Author: Jop Flameling
On Wednesday the 17th of April 2019, I conducted interviews regarding the perceptions and images people around The Hague have of the elderly poor. As I have no experience in conducting interviews, I threw myself in the deep end. Here, I will share the lessons I learned from this experience.
The interviews were conducted around the middle of the day at the Turfmarkt. This is an area that connects the Ministries of The Hague to the rest of the city and to the central station, so the people walking there are on average highly-educated and relatively wealthy. However, I tried to approach a diverse group of people, based on their appearance. Moreover, it is important to know that I am a 19 year-old, white male, which could influence not only which people would accept giving an interview, but also which people I myself approached.
This is the list of questions that I used during the interview and their English translation.
1. Wat is volgens u de grootste uitdaging voor ouderen op het moment in Den Haag?
2. Wat is volgens u de grootste uitdaging voor arme ouderen op het moment in Den Haag?
3. Wat denkt u dat de belangrijkste oorzaken van armoede onder ouderen is [sic] in Den Haag?
4. Denkt u dat de volgende uitspraak correct is: ‘Meer dan de helft van de ouderen in Den Haag heeft een laag inkomen (<€1800/maand).’?
5. Wat is de primaire bron die uw beeld van ouderen vormgeeft (vrienden, media, etc.)?”
1. What is, according to you, the biggest challenge for the elderly in The Hague at the moment?
2. What is, according to you, the biggest challenge for the elderly poor in The Hague at the moment?
3. What do you think is [sic} the most important causes of poverty among the elderly in The Hague?
4. Do you think the following statement is correct: ‘Over half of the elderly in The Hague has a low income (<€1800/month).’?
5. What is the primary source that shapes your image of the elderly (friends, media, etc.)?”
As I am not an experienced interviewer, I faced some unexpected challenges while conducting the interviews. I will share my experiences here to provide future inexperienced interviewers an insight into what they might expect.
1. Mention ASAP that you want to interview, not sell.
It is quite scary to approach strangers and ask for their time. Luckily for me, I have quite some experience in door-to-door sales, so I am used to mentally pushing myself over that boundary, but yet I found it challenging. Especially since the Turfmarkt is an area where many salesmen try to sell you products – mostly memberships of charities or newspapers – the people you approach expect you to try and sell them something, so they try to brush you off. Interestingly enough, when I told them it concerned a brief interview for university research, many of those who did not have time initially, suddenly found a few minutes to talk to me. So, tell people as soon as possible that you’re not trying to sell anything, just asking some things!
2. Don’t make your questions too difficult.
The questions we devised were for some interviewees too difficult to understand, as is reflected by their answers. Specifically the fifth question, on what shapes people’s view of the elderly, was often misinterpreted. For example, the implicit questions people answered were “What is your image of the elderly?” (Interview 1) or “How much of your relatives are still alive?” (Interview 4). Also the third question – “What causes poverty among the elderly?” – appeared difficult to answer. For example, the woman of interview 4 answered “too little money”, and when I rephrased the question multiple times to get to an understanding of why they had too little money, she repeated herself. Be aware of this when devising the questions, and be ready to use synonyms for potentially difficult words.
3. Leave your questions open.
We deliberately chose to have open questions, because we were afraid to steer the answers in a certain direction by having participants choose from a list of options. This appeared to be successful. What we expected to be mentioned most often as a cause of elderly poverty, the pension system, was only brought forward a few times, while other causes we had not thought of, for example high healthcare costs and the passing away of a partner, were mentioned fairly often.
4. Be ready to have a conversation.
The most interesting interviews were those where I granted myself a bit more freedom with the things I said and asked. This did not only give me the opportunity to correct the participants if they had misunderstood a question and steer them to understanding, it also opened doors to new, unexplored areas of the topic we had not thought of when creating the list of questions. For example, interview 5 gave by far the most detailed and interesting account of this woman’s perception of the elderly, partially because I allowed myself to delve more deeply into a conversation. I wish I had had this insight before the start of interview 4. This woman was part of the vulnerable group, the elderly poor, herself, and therefore the
interview became quite emotional and loaded at times. That is in itself not a problem. However, because my response was to “move onto the next question” rather than actually answering her and engaging in a conversation, I felt rather insensitive. However, the more open approach will have to be weighed off against lower comparability between interviews. From a positivist scholar’s perspective this would be less scientifically rigorous, and this approach does not lend itself very well for quantitative analysis. However, the quality of qualitative insights will increase, which is worth the effort.
5. Don’t steer your participants too much.
Our question number 4 was clearly a flawed question. Many participants said they did not know the answer and just guessed it to be correct, because otherwise “we wouldn’t ask it”, as explicitly formulated by the woman of Interview 5.
6. You can record the interview.
Although I expected some participants to be hesitant of being recorded, none of them even seemed to think about it after I asked for their explicit consent, regardless of age or gender. Recording allows you to transcribe the exact words that were spoken during the interview, and thus create a more detailed account of the conversation. This in turn created insights I had forgotten while conducting the interview. Moreover, recording allows you to focus fully on the conversation, rather than having to quickly scribble down the answers of participants.
7. Know your biases.
After conducting two interviews, I started to notice that I had a strong preference to approach young, white males – people like me. After that I explicitly forced myself to approach a more diverse audience, in terms of gender, age and ethnicity. Being aware of this from the get-go can help you spot your biases early on.
8. Have fun.
This is a unique opportunity to talk to wonderful people you would normally never encounter about serious issues. Be aware of that, and enjoy it.