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.


  1. I have ran into problems with my questions as well. Most of them are good but I just don't know how to ask questions that will lead to the answers I need for my research. Sometimes I think I have good questions and then when I ask them they give me very short answers. Maybe I am just not a good interviewer. Good luck with the rest of your project! I wish I could help you out more with your questions!

  2. The questions are tough. I have the same problems. Plus i don't knoe how they are being interpreted by the people, meaning does the word i'm thinking of have the same meaning and connotations as they think. But i guess that's the joy of field research! Good luck

  3. Yeah, I have this question where I ask women about differences between the ways boys and girls are treated/raised or what their needs are. Sometimes they look at me like I'm an idiot and say, "We're all equal." It's kind of ironic, because after I get them talking a little more, these same people sometimes say that it's more important for boys to go to school than girls because girls just get married and have kids after middle school and need to stay home. It just shows how carefully a question has to be crafted sometimes to get the right message across.

  4. I think we all had this sort of problem. My questions were supposed to probe a lot of stories and explanations but the questions were so broad that people didn't know how to answer. I had to narrow everything down to a simple survey and use a lot of help from my translator to help get the answers that I needed to answer my question.

  5. I had a series of questions that asked the respondent to rate how much they felt a particular feeling on a scale of 1 to 7. This proved futile and I resorted to a yes or no answer for about half of my surveys. I think, in some areas of the world, it boils down to different priorities. In a world where you're more worried about your next meal than analyzing how you feel that day or how your yard looks, the less important things tend to be simplified to yes/no or pretty/ugly evaluations.