Doing overseas fieldwork can be a challenging undertaking. You don’t know where exactly you’ll end up, where to find respondents and how to organise the meetings. Especially in a narrow timeframe, you may only have one chance to speak to those who will define your research outcomes. Laura Sariego-Kluge (Newcastle University) kindly shares 10 tips for setting up and conducting semi-structured interviews, based on her 2-month period in Australia.
Within two months I set up and conducted 56 interviews with 67 participants in three different cities in a country I had never been before (see graph below). Some of my fieldwork lessons might be useful for other researchers, although context plays an important role, thus I do not suggest the reader should follow suit! Just as an example, in my case language was not a barrier. Here are a few other details you should know: my data collection process was assessed as ‘low risk’ in its approval; and it involved semi-structured interviews with mostly civil servants and policy makers, although I also interviewed experts (academics), representatives from unions and from business associations. Finally, even though I managed to interview more people than I had originally aimed for, it was a bit risky: I had no interviews set up before I arrived, I had only contacted two of my academic hosts in advance, and I only had a preliminary list of the government departments I was interested in for two of the three cities.
Fieldwork: Distribution of participants and interviews per day (weekends are not shown)
- Fundamentally, I was helped by a well-connected, kind and respected researcher in each city, who was embedded within a local, nationally reputable academic/research organisation. They supported me in getting interviews and offered me access to office amenities (including internet) and a desk on which to work.
- This gave me peace of mind in relation to having a comfortable and safe space to work, allowing me to keep track of my interviews and set up more, print my consent forms and scan them, adjust my questions, make phone calls, etc.
- But also, and crucially, the researcher hosting me opened the doors (or directly reached out) to half of my total interviewees. Their colleagues and friends, also played an important role in this sense (so grateful!).
- Host 1 was good friends with one of my supervisors (really, it all comes down to my great supervisors!). Host 2 was a good friend of a good friend of my other supervisor. Host 3 was friends with Host 2. I contacted Hosts 1 and 2 directly a couple of months in advance of my trip. Contact with Host 3 happened once I was in the country.
- I also added my host organisation onto my email signature and I mentioned it when I made phone calls asking for interviews. This probably boosted my credibility and people’s will to allocate an hour for me.
In addition to the contacts I got from my hosts, I looked for new ones on my own. Once I had a better picture of the context, my notions about concrete, relevant, potential interviewees were much more clear. About 40% of the participants came from my individual efforts contacting people and 10% snowballing from these. This is what I did (see below).
2. I kept the introductory emails/letters under half a page (including signature).
- Most of these emails included an attached letter attached with an elegant/formal format.
- For the content of the letter (which was reproduced in the email) I tested different structures: first stating who I was, where I was based, and then asking what I wanted from them. At a second attempt, I considered first asking them directly for a meeting slot and then explaining why and ending with who I was. Finally, I perceived that the most effective way of writing the introductory email was opening with a short paragraph about what I was doing and why I wanted to meet them, then request a meeting slot, and finish by explaining where I was based (i.e. my host organisation). I also included important names, for example, Prof. XYZ is hosting me, or Mr. XYZ recommended that I speak to you.
- Importantly, I tailored each of the emails to the specific interviewee.
3. I asked for a specific *WEEK* to meet.
- For example, “I would like to kindly request that you consider meeting me sometime during the week starting Monday, 13 March”
- Most people gave me a date for that week (sometimes I emailed on the Monday of that same week, ideally though, it is best to ask for a meeting for the following week). Some replied saying they couldn’t meet that week, but they could the following.
- A few I had to follow up by phone (often successfully) after a couple of days of no reply.
4. I was kind, respectful, and engaging during the interviews.
- I tried to make it conversational when conducting the interview. For example, I might comment on a thought once or twice, or share a piece of relevant information. I generally showed my personality a bit and I think this went a long way for both personal and professional reasons. In relation to the interviewee, I perceived that it helped create a bond of trust and many were happy to not only be frank during the interview but also supportive by offering contacts, or approaching people directly for me, and agreeing that I contact them again if I had further questions. Personally, I felt more relaxed, often it was even fun as laughter was involved, and sometimes I made wonderful social connections with people.
5. I got a local sim card/phone number and set up the Voice Message option for when I could not pick up.
- As I was on a tight schedule, it was highly probable that I would be in an interview when if a potential interviewee called (as it happened!).
- I also made sure to sign all my emails with my contact details including my new local mobile number.
6. During the interview, I typed.
- This was very helpful, particularly when I was doing more than one interview on that day (active continuous attention is a huge energy drainer!). I did it particularly to focus upon and retain what they were saying during the interview and to keep track of the key ideas they were discussing.
- Typing also allowed me to write ideas for questions once they paused, or a comment that I could make to trigger other reflections from the interviewee.
- Moreover, I noticed through their body language they felt less pressured to respond immediately and took their time to think as I was typing. Of course, I was constantly looking at them as well; it was a balance of eye contact and lapses of disconnection through typing.
- However, I would not have done it if I was a slow typist.
7. If I could not find their direct email, I would call and ask for it.
- Or their secretary’s email.
- I avoided institutional emails, my experience was that they would take much longer to get back to me and rarely with a positive reply.
8. I also offered Skype or phone interviews for potential interviewees who were based elsewhere.
- Four of my interviews were over the phone or via Skype. Given that I did not have funding to travel to other cities, I asked to meet via telephone.
- It worked well, as I could also record the conversation if I put them on loudspeaker, and received their signed informed consent forms over email.
9. I looked for potential interviewees in social media, where I could observe current conversations and identify active actors, potential interviewees, relevant to my research.
10. Establishing personal contact went a long way, although not in relation to interviews but for collecting secondary quantitative data that were not readily available to the public (not even after email contact). The way to access this data was to meet the government data gate-keeper to explain why I needed the data and how I was going to use it (and agreeing to strict non-disclosure conditions).
Finally, I cannot stress enough how, for the overall success of my fieldwork, it was fundamental to be able to rely on remarkably kind academic hosts who were caring and helpful (by the way, I did not know them beforehand).
Laura Sariego-Kluge, PhD Scholar
Centre for Urban and Regional Development Studies
Newcastle University, United Kingdom
University of Costa Rica