Getting Connected: How Sociologists Can Access the High Tech Elite

Article excerpt

Elite studies have been relatively neglected in the qualitative methods literature (Coleman, 1996, p. 336; Hertz & Imber, 1995). As a consequence, the interview methods literature in the social sciences does not adequately address the issue of access to elite interviews. Nor does it address the elite interview process itself (Breakwell, Hammond, & Fife-Schaw, 1995; Brenner, Brown, & Canter, 1985; Crabtree & Miller, 1992; Fog, 1994; Fowler & Mangione, 1990; McCracken, 1988; Stewart & Cash, 1997; Sudman & Bradburn, 1982; Weiss, 1994). Despite its elite sample (scientists, engineers, policymakers) the science and technology studies (STS) community (Undheim, 2002) suffers from the same lack of attention to access, with Traweek (1995) as a notable exception. The author discusses the small literature on qualitative elite studies (Hertz & Imber, 1995; Walford, 1994) as well as contributions on elite interviewing (Burgess, 1988; Cassell, 1988; Dexter, 1970; Moyser, 1988; Spector, 1980; Thomas, 1995). Practical consultation for interview practice is also given. Seeing access as an ongoing, precarious process, the author recommends improvisation by ways of a threefold journalistic, therapeutic, and investigative modus operandi. The author draws on a study of the situated nature of high tech practices and is based on interview experience with knowledge workers, experts, and high tech CEOs in the United States, Italy, and Norway. As well, he brings experiences from a previous study of regional innovation in Norway and Great Britain (Thorvik & Undheim, 1998).

Key Words: Interviewing, Elites, Access, Modus Operandi, Interview Literature, Knowledge

Introduction

Elites are people who occupy, by heritage, merit or circumstances, a key place in power networks both online and offline. Often associated with power, privilege and position, the elite might not as such constitute, or embody readily observable traits, or group itself in a way that is easily categorized. Rather, the elite way of influence is sometimes better described in retrospect, by analyzing how actor-networks were mobilized. Actually, elite impact is often quite invisible, and the most influential might not look like they are. This, of course, is also due to the prevalent elite strategy of staying behind the scenes while deploying a multi-faceted power game. Here, online elites play a particular role, immersed as it were in cyberpower (Jordan, 2000), largely invisible to most of us, yet arguably quite effective also in manipulating real-life events (Nye, 2002) .

In the following, I will discuss how elites can be found, accessed, and interviewed, starting out with an analysis of the science and technology studies (STS) community as well as some classic approaches to interviewing found in the existing literature. Scholars who study the interplay of technical, scientific and social aspects of reality (STS) are critical towards taken-for-granted assumptions about how society is configured. Rather, they prefer to show the precise construction of actor-networks by tracing the impact of technological determinism, identifying actors and their place-making, that is, the ongoing sense making, cooperation, and exchange online and offline (Undheim, 2002).

Since science and technology is widely regarded as housing elites, I will start there. While a substantial part of the science and technology studies (STS) literature investigates people and settings that we normally would classify and regard as elite, relatively little is written about how these groups and settings were accessed. However, access to high-energy physics labs, molecular biologists, or NASA scientists, is not self-evident. In fact, we should assume that there must have been many barriers before access was obtained, restrictions that were encountered underway, and many missed attempts at access that are not reported. This makes access a more interesting phenomenon, a feature of STS research in need of more sustained reflection. …