Skip to main content
Search form
  • 00:05

    [Interviewing Elites]

  • 00:10

    SEAN KELLY: My name Sean Kelly.I'm Professor and Chair of Political Scienceat California State University Channel Islands.My expertise is in American politics, specificallyAmerican political institutions.My focus in that area is on Congress and the presidency.

  • 00:32

    SEAN KELLY [continued]: I am the co-author of a book calledJimmy Carter and The Water Wars, Presidential Influenceand The Politics of Pork.And a member of the National Advisory Boardfor the Dirksen Congressional Center.In this video, we're going to take some timeto talk about interviewing elites.

  • 00:53

    SEAN KELLY [continued]: As a political scientist, one of my favorite things to dois to talk to people who are actively involved in politics.I find that I get a lot of insightby talking to people who are actuallyengaged in the process.This would be true also if you're interested in sociology

  • 01:15

    SEAN KELLY [continued]: for instance.Talking to people who are involvedin a particular organization or in a social movement.These folks really have their own unique perspectivethat we can gain a lot from in our research.So in this video, we're going to talk about how

  • 01:35

    SEAN KELLY [continued]: to do that kind of research.Who to talk to, how to talk to them,and how to use the information that you've gatheredin your research project.[Who to Talk to]First of all, who is an elite?

  • 01:55

    SEAN KELLY [continued]: When we hear that word, we oftentimesthink of the rich and powerful.Maybe a smoke filled room where all the strings are pulled,and all of the decisions are made.For my purposes, when I talk about interviewing elites,I'm talking about people who are in specific positions sometimes

  • 02:18

    SEAN KELLY [continued]: of power, but sometimes just simply within an organizationwho have a unique perspective on the processthat I happen to be interested in.For instance, if you are doing research on education policy,well talking to people like school superintendents,

  • 02:42

    SEAN KELLY [continued]: principals, classroom teachers, all of those folks,in my estimation, would be called elitesbecause they have a specific positionwithin their organization, and theyhave a specific perspective that they'regoing to be able to bring to your research project.

  • 03:02

    SEAN KELLY [continued]: The first question you probably have about doing interviewsis who should I interview?That's going to be determined in part by your research topic.So the first thing that you're going to want to dois establish a research question and thendo some deep background research into that question.

  • 03:25

    SEAN KELLY [continued]: So if you're interested in how curriculum is developedin your particular school district,you're going to want to spend some time readingthe newspaper, going through websites to find outwho the key actors are in your school district, who'son the school board, who are the principals

  • 03:47

    SEAN KELLY [continued]: of the various schools in the district, who arethe teachers teaching in the area that you're interested in,so that you can get kind of the lay of the landand figure out who the more important figures areand maybe who some of the less important figures are.When you start doing your interviews,

  • 04:10

    SEAN KELLY [continued]: you can then use an approach that wemight call a snowball approach.Oftentimes what I do when I interview people,one of the questions I'll ask is who elsedo you think I should talk to about whatwe're talking about here?And usually I'll get a few names,and I'll add them to my list of other folks I should talk to.

  • 04:34

    SEAN KELLY [continued]: Oftentimes these are people who are behind the scenes whodon't show up in newspaper accounts, who don't necessarilyshow up on websites.And because of their particular position,that is the interviewee's particular position.They know about these folks, and you don't.And so you can use this as a way to leverage

  • 04:56

    SEAN KELLY [continued]: your way into additional interviewswith other people who have interesting perspectives.In doing this, one of the other things that you can dois create access to those individuals.So for instance, I'll ask an interviewee who elsedo you think I should talk to?

  • 05:17

    SEAN KELLY [continued]: And if they give me a name, I saywould you mind if I used your name whenI ask them if they'll spend some time with me talking?Also as you're doing your interview,listen to the interviewee and takenote of any names that happened to be mentionedthroughout the interview.[How to Talk to Them]

  • 05:40

    SEAN KELLY [continued]: So how do you make contact with the peoplethat you want to interview?Well in this day and age email is the great equalizer.Using email, you can reach out to folks all over the countryand ask them if they're willing to talk to you.

  • 06:01

    SEAN KELLY [continued]: If you're an introvert like I am,this is a really low stakes way to contact somebody.I don't have to pick up a phone.I don't have to talk to anybody.I can just write a polite email thatexplains what my research is and whyI'm interested in talking to the person about the topic

  • 06:21

    SEAN KELLY [continued]: that I'm researching.What's the worst that can happen?Sending an email is a low stakes way to get access to the peoplethat you want to talk to.It also gives you an opportunity to explain to themexactly what it is that you want to talk to them aboutand what your intentions are for using

  • 06:43

    SEAN KELLY [continued]: the information that you're going to get from them.Before you start your interviews,you're going to want to think about the structureof those interviews.Do you want them to be structured, unstructured,or semi-structured, which is kindof a combination of the two approaches.Structured interviews use pre-determined questions

