|Alvin Hobbs, interviewer Jerry Pocius, and sound recordist Guha Shankar. (Photo: Meghann Jack)|
Over the past week we've been getting to know our audio recorders and practicing our interview techniques on each other. To give us an idea of what to expect from an interview situation, Jerry had us watch him interview local historian, retired fisherman and junk picker extraordinaire, Alvin Hobbs. As we are all newbies when it comes to the fishery, we all had questions to ask of Mr. Hobbs, from the general to the specific. How do you structure your questions to get useful information out of an interview subject? You want to allow some freedom in the conversation, but also not to stray too far off topic. We came up with some general themes - the fishery of Mr. Hobbs' youth as opposed to adulthood, and a day in the life of a fisherman, as well as some more specific questions about boats and gear used, and methods of processing. From all of our questions, Jerry boiled everything down to a few words to guide him as the conversation progressed.
In just over a half an hour, we learned a lot about Mr. Hobbs and the cod trap fishery. We also learned a lot about how to conduct an interview. Navigating the ebb and flow of the conversation, allowing the subject to speak to his own interest and experience, and steering back to the subject at hand. Some of our questions went unanswered, but we also learned some things that we never would have thought to ask. It struck me just how much ethnographic work is necessary to assemble a complete picture of the topic of study. Guha described ethnography as "deep hanging out". It is important to build a rapport with community collaborators before entering into an interview experience by having informal chats and getting a lay of the land.
During the conversation following the interview, an interesting question was raised. How do you ask an interview subject how they feel about a topic without getting too personal? When you enter into a situation where you are interpreting and representing the culture of a community, how do you know you've gotten it right? We are talking to people who are faced with the loss of a way of life that many of them are deeply attached to. How can we ask how they feel about that without coming across like a Barbara Walters tell-all cryfest? Is it any of our business to ask people about their personal feelings, or should we just stick to more factual information gathering? I think the answers to these questions lie in gaining experience in an interview setting and reading the person we're talking to. Some people will naturally divulge more information than others, and I think our position as ethnographer is to go with the flow.
|Barbara Walters making Oprah Winfrey cry. Hopefully none of our interviews will go down like this. (Photo: Internet source)|