Asking questions

Questionining is a basic research technique, and you can be required to master it. Your goal is to get interviewees doing all the talking with you only keeping it on track.

Key questions

Write key questions in your plans. Put some thought into them: they should be open-ended discussion starters. If you're not used to doing interviews, you might want to have some follow-up questions written down as well. When you get more skills, you'll be able to produce follow-up questions spontaneously as the need arises.

Getting people to talk

Try the following approaches to get people to talk. It is not usually difficult; most people liketo talk about what they thing they know.

Interviewees are sometimes reluctant to speak. In these cases, you have several options:

In a group, make sure that everyone who wants a say gets a say.

Silent periods, however, are not always bad. A silent period allows everybody to think about something in particular before they answer. You can get them to give answers by staying quiet, but you lose the opportunity if you talk too much. Put another way, you can give them a reflection time, which is very helpful if the group is accustomed to talking without thinking. You can build on new discussion once the silence has finished.

Are some answers better than others?

Some people will give better answers than others and some answers might not seem to make much sense. It might be that they do make sense, but you haven't figured out why yet because you haven't gone far enough into the mindset.

Some people give partial answers simply because they are speaking spontaneously and don't have time to think out their entire rationale. And of course there will always be people who simply don't know why or who deliberately give you a poor answer because they are shy or feel threatened.

Cultural aspects of questions

There will probably be cultural aspects to asking good questions. For example, people of one culture differentiate sharply between the purpose (hidden agenda) of the question and what it is that is asked (direct intent). They might not answer what you asked, but respond according to what they perceive your purpose to be.

As another example, they might answer your question very well, but their idea of a reason might not seem logical to you. In that case, you need to identify what kind of cultural logic they are using. If you dismiss the answer, you have dismissed an excellent learning opportunity.

Who should you ask?

People might become embarrassed if you push them for an answer and they honestly don't know. It might be totally inappropriate to ask a person of the opposite sex, or of particular age groups.

Some people will be recognized as knowing more than others. People will generally know who has the job of safeguarding their cultural knowledge. Those people may be university staff, shamans, reclusive mystics, artisans, or grandmothers. They maintain their knowledge, perhaps act as a resource to the general population, teach it to others, and pass it onto their replacements in the next generation.

Some safeguarded knowledge might deliberately be kept secret, and some knowledge is considered too "deep" for most people to understand. They may also use specific terminology that is different from the general populace.

How much depends on who they think you are?

Be aware that your race, age, gender, apparent class or role could affect the research. For example, if you are a male, then you might have limited access to women informants in some societies and only be able to research amongst men.

Alternatively, you might receive very different answers from a female researcher. This is not bad, but you need to realize that your identity is a factor in what you can learn. Obviously, then, a woman might be able to do very good research amongst women if only men had previously researched that group of people.

People will also probably give better answers when they know you better and trust you more. If they think you are a genuine friend who wants to learn, they will likely give you an honest answer. But if you say that you are writing a graduate dissertation, they can feel threatened by your role and very pressured to provide a clever answer. They might decline, especially if they have much lesser formal education, or they might manufacture a fictitious answer. There are cases when researchers have become disrespected, and people make up spurious, fictitious answers.

Avoid frustrating questions

Some questions can annoy people if they sound like:


Anecdotes are very good evidence of the beliefs of the person giving the anecdote, so they are very useful for investigating cultural phenomena. At an individual level, an individual's anecdotes are essential to defining his/her identity and watersheds. At a group level, anecdotes reflect the values and beliefs of a community. For example, people in organizations use them as folklore to maintain their organization's unique culture and identity.

This does not mean that anecdotes are true, so they are considered unhelpful in most other kinds of research.


  1. Watch your attitude. If people suspect you disagree with their views or don't like them, they might change them to accommodate you.
  2. Make sure the points of your questions are clear.
  3. Make sure you fully explore all the relevant issues.
  4. Be aware that:
  5. Don't play Guess what's on my mind.
  6. Give people time. It might be that you are poorly understood or unknowingly asked an offensive question. Be aware that many people might be too polite to tell you, and you will only find out what happened after a considerable period of time.
  7. Give people the right to their own opinions.
  8. Pick up on good ideas that come up and explore them. This is especially important for quiet people with good ideas.
  9. Make people feel glad they contributed, especially when they have very good ideas or are usually shy.
  10. People almost certainly have very good reasons for what they do. Try to find out those reasons. I am consistently surprised that cultures are so logical, even when I don't agree with some values.
  11. It is good practice to maintain the friendship after the series of interviews is over.