  • 07:07

    SEAN KELLY [continued]: that are prepared and administered to each subjectthat you're interviewing using a standard protocol.The range of responses is usuallypre-determinded by the researcher basedon theoretical expectations.That is you already have a sense of the range of answers

  • 07:27

    SEAN KELLY [continued]: that a person might give.In order to structure the data, your interviewswill involve response categories thatcan be scored so that you can compare answersacross individuals.When it comes to the number of people you can interview,

  • 07:51

    SEAN KELLY [continued]: one of the great benefits of a structured interviewis that you can do this with large numbers of peoplebecause you're using a standard protocol.So among the benefits of structured interviewsis that because you're using a standard protocol,you can have more people in the field interviewing more people,

  • 08:14

    SEAN KELLY [continued]: and the data are more easily quantified.One of the drawbacks of structured interviewsis that you're going to have veryfew if any open-ended questions thatcapture the unique perspectives of each personthat you're interviewing.And important details might be lost

  • 08:37

    SEAN KELLY [continued]: if you don't ask the correct questions.Unstructured interviews, by contrast, questionsare loosely designed to elicit reactions relatedto the research project.The range of responses is not pre-determined,so the subject is allowed to express opinions that they

  • 08:57

    SEAN KELLY [continued]: judge relevant to the topic.Data from these kinds of interviewscan help the researcher understand a process,and they could be used to confirm patterns identifiedelsewhere in the research.Unstructured interviews are especially useful whenthe number of experts is small.

  • 09:21

    SEAN KELLY [continued]: Unlike say a school district whereyou might have hundreds of teachers,sometimes there's just one principalor two principles involved.Unstructured interviews are useful for understandingan unfamiliar setting culture, experience, event.

  • 09:41

    SEAN KELLY [continued]: And they're also useful for developingtheories and hypotheses.The drawback-- a limited number of researcherscan engage in the interviews.They're not often standard.And they take more time.Also, replication is more difficult.

  • 10:04

    SEAN KELLY [continued]: And you may need to develop transcriptions.Most of all an unstructured interviewsas with semi-structured interviewsyou need to develop rapport with your subject,and that can take a little while.When it comes to my research, I tendto take a semi-structured approach.

  • 10:26

    SEAN KELLY [continued]: I have some standard questions that Iknow that I want to get through in the interview.However, as the discussion develops,I will allow us to go off track so that the person that I'minterviewing can express their own opinionsand sometimes produce questions from me that

  • 10:50

    SEAN KELLY [continued]: help to clarify some specific topic that wehappen to be talking about.And so combining these two approaches,I find to be quite useful.But then again, my research is one areawhere there tend to be just a handful of experts

  • 11:10

    SEAN KELLY [continued]: that I need to talk to.If I'm going to do a larger scale project,then I'm probably going to want to go with a morestructured interview.[Tips for Interviewing]As you prepare for your interview,one of the most important things that you can dois be very familiar with your topic.

  • 11:34

    SEAN KELLY [continued]: You don't want to come off with the intervieweeas though you know everything.In fact, the best position to takeis one of relative ignorance.Relative to the person that you're interviewing youdon't know as much as they do even though youmay know your topic very well.

  • 11:55

    SEAN KELLY [continued]: But you don't want to come off as somebodywho knows nothing at all.So you want to be prepared.Oftentimes people you're interviewingif they think that you're unpreparedwill become quite perturbed because theyfeel that you're not taking them and their work very seriously.

  • 12:16

    SEAN KELLY [continued]: When you're doing your research, you'regoing to want to be sure to take notes and if at all possibleto record the interview.If you're going to record the interview,make sure that you ask permission from the personthat you're talking to.Among the materials that I find very useful in doinginterviews are a digital voice recorder.

  • 12:38

    SEAN KELLY [continued]: You probably have one on your phone.And with today's phones it's probably pretty good,so you can probably get by with that.Another tool is a smartpen.A smartpen both records the discussion but also recordsthe notes that you're taking and canbe very useful for going back into an interview

  • 13:01

    SEAN KELLY [continued]: and hearing parts of it without havingto search through the interview for the exact verbiagethat you found so interesting.Finally, your interview may or may not be transcribed.If you have the resources to transcribe the interview,it's a good practice.

  • 13:21

    SEAN KELLY [continued]: But if you're using a smartpen, you'llprobably find that a transcription is notabsolutely necessary.Another question to consider is whether or notyou need to do your interview in personor if it can be completed over the phone.Over the phone interviews are good if your subject is not

  • 13:46

    SEAN KELLY [continued]: nearby.Oftentimes I'll talk to people who are in Washington DC.I live in California.I can't fly to Washington DC every time I have an interview,so sometimes I'll conduct those interviews on the phone.Personally, I prefer to do my interviews in person.I like to be able to gauge the body

  • 14:08

    SEAN KELLY [continued]: language and the facial expressionsthat I'm getting from the person that I'm interviewing.It helps me to ask better questions.I also think that it helps me to engage better with my subject.But if I can't do it in person then Iwill do it over the phone.When you do interviews, it's important to establish rapport,

