Interview tips from Colin Marshall

Honestly I don’t know why I’m on a journalism kick lately, but here I go again: Colin Marshall, host of a podcast and radio show called The Marketplace of Ideas recently posted an excellent list of interview techniques, including things like “have a conversation” and “reveal your ignorance”. Two things are interesting: 1) journalists, like anthropologists, frequently fall prey to an ideological sense of what makes a “scientific” or objective interview (a rote list of questions asked like the advancing front of a battle), and it often makes for bad journalism, by which I mean, journalism that doesn’t tell us anything we don’t already know; and 2) everything Marshall lists might be understood as ways to get outside the “framing” of discourse. This latter point is essential to me: anthropologists are doing good work when they figure out how to de-frame discourse, i.e. how to work a conversation out of the frames that restrict people from thinking. The salience of “framing” is obvious to sociologists, linguists, political scientists and others today, and there is much quality research on framing… but very little research on resisting the framing of discourse and enabling the progress of thinking. I read these tips as clear strategies for doing just that.


Christopher M. Kelty is a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. He has a joint appointment in the Institute for Society and Genetics, the department of Information Studies and the Department of Anthropology. His research focuses on the cultural significance of information technology, especially in science and engineering. He is the author most recently of Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software (Duke University Press, 2008), as well as numerous articles on open source and free software, including its impact on education, nanotechnology, the life sciences, and issues of peer review and research process in the sciences and in the humanities.

13 thoughts on “Interview tips from Colin Marshall

  1. Great stuff. Thanks, Chris. Have you thought, by the way, of how this sort of advice affects people up against human subjects research review boards that every question in a protocol is “not inappropriate”?

  2. In doing oral history interviews, I’ve found that some great and revealing answers come in response to “dumb questions.” My dumb question could be me genuinely showing my ignorance on the subject, but it can also be the act of asking questions that are so simple and perhaps ostensibly obvious, that they feel dumb to ask. But particularly when you’re interviewing someone who comes from a significantly different social context than you do, the “obvious” questions can lead to surprising and telling answers.

    Another technique that seems to open the interview to more depth and personal perspective is to say, “I can’t imagine doing/being ______. Can you help me understand what that’s like?” It puts the narrator in the position to educate you on their experience and perspective. Perhaps some would say that’s a flawed technique because it brings *my* experience (or lack thereof) into the discourse, but I think it tends to create the feeling of an actual conversation (exchange), rather than an interrogation.

  3. Could you provide links or references to the “very little research on resisting the framing of discourse and enabling the progress of thinking”? I’m currently at loggerheads with my PhD supervisor and need some reinforcement… or, perhaps a thesis is not the place to resist the framing of discourse?

  4. @susannah. I wish I could… I only know that the literature on how discourses are framed is large and getting larger. To some extent the answer to your problem might come by confronting that literature. My problem with that literature is only that it succumbs to a (scientistic) desire to explain why arguments and politics are structured the way they are in the vain hope that by doing so progress will somehow be made. I like to think anthropologists start with an a priori assumption that discourses are framed (you don’t have to call it culture if the term shocks you) and that our goal is to figure out and translate substance across frames. but people have called me naive before 🙂

  5. Interesting approach.
    When working in Nicaragua, I however found that it was necessary “showing off” a little. Not as an anthropologist, but as someone knowing what they are talking about. If I didn’t do that, people would think I’d be a little stupid or really just about to start getting to know the country. The phrase I used most for that was to say “I think that Augusto C. Sandino as we know him today is most of all the interpretation of him that Carlos Fonseca Amador created.” Now people agreed and disagreed with my statement, but me naming two of their main national heroes, and having a defined opinion of them was what converted me from someone seen as a foreign idiot who wasn’t much of interest to anybody to someone they could actually discuss things with and explain difficult concepts.

    However, this likely depends much on the culture. Nicaragua has a very historical culture (Erinnerungskultur) and being able to discuss history is seen as of great value.

    In contrast during my fieldwork in Douglas, AZ I ended up just specifying “I’m writing a book on Douglas” as that was about where the patience of those listening to me ended. When I tried that initially in Nicaragua, people like at me as if I was stupid. “What do you mean ‘a book on Nicaragua’? What kind of a book? Historical, cultural, etc.? What is the theme going to be?” That’s when I learned I had to speak on Fonseca and Sandino.

  6. @ Johannes:
    I think this also can help a little when you know they are probably lying to you. People often have at least some of an agenda when they are talking to anthropologists, and they sometimes emphasize something and downplay others. It all depends of course.
    They are less likely to lie to you if they feel you aren’t completely ignorant. I’ve also found that it helps to interview people that know each other well together sometimes. A person usually doesn’t mind talking about non-sensitive thing (sex, drugs) around a sibling or close friend, but that person will almost always call them on any bullshit.

