appropriately. They must acknowledge it in order to minimize the distortion such interest can cause in the way they carry out their interviewing. An autobiographical section explaining researchers’ connections to their proposed research seems to me to be crucial for those interested in in-depth interviewing. (For an example of such an explanation, see Maxwell, 1996, pp. 123-124.)

Finally, interviewers must not only identify their connection with the subject of the interview; they must also affirm that their interest in the subject reflects a real desire to know what is going on, to understand the experience. If, in fact, interviewers are so intimately connected to the subject of inquiry that they really do not feel perplexed, and what they are really hoping to do is corroborate their own experience, they will not have enough distance from the subject to interview effectively. The questions will not be real; that is, they will not be questions to which the interviewers do not already have the answers.

There is, therefore, an inherent paradox at the heart of the issue of what topics researchers choose to study. On the one hand, they must choose topics that engage their interest, their passion, and sustain their motivation for the labor-intensive work that interviewing research is. That usually means in some way or another they must be close to their topics. On the other hand, to be open to the process of listening and careful exploration that is crucial in an interviewing study, they must approach their research interests with a certain sense of naivete, innocence, and ab­sence of prejudgments (Moustakas, 1994, p. 85). Researchers who can ne­gotiate that complex tension will be able to listen intently, ask real ques­tions, and set the stage for working well with the material they gather.

2. Why? in Context

The next question to ask is why the subject might be important to others. Why is the subject significant? What is the background of this subject, and why is that background important to understand? To what else does the subject relate? If you understand the complexities of this subject, what will be the benefit and who will obtain it? What is the con­text of previous work that has been done on the subject (Locke et al., 2000)? How will your work build on what has been done already? (See Locke et al., 2000; Rubin & Rubin, 1995, for succinct discussions of the issue of significance.)

Locke and his colleagues are especially cogent in their discussion of what often appears in dissertation proposals as “reviews of the literature.” They stress that these sometimes mechanical summaries of previous re­search miss the intent of reading the literature connected to the subject. Such reading should inform researchers of the context of the research, allow them to gain a better sense of the issue’s significance and how it has been approached before, as well as reveal what is missing in the previ­ous research. These understandings can be integrated into the various sections of the proposal and do not necessitate a separate one that some­times reads like a book report. (See Locke et al., 2000, pp. 63-68, and Maxwell, 1996, chap. 3, who is also thoughtful on this issue.)

In addition to asking why the topic is historically significant, criti­cal ethnographers suggest that how the topic relates to issues of power, justice, and oppression must also be raised. Especially important are the issues of power that are implicit in the research topic itself (Solsken, 1989) and in interviewing as a methodology. John Rowan (1981) suggests that researchers consider not only how their own personal interests are served by their research but also who else’s interest is served. What about the participants in the research? What do they get out of participating? What do they risk? Does the research underwrite any existing patterns of op­pression? Or does the research offer some possibility of understanding that could create liberating energy? In a world beset by inequity, why is the topic of research important? (See Fay, 1987, for an important discus­sion of the foundations of critical social science.)

3. How?

A next question to ask is, How? Assuming that researchers have de­cided that in-depth interviewing is appropriate for their study, how can they adapt the structure of in-depth, phenomenological interviewing out­lined in Chapter 2 to their subject of study? I offer examples of such ad­aptations by two doctoral students who have worked with this approach to interviewing. (I share results of their work in the Appendix.)

Marguerite Sheehan (1989), who was a doctoral candidate in early childhood education at the University of Massachusetts, addressed the question as follows. She was interested in studying child care as a career. In her review of the literature she had found that most of the research on child-care providers focused on those who had left the field early because of what was called “burn-out.” Sheehan was interested in people who stayed in the field, especially those who saw providing child care as a career. She hoped to come to understand the nature of their experience and to see if she could unravel some of the factors that contributed to their longevity in the field. Sheehan took the three-interview structure and adapted it as follows:

Interview One (life history): How did the participant come to be a child-care provider? A review of the participant’s life history up to the time he or she became a child-care provider.

Interview Two (contemporary experience): What is it like for the participant to be a child-care provider? What are the details of the participant’s work as a child-care provider?

Interview Three (reflection on meaning): What does it mean to the participant to be a child-care provider? Given what the participant has said in interviews one and two, how does he or she make sense of his or her work as a child-care provider?

Toon Fuderich (1995), who also was a doctoral candidate at the School of Education of the University of Massachusetts, was interested in studying the experience of Cambodian refugees who as children had experienced the terrors of war. She adapted her interest in this topic to the three-interview structure as follows:

Interview One (life history): How did the participant become a refugee? What was the participant’s life history before coming to the United States?

Interview Two (contemporary experience): What is life like for the participant in the United States? What is her education, work, and family life like?

Interview Three (reflection on meaning): What does it mean to the participant to be living in the United States now? How does she make sense of her present life in the context of her life experience?

4. Who? When? Where?

The next set of questions asks whom the researchers will interview, and how they will get access and make contact with their participants. In Chapter 4 we discuss the complexities of access, contact, and select­ing participants. What is called for at this point is a consideration of the strategy the researchers will use. What will the range of participants be? What strategy of gaining access to them will the researchers use? How will they make contact with the participants? The strategy may allow for a process of participant selection that evolves over the course of the study, but the structure and strategy for that selection must be thought out in the proposal.

Some writers suggest that the “how” of a qualitative research study can itself be emergent as the study proceeds. That orientation assumes that because qualitative research does not begin with a set of hypoth­eses to test, strict control of variables is not necessary. Furthermore, because the inquiry is being done in order to learn about complexities of which researchers are not totally aware, the design and even the focus of the study have to be seen as “emergent” (Lincoln & Guba, 1985, pp. 208-211, pp. 224-225) or “flexible” (Rubin & Rubin, 1995, pp. 43-48).

Although it is understandable that researchers would want to build flexibility into a research design, there is a danger in overemphasizing the “emergent” nature of research design in qualitative research. To the inex­perienced, it can appear to minimize the need for careful preparation and planning. It can lead to the notion that qualitative research is somehow an “art” that really is incommunicable, or that somehow those who engage in it have earned a special status because they do not share the assump­tions of those who do what is called quantitative research (McCracken, 1988, pp. 12-13). The danger of overemphasizing the “emergent” nature of the design of the study is a looseness, lack of focus, and misplaced non­chalance about purpose, method, and procedure on the part of those who do qualitative research. Lincoln and Guba (1985) themselves stress that the emergent nature of qualitative research cannot be used as a license for “undisciplined and haphazard ‘poking around’” (p. 251).

Source: Seidman Irving (2006), Interviewing As Qualitative Research: A Guide for Researchers in Education And the Social Sciences, Teachers College Press; 3rd edition.

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