Asking the right questions

    | November 17, 2008

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    The following is adapted from a section of The Panos Institute of West Africa’s guide to using oral testimonies, entitled Heeding the Voiceless. The guide defines an oral testimony as an “inverted interview,” which is guided by the interviewee rather than the interviewer. This approach may be useful when you wish to speak to people at the grassroots level, especially if you are profiling an individual or group, or seeking to explore the subtleties of an issue. To view the entire guide online, go to:

    The right questions:

    Open questions
    Because oral testimony interviews focus on individual perspectives, and the significance of events as understood and described by the narrator rather than factual information, it is important to uncover this kind of qualitative information through “open” questions:
    – Why do you think this happened?
    – What do/did you feel about this?
    – What do you think is/was the meaning of this?
    – How important is/was this to you/your family/community?
    – How does/did this affect you/your family/community?
    – How is this different from the situation in the past/now?
    – Why do you think that this changed/happens?
    – What is your own experience of this custom/event?
    – Why did you/your family/community make this decision?
    – Do you feel you have/had a choice?
    – In what ways could things have been easier/better/more helpful?

    Sensitive questions
    Sometimes it is very hard to talk about issues that are personal or sensitive. If the topic can be discussed in the third person, it might be easier for the narrator to give an honest reply:
    -“I have heard that some women in the community refuse to continue any old practices. What do you think about this?”
    -“What is your view about parents who do not want their children to study their mother tongue?”

    Prompt and probe questions
    These questions can be asked to encourage the interviewee to expand further in a certain direction or go into greater detail:
    -Could you tell me more about that?
    -Could you explain exactly how the system works?
    -Could you please suggest how we could improve the health facilities in our community?

    The wrong questions:

    Closed questions
    These questions tend to elicit yes/no answers and little else. They are useful to establish detail, or clarify, but should almost always be followed by open-ended questions:
    -(closed) Had you met him/her before?
    -(open) What was your impression when you first met?

    Leading questions
    These tend to assume an answer and may lead the narrator to respond with a simple yes or no:
    -Was that helpful?
    -Weren’t you angry when they changed their plans?
    -All politicians are dishonest, aren’t they?

    Double-barreled questions
    A double-barreled question is a question framed in such a way that it demands two or more answers. These questions can confuse, and the narrator will almost always answer only one of the questions:
    -When did you marry and what does your husband do?
    -What is your favourite radio station and why do you like it and where is it?