Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Interviews might be harder than I thought...

I’ve started making decent progress on the next phase of my project: interviews. The first month of gathering information through conversation and observation helped provide a foundation from which I could base appropriate questions. When I say I'm making progress, I mean that I am about halfway through the number of interviews I hope to complete. Its definitely a milestone in my field study, but I define my progress as decent because most of my interviews haven’t yielded as much information as I would like to answer my research question.
In Tonga it’s relatively easy to gain access into the community, particularly when my host family knows or at least recognizes 75% of the people on the island. With a relatively small population, most people in Vava'u know each other because of an association at church, being alumni of the same school, or the most common reason is that most people are somehow related. So with host parents from two different villages and large families, I wish I would have realized earlier how huge of an asset they are in finding individuals to interview.
My current approach to interviews goes like this. I begin by making a physical map of the property. Sometimes the individual wants to walk around and point out the boundaries and it really becomes a show-and-tell opportunity. Other times the interviewee simply talks with my host mom as I take a few measurements and sketch the planting beds and house. Once the property and structures are drawn, the person then labels and explains the function of each area of the yard. That largely covers the function aspect of my project and I am satisfied with the information obtain so far on that. The second half of the interview is when I ask questions regarding aesthetics and the concept of design within the yard. Unfortunately most people get a confused look on their face as they figure out how to answer the questions. I can only hope that my translator understands what I'm asking and is conveying that idea. With nearly every question and after several interviews, I get an almost identical answer: "We do that for the beauty."
I’ve tried to word a series of questions in different ways (hoping they translate differently), but people still look confused and the answer keeps coming back the same. How helpful is the phrase "for the beauty" in defining what Tongan landscape aesthetics? There is some information to be inferred from these responses, but I want to know more. So far what I'm understanding on Tongan design is that planning and preparation is not given much forethought. Design preferences exist, I just need to find out the right questions to ask.
So in trying to get past this wall, I’ve decided to continue asking the few questions that have provided valuable information in past interviews, try asking a few new ones to better understand design tactics, and then make a lot of my own observations on common trends in the landscapes I draw. Also maybe yes/no questions on the design patters I've observed (straight lines, alternating plants, and large lawns) will open up some more conversation. I didn't expect interviews would require so much thought. But I guess I also didn't realize what concepts I assumed would translate easily in Tongan culture. Interviews might not be my strong point, but I hope I can keep working on them and get better.