As an exercise in conducting qualitative research with live human beings, Dr. Van Riemsdijk assigned the task of interviewing two people about a topic pertaining to immigration. Since I’m a history major, all the research that I do comes from dusty old texts and sources from long-gone personages. Keeping in line with the focus of my historical research, which is nationalism, I decided to interview my participants about their perceptions of citizenship and the process of naturalization. The participants, while familiar to me, had never shared their opinions on the topic with me before. Each interview lasted approximately one hour, and each participant was asked the same questions. The participants (A and B, for the sake of confidentiality) varied in age by about 40 years, with A being 20 and B being 60. B also had experience with how the naturalization process worked from their time as a teacher. I provided A with a pamphlet from US Citizen and Immigrant Services two hours prior to the start of the interview. In doing the interviews, I knew that my biggest issue would be suspending judgement. I normally analyze answers with the intent to respond, yet the exercise would require me to suspend judgement, the intention being to understand.
While I suspended such judgements, my use of the pamphlet may have influenced some of the answers I received from A. Following the interview, I asked her what she thought about said pamphlet. The response was as follows: “I felt like it allowed me to provide smart answers”. While her understanding of the topic changed for, as she saw it, “the better”, I did not want smart answers, but her answers. This event provided me with an insight into qualitative research: While it is ideal to find potential participants who are knowledgeable/experienced in the subject at hand, it is impossible to make them either an expert or even proficient within a small amount of time.
I also learned the value of keeping loaded language to a bare, if not non-existent, minimum. In my first interview (which was with A), I had used a question that had phrased as such: “What are some uniquely different aspects about American citizenship in comparison to being a citizen of another country?” While I had felt that this question was largely benign on the surface, the participant begged to disagree. She responded with a degree of belligerence: “Why do you say that it is unique?” The question took me aback as the participant and I had been enjoying a fine rapport up until that point. I should have phrased this question as “Is an American citizen different from a citizen of another country?” This phrasing lacks strong emotion, and it is the one that I used in the interview with B to some degree of success.
In the end, the exercise reminded me of what it means to do qualitative research. Rather than just merely talking to others, the process allows for scientific rigor to be applied to the everyday goings on of human beings. It also sharpened my sense of critical listening and thinking. Rather than just let the participant ramble, one needs to analyze what they are saying at all times and to take it into consideration when formulating the next question or drawing conclusions before moving on to that next question. Actually applying these skills in the field hopefully will only build on this experience.