ask not how but why – musings on ‘the interview’


I was reading some interview transcripts the other day. They were fairly unstructured conversations; the interviewer had some set topics to cover, but not necessarily any set wording. I happened to be looking for the connections between the type of question asked and the response. 

I saw that the longest answers, and the ones with the most helpful information, came from questions that started something like this:

  • Can you tell me about…
  • Can you tell me how…
  • How much do you…
  • What can you remember about…
  • What do you think has been most important in…
  • How did this happen …
  • What kind of…
  • What about…

These probing queries came after the conversation had got going. They seemed to work like interested, approving nudges which encouraged the person being interviewed to keep talking.

And there were also some invitational questions like:

  •  We’re really interested in….
  • We’d like to know about….

In these transcripts both kinds of questions produced useful information. The answers were interesting too, and lent themselves to a number of analytic approaches, from narrative to discourse analysis.

As I read further through the transcripts, I thought about other angles that could have been taken by the interviewer, perhaps something like

  • Can you trace …. back to the start….
  • Can you walk me through the process you used to…
  • Can you take me through what happened …

These questions share the same characteristics as the others – they ask ‘the interviewee’ to talk about concrete events, in ways that don’t put them on the spot.

Howard Becker wrote once that it is better to ask someone a how question than a why. Why questions tend to make people defensive, he says. They either tell us what they think is right, or something that will fob us off, or what they think we expect to hear. How questions on the other hand, invite people to talk about process. Becker argues that most social scientists want to know the answer to the how question rather than to the why. He says that it’s useful to know how people come to do something and to get a narrative account of a sequence of events. Knowing process, he says, allows researchers to see patterns in people’s behaviour. And how answers also do often provide a rationale, or at least clues to it.

Of course, sometimes you do want to get people to respond to a why question. I did see some of this in the transcripts I was looking at. The questions there were of this ilk…

  • What do you think about the idea of…
  • How would you respond to the view that…
  • Some people might argue … what do you think?

So these weren’t questions that asked people to justify their actions so much as respond to a hypothetical situation, to give their opinion in relation to something distanced from them.

I was also struck by the way in which asking process and open-opinion-giving questions was a kind of interviewer mind-set. Well, that’s how it seemed from the transcripts. And that’s important. It seems to me that getting good information from people takes a kind of embodied understanding about what kinds of question starters are helpful. It’s what Becker calls a “polite but disinterested curiosity” which gives people leeway to tell you about things that you may not have thought of. The transcripts I looked at had been conducted by an interviewer ( not me) who obviously had this kind of internal ‘process compass’.

In an unstructured interview, the interviewer doesn’t have time to think about the kind of question that they will ask, they simply begin a conversation and then offer prompts. Making sure that you ask questions that will get information, and keep the flow of the conversation going, is quite an art. I was looking at transcripts produced by someone who had this kind of internalised research craft. 

I hope that all of you who are writing interview schedules have lots of time to practice questions that are invitational and open. Doing so means that you will be able to focus on listening and responding, rather than worrying about coverage and phrasing.

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
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3 Responses to ask not how but why – musings on ‘the interview’

  1. dukeyjk62 says:

    Thanks Pat. I always like the spradley model for designing interview questions helped with the *how*


  2. Pingback: A Place for Questions | From guestwriters

  3. Pingback: Pat Thomson on the interview – Ben Kraal

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