Research Interviewing: The Range of Techniques

By Bill Gillham | Go to book overview

8: The élite interview

The term 'élite' can make people feel uncomfortable, carrying with it overtones of moral, social, intellectual or political superiority which are all the more unacceptable if they are true. But the term 'élite interviewing' provides a useful short-hand for a kind of interviewing which has a distinctive value. In short, it involves talking to people who are especially knowledgeable about a particular area of research or about the context within which you are researching. They are commonly in positions of authority or power by virtue of their experience and understanding. Relatedly they are also part of a network – of other people and institutions – and may control (or facilitate) access to these.

Such people are likely to be sophisticated subjects for interviewing. Not only do they know more than the researcher about certain key dimensions of the area but will also be alert to the implications of questions, and of their answers to them. They are not naïve subjects so will not submit tamely to a series of prepared questions. It is in this respect that the interview has to be loosely structured at best. And in so far as the researcher has a pre-formed idea of what they want to find out, they may find such expectations turned on their head because of the interviewee's more authoritative grasp of the subject. The response: 'You're asking the wrong question' is a typical index of this phenomenon.


Access and control

People in positions of authority can be uniquely helpful; in some cases the research project would be impossible or severely constrained without their support. But they need to feel that the project is interesting and worthwhile; it will be seen as such particularly if it can be (and is presented as) of some use to them. They will also be aware that it may cause them problems. If the latter possibility is not considered and explored beforehand, the researcher may

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