  7. Rick, you’re right, that probably has a lot to do with it. What they are doing is maybe not necessarily lying, but it may just me trying to shape the truth according to the world view one expects the other one to have. And of course I do the same. In a society where the revolution of 1979 is still so important and part of people’s self-definition, it comes natural to explain about the (failed) German revolution of 1919/1920 and what advances of it still are present. Of course, no normal German would know anything about it, and in that sense any German/European who would hear me explain history that way would probably be quite surprised, also because I am not counted as particularly German in much of Europe. I am not directly lying, all the things I explain really did happen, but it’s a history telling that is targeted specifically at the Nicaraguan reality.
    And by explaining about this phase to my informants, it seems to put us on an equal footing. It’s then less of an interview and more a conversation. Many times such conversations/interviews have ended with them wishing me luck and expressing their hope that “the revolution will also win again in Germany, just like it did here! Because the Germans are a fighting people just like we Nicaraguans.”

  8. There’s no such thing as conversation without a frame. The point is not to create an interview without a frame, but to attend to the co-creation of context and text in an interview, and how they are both jointly co-created by the interviewee and the respondent.

    That is the key insight of Brigg’s “Learning How To Ask”, which was particularly concerned with replacing concerns with “objectivity” (i.e. in Spradley’s “The Ethnographic Interview”) with reflexivity about how interviews happen — and particularly what metacommunicative standards are being deployed by the anthropologist and the respondent.

    I’m only lukewarm on Marshall’s list. In journalism the interview is, willy-nilly, a pretty established interactional genre. People know why they are talking to you, and the audience of the interview is not the person conducting it. When your doing ethnography people have wildly divergent ideas of what genre they are participating in with you, and coming to the interview without any prepared questions could not only tax their patience, but make comparing other interviews with other people difficult.

    Also, the WASP cultural obsessions with authenticity, immediacy, unmediated communication of subjectivity etc. in the piece… oi vey….

    I’ve taught “Learning From Strangers” with great success — the book is cheap, and while its overly sociological in its ‘fieldwork imaginary’ the middle chapters which present transcripts from interviews side by side with analysis of them are very good.

    Of the bintillion ‘how to interview’ published-bits-of-wisdom out there I also think “The Great Interview: 25 Great Strategies For Studying People In Bed” by Hermanowicz is worth a gander.

  9. “Also, the WASP cultural obsessions with authenticity, immediacy, unmediated communication of subjectivity etc. in the piece… oi vey….”

    I though WASPs were obsessed with hiding their emotions, and always presenting a predetermine image to the public, and another one only for private family observation. Isn’t that the WASP stereotype?

    One of the differences I think between journalistic and ethnographic interviewing is the difference in leading the interviewee along a particular narrative. I remember when I worked for a college paper for a year, and I was always concerned in an interview with getting good, quotable sound bites that I could use in a story. I consciously try not to incorporate what I’ve learned with others when I do an ethnographic interview, so I can capture maximum variation of views. That was very unnatural for me, and it took a lot of practice.

    So, getting back to someone lying to you, I think that it informs us when someone lies to us. We ask, why? Like Johannes said, most lies are not overt or purposeful, so these things add to our understanding. For journalist, I lose my mind when someone lies to them and they don’t call the person out. I think to myself, “didn’t you research this before the interview?” Rather than add to our understanding, lazy journalism distorts our understanding of what’s going on in the world. It’s sad when John Steward calls someone on their bullshit more than professional journalists.

  10. The salience of “framing” is obvious to sociologists, linguists, political scientists and others today, and there is much quality research on framing… but very little research on resisting the framing of discourse and enabling the progress of thinking.

    I’m trying to understand what you are getting at here. Are you talking about playing jazz, so to speak?

    The point is not to create an interview without a frame, but to attend to the co-creation of context and text in an interview, and how they are both jointly co-created by the interviewee and the respondent.

    This seems like the opposite of Zen. A samurai was so knowledgeable and proficient in killing that in battle he didn’t think about fighting, he just fought. Can’t an interviewer be comfortable enough with and good enough at interviewing to just let an interview happen?

  11. Well, like all Zen student, one needs a master. I think maybe part of this whole dialogue is based on the fact that the discipline as a whole does a terrible job at passing on proper methodology, and theory. What I mean is that most people going to most programs, which are academically focused can spend their lives and never actually have someone else read their interview transcripts.
    So, how do you know you might have a problem.
    My program was applied in nature, and our projects were real life projects for real clients. They come to us with questions, and we have to make the theory and method fit the situation. So, when we graduated we had over a dozen transcripts reviewed by professors and your peers, we learned everyone’s style, and what worked and what didn’t. Saved my life, because I wasn’t a natural, and I needed actual training. I had trouble leaving myself out of the interview.

    So, I think this is one more aspect of difference between our academic and our practicing kin.

  12. Rex, that Hermanowicz article is hilarious — a great line right at the beginning is when he says that Goffman issued “an invitation, if not an insistence, to be more brazen and daring in our pursuits, shedding sociological niceties and naivete for afternoons and evenings, here and there, of jumping people’s bones.”

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