This post by Robyn Kannemeyer first appeared on Thesislink in November 2016.
For my master’s research I interviewed a very diverse group of people but the people I was most anxious about interviewing were the ones in positions of authority – politicians (local and national), managers, senior scientists, CEOs etc. I had an uncanny feeling that they would make my life difficult by arriving in a rush, skilfully evading my questions, and leaving before I had a chance to get any answers to my carefully constructed questions. To overcome this inferiority complex, I researched and read papers on how to conduct an ‘elite’ interview. Armed with this knowledge, I set about carefully planning my interviews. The aim of this post is share with you the strategies I used when interviewing my ‘elites’.
So what constitutes an ‘elite interviewee’? There is no clear-cut definition of the term ‘elite’ according to Harvey (2011) and “it is not necessarily the figureheads or leaders of organisations and institutions who have greatest claim to elite status, but those who hold important social networks, social capital and strategic positions within social structures because they are better able to exert influence.” Richards (1996), a political scientist, suggests that “the notion of an ‘elite’ implies a group of individuals, who hold, or have held, a privileged position in society and, as such… are likely to have had more influence on political outcomes than general members of the public.” Harvey (2011) also acknowledges that an elite status may change over time and geographical space. So the term ‘elite interviewee’ can have many different perspectives and you need to clearly define what you mean by ‘elite’ when you carry out your research.
You need to think carefully about why you want to interview an ‘elite’ person. If they will shed further light on your research then it is worth conducting an interview with them because they may be able to help interpret a document or report; interpret personalities involved in a decision; or provide information not available or recorded anywhere else for public release (Richards, 1996). However, for many qualitative researchers, the most pressing concern is gaining access to an elite (Mikecz, 2012). Often elites are more inaccessible and surrounded by gatekeepers so you need patience, careful planning and plenty of time for the process to take place. Don’t be disappointed if the result is a telephone interview rather than a face-to-face one. You cannot underestimate the usefulness of an interview until you have conducted it and a telephone interview is better than nothing.
Twelve strategies for conducting an elite interview
1. Gain the trust of your interviewee by being as transparent as possible from the outset and providing them with a participant information sheet (PIS) which should outline who you are, what institution you work for, the nature of your research, the length of the interview, how the data will be used and where the results will be disseminated. It is important for the interviewee to know whether the data will be anonymous or attributed to them (this is usually part of ethics approval). In addition, you should establish credibility by emphasising your academic and professional credentials and affiliations so as to reduce the status imbalance. Your credentials may also be crucial for gaining access to an elite interviewee.
2. Decide on a realistic time frame for the interview. If you ask for too much time you may miss out on an interview but if you don’t ask for enough time then the data may be compromised. “How long will the interview take?” is usually the first question asked by an ‘elite’ or their ‘gatekeeper’.
3. Try to arrange a neutral location for the interview so that distractions and interruptions can be minimised and you have some control over the setting (Mikecz, 2012). It pays to arrive early and to be familiar with the surrounding environment. If the interview must take place in the office of the elite interviewee, Mikecz (2012) stresses the importance of not behaving like a guest i.e. going overboard on comments about the décor of the office.
4. Do your homework and be thoroughly prepared because you might be challenged on your research topic, its relevance and the questions you are asking. If the interviewee responds well to you, they will be more relaxed and may open up networking opportunities. It’s even possible that they may refer you to new candidates for your research. In addition, you will gain more confidence in your interviewing technique for subsequent interviews.
5. Begin on the ‘right note’ by making the goals and conditions for the research clear from the beginning (Don’t forget to get signed authority for using the interview transcripts). Start with an open-ended question to build rapport and trust.
6. During the elite interview a semi-structured methodology may be useful so that you can focus your questions and gain as much information as possible in the limited time frame you have available. It is also beneficial to allow some flexibility in the direction the interview takes but the key here is to know when to probe and when to bring the interview back to the point being raised (Berry, 2002). Open-ended questions are often preferred by highly educated people and elites as they like to articulate their views and don’t like to be confined or cornered by a closed question. Harvey (2011) recommends asking an open-ended question first and then following this question up with a closed one so that some quantitative data can be obtained.
7. The decision to record an interview will depend on the subject matter and the people being interviewed. Some elites are comfortable being recorded whereas others like to speak “off the record”. You need to respect whichever decision they make and to take detailed notes even if you record the interview in case there is a problem with the recording. I found that sometimes an elite interviewee might be happy to record most of the interview but ask for the recorder to be turned off at a particular point (Don’t forget to turn the recorder back on again). It is a good idea to check that the acoustics of the room are good i.e. no background noises and that your battery is fully charged.
8. Establish a rapport with the interviewee before asking a difficult or awkward question and preface it with a statement that alludes to the nature of the question. The tone of your voice is also important.
9. Sometimes an elite will inadvertently or deliberately avoid answering a question, especially if they are media savvy. When this happens, it is best to politely ask the question again and then if they still won’t answer it, word it slightly differently and come back to it again.
10. Be careful not to lead your respondent through your interjections. It is alright to use one word responses such as ‘yes’ or ‘um’ and even a pause is sometimes useful but don’t leave it too long as the atmosphere could become awkward.
11. Finish off the interview by asking whether there are any areas that weren’t touched on but the interviewee would like to comment on. Don’t commit to providing transcripts of the interview unless you have the time to transcribe it.
12. Write up your notes as soon as possible after the interview as the longer they are left the less clear they will become. Taking the time to reflect on the interview afterwards is also a useful exercise along with a follow-up email/letter thanking the interviewees for their time.
I was lucky enough to have all my ‘elites’ agree to be interviewed but pinning them down to a time and place was sometimes tricky. It helps if you can be flexible and a word of warning – don’t book too many interviews in one day. Interviews are tiring and you want to be clear-headed. Good luck!
Berry, J.M. (2002). Validity and reliability issues in elite interviewing. Political Science and Politics, 35(4), 679-682 doi: 10.1017/S1049096502001166
Harvey, W.S. (2011). Strategies for conducting elite interviews. Qualitative Research, 11(4), 431-441. doi: 10.1177/1468794111404329
Mikecz, R. (2012). Interviewing elites: Addressing methodological issues. Qualitative Inquiry, 18(6), 482-493. doi: 10.1177/1077800412442818
Richards, D. (1996). Elite interviewing: Approaches and pitfalls. Politics, 16(3), 199-204. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9256.1996.tb00039