I was excited to find out that two of my favorite scholars who study the family and gender, Kathleen Gerson and Sarah Damaske, have published a new book about interviewing, The Science and Art of Interviewing. I recently had the opportunity to interview Kathleen Gerson about this book. Dr. Gerson is a sociologist and author of several books, including The Unfinished Revolution, and The Time Divide. In her new book with Dr. Sarah Damaske, author of For the Family? How Class and Gender shape Women’s Work, and the forthcoming book The Tolls of Uncertainty, they discuss the science and art of conducting interviews, the method they most often use to do their own research.
AK: How did you and Sarah decide to write a book about interviewing?
KG: The idea began with James Cook, my editor as well as Sarah’s at Oxford, who asked me over lunch one day how I went about doing my own research. At the time, I responded casually that there’s “a method to the inevitable madness,” never imagining this would prompt him to follow up by asking if I would like to write a book about how to tame the unwieldy process. My immediate reaction was skeptical. How could I find the time? Yet when Sarah and I learned that James had approached both of us, we started to brainstorm about the possibilities for what we could accomplish together. Although neither of us had planned to write a book of this kind, the prospect of working together as teammates began to feel irresistible.
Sarah and I had already worked together closely over the years and knew we shared a passion for interviewing. We also agreed about the principles that underlie successful interview studies. The more we talked, the more excited we became about writing a book together that would explain how and why interviewing is such a powerful method. We kept hearing the same questions from our students and colleagues, many of whom were puzzled about what interview-based research can and should do. How do you formulate an interview project? How do you conduct good interviews? How do you analyze interview material? And, above all, how do you use interviewing to build theory as well as to provide thick description? Since many of the practices that produce great interview studies remain largely invisible, we became convinced that social researchers of all stripes could use a step-by step guide for tackling the conceptual and practical challenges that arise at each stage of formulating and carrying out scientifically grounded interview-based research.
Around the same time, the publication of Colin Jerolmack and Shamus Khan’s controversial article, “Talk is Cheap,” served as another spur to action. The debate sparked by that article’s limited depiction of what interviews (and other self-reporting methods) can contribute fueled our growing enthusiasm. We saw a clear need to dispel the many misconceptions surrounding interview-based research. From that point on, our mission became clear: first, to explain why and how interviewing is an irreplaceable and indispensable method for understanding society; and, second, to show how to craft theoretically informed and empirically rich interview studies.
AK: Your research examines issues related to families, gender and work. Asking people about their families and the gendered division of labor can often surface resentments and strong ideological beliefs. Do you have any advice specifically for people collecting interviews on especially sensitive topics?
KG: Interviewing is especially well-suited – and, arguably, the best method – for exploring sensitive topics. Good interviews create a “safe space” by removing people from their ordinary contexts and allowing and encouraging them to discuss their most private concerns. Like the proverbial meeting of two strangers on a train, interviews provide a setting where people can discover and explore their most deeply held but rarely articulated thoughts and experiences. Over the decades, countless participants have talked with us about events and emotions they had never before shared with even their closest friends and intimates. The biggest challenge, then, is to create that safe space and use it to make a genuine connection.
To get off to the right start, first put yourself in the right state of mind so that you can then put the participant at ease. At its core, an interview is an exchange. We ask strangers to share their time and their life experiences, and we owe them our undivided attention and unequivocal support in return. This appreciation of their generosity and commitment to accept to what they convey does more than help interviewees feel comfortable; it also sets the stage for listening carefully, following up neutrally, and remaining open to surprises that upend your expectations and preconceived ideas. Interviewers need to resist any temptation to prejudge, assign blame, or reduce a person’s views to some form of false consciousness. Once your preconceptions are set aside, it becomes easier for both of you to stay in the moment and for you to offer any support that may be needed when sensitive issues arise. This atmosphere empowers people to disclose painful experiences, air a full range of emotions, and express controversial and even distasteful views. The good news is that this approach creates a win-win outcome for everyone. Participants can – and, in my experience, usually do – gain new insights about their lives. And you are able to make conceptual breakthroughs by grappling with the unexpected complexity that your interviews elicit.
AK: Do you have any advice for family researchers in particular?
KG: Because families are arguably the most intimate realm in our lives, interviewing offers an especially powerful tool to learn about them on multiple levels. In contrast to surveys with pre- coded answer categories, interviews can delve deeply into the subtle, often contradictory dynamics of private life. And in contrast to ethnographic observation, interviews can obtain information on a person’s inner life, private activities, and past experiences that no external observer can see. Whatever aspect of family life you may be studying, my advice is to take advantage of these strengths. Inquire about families’ many dimensions, including its members’ mental states and behavioral strategies, and then explore the links between these dynamics and the wider social contexts in which families are embedded.
Given the diversity of family circumstances and the many aspects of family life that command our attention, it’s necessary to make some basic choices at the beginning. Sarah and I are in favor of posing a “big” question, which you can then answer by crafting a focused, theoretically informed research design. Since you can only interview so many people in one study, its important to build any necessary controls and comparisons into your sampling strategy. And it’s equally important to construct an interview guide that collects the information needed to answer your questions while also providing an organized, enjoyable structure for each participant. Our book offers techniques for accomplishing both of these goals. We recommend using theoretical sampling, which means defining the parameters for whom to include (and exclude) and then making certain you have the necessary variation within those parameters to make strategic within-sample comparisons.
When it comes to the interview guide, we stress the need to structure the interview chronologically, so that people can relate pivotal events and family histories in order and use this timeline as a scaffolding for talking about their family experiences, practices, hopes, fears, and plans. We also recommend nesting questions in a sequence that inquires about the various dimensions of family life, first asking about what happened and then following up with questions about the responses and consequences that ensued. All in all, this approach makes it possible to trace the interaction between the institutions that shape family life and the actions people take to reproduce or change those institutional arrangements. To borrow from Marx, interviews allow us to discover how people make families, but not under conditions of their own choosing.
[Bonus Question] AK: The one great tip I have always remembered from my grad school research methods class on interviewing was to start by asking people what they want their fake name to be in your project, as an ice breaker, and to reinforce the idea that their answers will be confidential. What is one great tip you have for a brand new interviewer starting out? What about a tip for a seasoned researcher trying to improve their practice?
KG: It’s difficult to limit myself to just one or two tips, but here are a few short and simple ones that I keep in mind and would offer to beginners and more seasoned interviewers alike:
- Choose a topic that inspires your passion and keeps you going when the going gets tough.
- Remain curious. The reason for doing the study is that you don’t yet know the answer.
- Expect things to change along the way.
- Greet surprises in the field as an opportunity to learn rather than as a threat to your earlier
- Be patient and persistent, especially when matters don’t work out as planned and you
need to make adjustments.
- When you hit an obstacle, remember that where there’s a will, there’s a way.
- Stay confident amid the uncertainty. In the end, all the hard work will be well worth the
Kathleen Gerson is Collegiate Professor of Arts & Science and Professor of Sociology at New York University, where her work focuses on the intertwined revolutions in gender, work, and family life taking place in the U.S. and globally. In addition to “The Science and Art of Interviewing” (with Sarah Damaske), her books include “The Unfinished Revolution: Coming of Age in a New Era of Gender, Work, and Family” and “The Time Divide: Work, Family, and Gender Inequality” (with Jerry A. Jacobs), among others. She is now at work on a book about Americans’ responses to the intensifying conflicts between earning an income and caring for others amid rising economic insecurity and family uncertainty.
Arielle Kuperberg is an Associate Professor of Sociology and Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, and the editor of this blog. Follow her on twitter at @ATKuperberg.