  • 14:31

    SEAN KELLY [continued]: but it's also important to maintain some critical distancefrom the person that you're interviewing.You don't want to become too friendly with thembecause what oftentimes happens isyou become sympathetic to their point of view.And it's important to remember that their view is but

  • 14:53

    SEAN KELLY [continued]: one point of view.And you will talk to other people who mayhave different points of view.And you don't want to get caught upin your personal relationship that you'vedeveloped with one of your intervieweesand take their side.Another thing you're going to want to dois not give your interviewee too much information

  • 15:14

    SEAN KELLY [continued]: about your research.What can happen sometimes is that intervieweesthey want to help you.They've already agreed to do an interview with you.They want to help you with your topic.And so sometimes they'll shape their answersto fit your particular hypothesis or researchquestion.

  • 15:35

    SEAN KELLY [continued]: And you want to stay away from that because what you wantis honest answers to questions.People will be doing this to be helpful to you,or at least they'll think they're being helpful to you,but it can actually harm your research.Give your interview a general sense of the kinds of questionsthat you're interested in and then ask your questions

  • 15:58

    SEAN KELLY [continued]: and try not to tip your hand.Finally, do multiple interviews and tryto find a subject who perhaps takes a different point of viewfrom some of your critical contacts,so that you can try to confirm across individuals that a storyis in fact accurate.

  • 16:21

    SEAN KELLY [continued]: One last thing to consider is your university'sInstitutional Review Board.The Institutional Review Board is put into placeto protect vulnerable subjects.You may recall some stories from your methodology classesabout experiments that went wrong

  • 16:41

    SEAN KELLY [continued]: where populations like a population in Mississippiwas not receiving proper medical care because theywanted to study the lasting effects of syphilis.IRBs were put into place in orderto avoid those unethical situations.

  • 17:02

    SEAN KELLY [continued]: What you need to consider here iswhether your interview with an individual could in some wayharm them.Are they vulnerable to what it is that you are doing?When it comes to elite interviews, for the most part,this is not an issue.

  • 17:22

    SEAN KELLY [continued]: But if you think it's an issue, then youshould treat their answers with confidentialityand not mention their names if youthink it's going to harm your subject in some way.Conducting interviews with elitesis one of my favorite things to do.

  • 17:45

    SEAN KELLY [continued]: I learned so much from listening to other peopleand their perspectives and their experiences.In addition, I learn a lot about the contextthat produces particular outcomes or behaviors.And I oftentimes will generate new research questions or just

  • 18:07

    SEAN KELLY [continued]: new questions that I want to have answeredfrom these discussions that I'm having with these folks whoare so deeply embedded in the thingthat I loved most which is politics.Interviewing people who are involved in politicsis one of my favorite things to do.I learned so much from talking to them.

  • 18:28

    SEAN KELLY [continued]: And they are a constant source of new questions,new ideas, new hypotheses, new ways to look at theories.One of the highlights, of course,is when you finally get that opportunity to meetsay a former president.A few years ago I was able to fly down to Atlanta

  • 18:50

    SEAN KELLY [continued]: to meet President Jimmy Carter, who I had justwritten a book about with my co-authorabout a particular event in his presidencyand I was able to sit down in his office for about an hour.He put his feet up, and we talkedabout the creation of the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge,

  • 19:12

    SEAN KELLY [continued]: which happened right at the end of his presidency.It took a long time to get to the pointwhere I could get access to a former president,but the more people you talk to, the moreyou build your networks, you can get accessto folks like Jimmy Carter, who haveendless, endless amounts of information that

  • 19:34

    SEAN KELLY [continued]: can improve your research.[Conclusion]Here are some activities you can engage inas you think about structuring your project using interviews.Generate a list of six to eight interview subjectsrelated to your research topic.

  • 19:54

    SEAN KELLY [continued]: Explain how each of them is important for your research.Write a sample email to an interview subjectrequesting an interview.You don't have to send it.Introduce yourself, explain your project,and your reason for selecting them.Give them a good reason to say yes to your request.

  • 20:15

    SEAN KELLY [continued]: Write a list of questions for a semi-structured interviewwith your subject.Explain how each of the questionsrelates to your research topic.In other words, why are you asking the question.

Video Info

Publisher: SAGE Publications Ltd

Publication Year: 2018

Video Type:Tutorial

Methods: Elite interviews, Qualitative interviewing

Keywords: confidential information; politicians; power and authority; practices, strategies, and tools; preparedness; question formation; review bodies ... Show More

Segment Info

Segment Num.: 1

Persons Discussed:

Events Discussed:



Prof. Sean Kelly explains his experience with interviewing elites. Kelly discusses interview techniques and skills through his real world experiences.

Looks like you do not have access to this content.

Interviewing Elites

Prof. Sean Kelly explains his experience with interviewing elites. Kelly discusses interview techniques and skills through his real world experiences.

Copy and paste the following HTML into your website