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Learning Cycle: Interviews

Updated: Jul 25, 2021

I love interviews.

Group interviews are just as good as individual interviews. I love taking notes in a group setting as people share their thoughts and perspectives, such as at this church retreat in Sabanilla, Costa Rica, in 2011.

I love listening to and reading interviews, and I love carrying them out. I love to assign my students to interview others. I love any excuse for an interview. We all have so much knowledge and experience to share, and we don’t often get to hear all of it from each other.

You can read some posts I have written that were based interviews, “I believe in the healing power of gardens” with Libré Booker, and “Listening to our kids about racism” with Jared Starns and Noor Arfeen. My readers have appreciated these posts as well, I think because it’s extra cool to learn from other people who have interesting stories and perspectives to share.

I encourage you to go out an interview someone in your life! One of my favorite quotes from a study abroad student after she finished her semester in Costa Rica and Nicaragua was: “I learned that I don’t need an assignment to interview someone – I can just ask questions when I want to learn something!” The rest of this post includes some basic information and instructions for carrying out an interview.

An interview doesn’t have to be a PhD thesis-level interview. Some of the most important interviews are questions you ask your grandparents, or your parents, or your friend, or your spouse. But what an interview has that a regular conversation doesn’t is a little bit of preparation.

Most interviews can be improved by doing some reading about the subject at hand. I talk about reading things in another post.

When you’re going to conduct an interview, you prepare a few questions that are geared toward your research objectives, or, in other words, the topic that you want to learn more about. You might consider finding your questions by utilizing the Question Formulation Technique, which I discuss in another post.

In the social sciences, we talk about different levels of structure to an interview: structured, semi-structured, and unstructured. If you know exactly what you want to ask because you are comparing answers between several respondents (or for any other reason), you would probably choose a structured interview.

I tend to like semi-structured interviews, because I often find that I have things I want to know, but I also want my interviewee to be able to tell me something surprising. The questions “Is there anything else you’d like to tell me?” or “Is there anything you’d like to ask me?” often yield very interesting responses that might take the conversation in a new direction or uncover the most important thing the person has said yet!

An unstructured interview is completely open-ended, and could be used at the very beginning of a project. Even an unstructured interview includes some level of preparation, if even just choosing the very first question, or preparing a list of 20 questions but planning on asking 5-6 of them.

For social science research, it can be worth practicing your questions ahead of time on a “test subject,” and then you can hone your questions for your “real subjects,” but for our purposes here this step may not be necessary.

Because I prefer semi-structured interviews, I like using tools like the A-Scheme, below. I used this tool in my master’s thesis. I knew that I wanted to interview people in a sugarcane growing area about their idea of the term campesino (peasant), their feelings about sugarcane, their feelings about policies related to agriculture at different levels, and their general reactions to these phenomenon (both positive and negative). Each of these four categories (peasant, sugarcane, policies, and actions/reactions) also had subcategories, as you can see (in Spanish). Rather than designing specific questions for each category or subcategory, I used this tool to make sure that I asked questions of all of my interviewees.

The A-scheme semi-structured interview tool I used in my master's thesis about peasant perspectives on globalized agriculture (sugarcane).

Because everyone I was interviewing for my thesis was different (some were poor immigrants, some were people with access to political power, some were women, men, different political parties, etc), I had to rely on my cultural knowledge to adjust the specific wording of my questions, depending on the person I was talking with.

Here is another example. In our Territorial Rural Development course on research methods, we visited a rural community called Puerto Viejo de Sarapiquí in the Caribbean lowlands of Costa Rica. Our objective was to learn about the socio-environmental reality of the area, particularly pertaining to the important Sarapiquí River. We wanted to know what knowledge the local people had about their environment and their social situation, and what important recent changes had been to the river and the social context (it was this visit that led to part of the reflection I share, here).

Here are some questions we prepared. Notice one final point, that we were sure to introduce ourselves and explain what the interview was for, and to ask for consent to be interviewed. I can talk more about this aspect of interviews in a future post.

1. Introduction: Who we are, where do we come from, what is the interview for, what are we going to ask about. Ask for consent.

2. General information of the person

a. Name

b. Age - by category

c. Date and place of birth

d. Sex (F) (M)

e. Occupation

3. Open question options:

a. How long have you lived in the place?

b. What do you like about living in this place?

4. What are the main sources of work in the area?

For men:

For women:

5. How do people get along here? (deepen the issue of migration and social cohesion)

6. What do people do for recreation in the area? What do people like to do in their spare time?

What do men do?

What do women do?

7. Are there organized groups of people, or associations or committees? Are there women's or mixed organizations? Do you participate in any of these groups? What role or task do you play in that organization?

8. What changes have you noticed in La Virgen during the time you have lived here?

9. What are the main problems that you see in the area? Social? Environmental? Economical?

10. Do these problems affect men and women differently?

11. What is your relationship with the Sarapiquí River? Do you visit or use it in any way?

12. How important is the river for the development of the area in general? …Economic activities.

13. What species of animals live in the river? Fish, reptiles, birds, etc.? And plants (trees, etc.)?

14. Have you noticed changes in the river - the channel, the species, the amount of water, the cleanliness of the water, the use of the people, or something else?

15. What are the causes of these changes?

This post in part of my series on Tools for Learning, which I have honed and used in my work in study abroad and cross-cultural education both in Costa Rica and in the university classes I have taught in the US.I love using these tools in my own life, as well as in my research and activism.

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