Friday, March 25, 2011

Using Interviews as a Research Source

by Melissa Wyse

Have you ever hit a point in a research project where you simply couldn’t find the kind of source you needed?  You’d sifted through the online databases, spent more than your fair share of hours combing through the stacks in the library, and yet somehow there didn’t seem to be any sources with the particular information or perspective you wanted to include in your paper.

Consider using an interview as a source.  It can be one of the most fruitful and rewarding sources around, and yet many student scholars forget that interviewing is even an option.

Not only are interviews a valid source in academic writing, but there are a lot of benefits to using them in your research projects.  Conducting an interview allows you to tailor your questions to your working thesis.  Unlike reading books and articles, you’ll also have the opportunity to ask your interview subject follow-up questions to clarify or learn more about particular aspects of your topic.  And you’ll have brand new source material to work from—information, ideas, and perspectives that other scholars haven’t already written about.  This original source material may help you to make a unique contribution to the academic conversation.

You might consider interviewing a scholar or another expert on your topic.  Writing about US-China relations?  Interview a scholar in the field, or the head of a foreign relations think tank, or even someone from the ambassador’s office for either country.

You also might consider interviewing someone with first-hand experience in the area you’re writing about.  For example, if you’re writing a paper about the ethical and economic imperatives that driving the bidding process in the construction industry, by all means interview a contractor to get some first-hand insights into the process and his or her perspective on it.  Writing a paper about charter schools?  Interview a charter school teacher or student, parent or principal.  Get their perspective on your research question.

In selecting an interview source, there are a few considerations you should bear in mind.  Choosing to interview a friend or family member may be appropriate in some instances, but there are some serious drawbacks: you may not be able to write as objectively about someone you know, and even if you are able to do so, your readers may worry that your writing is biased, which undermines your argument. 

Consider, instead, interviewing someone you don’t know personally.  And aim high.  You’d be surprised by the people who are willing to meet with you.  Many important people, including politicians, scholars, and CEOs, have a soft spot for students working on research projects.  Send these important people an e-mail—and mention that you’re a college student.  You never know who will say “yes” to an interview.

Next week, we’ll be back with some helpful tips on how to conduct an interview.  Stay tuned!

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