DPhil: 10 things to remember for public policy research interviews

Bogotà, Colombia

Plaza de Bolívar, Bogotá (source: Wikimedia commons)

I just came back from Colombia after three months of fieldwork for my DPhil in public policy. During three months’ time, I carried out 72 semi-structured interviews with a range of actors related to natural resource governance in the country. The list included public officials, politicians, journalists, academics, members of extractive companies and NGOs. The objectives of my work were threefold: map the actors that influence decision-making processes regarding investment of natural resource rents by local governments, identify the formal and informal rules that operate in these processes, and explore the drivers of public investment decisions.

This was the first time I conducted this type of work at a DPhil level and I wanted to make the most of my time in the field. Different courses at Oxford and a few texts guided my preparatory work. However, after being on the ground I must confess that it was the student testimonials of DPhil colleagues at the University that helped me the most. This is why I decided to share my fieldwork “take aways” with you.

Below you will find ten thoughts on the process of preparing, carrying-out and processing elite interviews. One important caveat: this is not a one-size-fits-all exercise. The topic and research questions, the type of interviewees and the context where the fieldwork is carried out will affect how you prepare and implement your research. Moreover, although these issues are pertinent to most social sciences researchers, perhaps my contribution will be particularly relevant if you are researching policy-related issues.

Preparing for fieldwork

1. Ethical implications. Ethics clearance is not only a bureaucratic process and you should take it seriously. When researching public policy you may want to ask your interviewee about topics that involve sensitive political issues and you may even get answers about criminal activities (from third parties or even self-incrimination!). Hence, you really have to think about the ethical implications of your research. For example, how to ensure confidentially and anonymity? What’s your strategy to obtain consent? Your research design should put the interviewees’ welfare and security as a top priority.

2. Networking and access. Before requesting interviews to prospective interviewees it may be helpful to get acquainted with them. Frequently, if you contact the interviewee through another person that introduces him or her to you the interview will flow more smoothly. A colleague that is researching human trafficking policy, Owain Johnstone, also felt that spending more time building connections before formally contacting people for interviews improved access, particularly when dealing with public officials and politicians.

3. Draft, draft, draft. Draft model emails you will use, for example, to request interviews or simply to introduce yourself or your research. Believe me, this will save you time.

During interviews

4. Patience. Arrive a bit earlier to your interview. Sometimes you will be able to speak with the person before the agreed time and you may win valuable time. Bring a book in case, public officials and politicians tend to postpone or delay meetings. Waiting hours in public transport or for an interviewee to show up is not infrequent. Having something to do meanwhile helps to cope with these situations.

5. Icebreaking and warm-up. Try to start with a topic that makes the person comfortable even if the query is not related to the research. Also, it is helpful to begin by asking the interviewee who they are and what they do. Even if you already know their background, politicians and senior public officials like to talk about themselves… so it is a good warm-up!

6. Some key queries. Regardless of your topic, I found some silver-bullet questions that I suggest you bear in mind. For example: When the interviewee makes a key statement but it is not clear why he or she knows it, ask why! Do not forget asking an essential ethics issue: May I cite you and how? Finish the interview by asking about other people to contact or about any other thing they would like to add. In some interviews, this last query was key to get information that otherwise I would not have obtained.

7. Processing as go. Whether you are transcribing the interviews or just taking notes on the most important points, it is sensible to start processing the data from day one. If you are not audio recording, write down right away your notes on the interviews, don’t let too much time pass. If you delay the transcription you are likely to find the accumulation of work very burdensome and maybe you will forget things that you were not able to annotate during the interview.

8. It is not just about interviewing. Do not underestimate administrative work required to conduct interviews! Researching the background of your interviewees, organizing your day-to-day agenda, contacting people… even getting around the city or between meetings may take hours every day.
Back from the field

9. Decanting your experience. Talk to other colleagues about your experience, this will help you reflect on what you can do better next time (as I am doing right now!). It is reassuring to know that others had to struggle with similar issues and to learn how others cope with the challenges of fieldwork.

10. Brushing and rinsing. Making sense of the data is probably the biggest challenge I have encountered so far. I am currently in the stage where I am processing my data to distinguish between information, perceptions and patterns that are pertinent for my research from those that have other type of pertinence. For example, some anecdotes from my fieldwork may be great icebreakers for pub-talk and even for academic presentations, but they are not central to my research.

To finish, I have two extra messages that are a bit more personal, but I think may be particularly interesting for those of you who are going to jump for the first time into the fieldwork experience. First, getting to know so many new people in a short span of time is a great experience. Embrace that idea and enjoy meeting new people! Second, humility, not false modesty, should guide your mission of learning from your interviewees.

Juan D. Gutiérrez-Rodríguez is studying for a DPhil in Public Policy at BSG .

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