4 March 2022
I could never only do quantitative research. The experience of being in the field and having direct contact with people whose lives and experiences I analyze and write about is like no other. It is for me what makes social science research worthwhile.
I leave every conversation elated. To say that ‘I learn so much’ from my interlocutors is to trivialize the experience. It’s way more than that. It’s an exchange of energies and, as such, it is also unpredictable.
My questions are deeply personal, and each individual responds to such invasion of privacy differently. While all explicitly consent to be interviewed, each brings with them different levels of caution into the conversation.
The most profound experiences for me are with the Unburdeners, as I call them. They come into the interview ready to share, although maybe not from the onset. Perhaps they don’t expect to share so much, but they approach the conversation with a kind of openness that inspires self-reflection on their part and allows me to connect with what they are saying both cognitively and emotionally. I always feel incredibly privileged and fortunate to be invited into their world for this short period, and I reciprocate by listening, attentively, and guarding what they tell me.
My favorite is when they sit with the question for a while before answering it. As I watch their faces intently, I can tell that they are giving it serious consideration. I feel humbled by their commitment to satisfy my curiosity, or rather to bring clarity to the subject matter at hand. It makes me feel less isolated in this research undertaking. It is as if I have a community of people who see the topic’s importance and want to see the dissertation project successfully brought to completion.
“Please send it to me when it’s finished, I want to read it” many of my interviewees tell me. “I will” I say, and I really mean it. I know that most will not want to drudge through boring academic jargon, but I am excited that they care and that they are interested. I can’t wait to have it completed so that I can share with them what I learned.
The consequence of severe unburdening however is always retreat. I’ve noticed that most become shy afterwards and some even express privacy concerns. I always take the time to check up on them to help alleviate any worries, while taking serious measures to ensure that the data is actually secure and protected.
The individuals I interview share their lives with me in great detail. They tell me about themselves and their loved ones, their past and present, their joys and disappointments, their traumas and fears, their hopes and aspirations, and even things for which they feel ashamed. I am often asked if I get angry or frustrated during interviews because people sometimes express opinions drastically different from my own, but I have never felt it. So long as I feel that a person is genuine in allowing me to inhabit their world for a short while, I can’t help but feel empathy and kindness toward them. It’s the least I can give in return.
The other kind of interlocutors are the Skeptics. They always thread with great caution and examine everything they say very carefully. Their suspicion is felt in the questions they ask and the way they ask those questions, as well as in the way that they constantly try to control the conversation. These interviews require more work and can be a real challenge.
My approach is always to remind them that they are free to stop the conversation at any point if they feel uncomfortable, and that we can skip over any question they don’t want to answer. And I mean this genuinely. The last thing I want is for people to feel that I obtained information they weren’t ready to share. With the most resistant among them, I request consent several times throughout the conversation.
The best thing about these interviews is that they are succinct. I receive no more than I ask for, if even that, and I am able to transcribe them quickly and analyze the data more efficiently. Everything has its pros and cons.
The most consistent feedback I receive from Unburdeners and Skeptics alike is that they are happy to have had the chance to converse. “Thank you for listening” or “this was actually nice,” sometimes they say half-surprised as though they expected it to be dreadful.
Then there are those comments that give true value to what I do: “I don’t think that I have ever told this to anyone” or “no one has ever asked me this, it really makes me think” or “I feel that I’ve been waiting to tell this to someone for a long time, thank you for listening.”
Even an average interview will fill my day, and exceptional ones can keep me going for a week. It is not the extent of time which they occupy in my schedule, but the richness of thought that each evokes. I reflect on this as I am leaving Israel, having completed 50 interviews, and heading over to Bosnia to conduct another 50. I am excited and I am nervous. In Israel I am a curious foreigner and in Bosnia I am at home. Each role has its rewards, and each comes with baggage too.