Sunday, August 29, 2010

"Field Research" 101 - Interviewing witnesses

Most self-proclaimed UFO / paranormal "field Investigators" have absolutely no training or education in oral research methodology. Not having had this training or education, and yet having gone out into the "field" to conduct "investigations", they presumably don't see the need for it.

They're wrong.

An understanding of oral research methodology is key to being an effective and reliable interviewer of witnesses. A few years ago, I posted several tips and resources on the subject. After reading some posts at the message forums at the Paracast, and listening to some recent episodes at the show, I have been reminded me of the paucity of understanding of true research methodology by "ufologists / paranormal researchers".

I think a refresher course is in order.

Paul Kimball

Oral History Tips

Any paranormal researcher serious about oral history would be well served to begin their preparation with Concordia University's Oral History Tips, which offers a good basic primer on everything from interview guidelines and sample questions to ethics guidelines and tips.

In the meantime, here are some key questions to ask yourself before ever heading out into the "field":

Technique and Adaptive Skills

1. In what ways does the interview show that the interviewer has used skills appropriate to: the interviewee's condition (health, memory, metal alertness, ability to communicate, time schedule, etc.) and the interview location and conditions (disruptions and interruptions, equipment problems, extraneous participants, background noises, etc.)?

2. What evidence is there that the interviewer has: thoroughly explored pertinent lines of thought? followed up on significant clues? Made an effort to identify sources of information? Employed critical challenges when needed? Thoroughly explored the potential of the visual environment, if videotaped?

3. Has the progam/project used recording equipment and media that are appropriate for the purposes of the work and potential nonprint as well as print uses of the material? Are the recordings of the highest appropriate technical quality? How could they be improved?

If videotaped, are lighting, composition, camera work, and sound of the highest appropriate technical quality?

4. In the balance between content and technical quality, is the technical quality good without subordinating the interview process?
These are the kinds of questions that ufologists HAVE to ask themselves before and after conducting interviews.

Interviewing Sins & Useful Advice

From An Archive Approach to Oral History (1978, at. pp. 15 - 16) by David Lance, at the time Keeper of the Department of Sound Records at the Imperial War Museum, some "sins" which interviewers should always avoid:
Interviewing Sins

1. Questions which are unnecessarily too long;

2. Questions which are not clear;

3. Questions, too frequently, which are answerable by "yes" or "no";

4. Combining several questions into one;

5. Interrupting a speaker with a secondary question before he has finished answering the first;

6. Failing to follow-up on a question which has not been fully answered;

7. Seeking, too often, for opinions and attitudes (particularly without establishing any factual basis for them);

8. Missing opportunities for follow-up questions which are "invited" by earlier answers;

9. Not asking for specific examples to illustrate general points which an informant has made; and

10. Jumping to and fro between one subject and another, or one time period and another.
Lance also offered these useful pieces of advice:
Generally, the degree of useful information in a recording is in direct proportion to the amount of interview preparation that has been carried out.

Interviews most conveniently follow a chronological pattern; start at the beginning and work systematically through the period which the particular project is concerned with.
Do not hurry the interview process. The pace of an interview depends mainly on the informant's personal capacity; the length depends on the amount of useful information he has to give. There should be no other personal factors to consider in deciding how much time to devote to each informant.
The purpose of oral history interviewing and recording is to collect interesting and significant information by questioning men and women about their personal experiences within prescribed subject areas. Interviews should be based mainly on activities or events in which informants were directly involved.
And finally, my favourite, which all SETI types and debunkers who think witness testimony is worthless should be forced to read; here, Lance quoted from Sir Basil Liddell-Hart, one of the great historians of the 20th century:

"History should be tested by the personal witness of those who took part in the [events]... The more that any writer of history has himself been... in contact with the makers, the more does he come to see that a history based solely on formal documents is essentially superficial."

Absolutely, one hundred per cent, true. However, in order to accomplish this goal, it is critical to remember that the researcher has to get it right in the field.

Oral History - A Starting Point for Ufologists

A ufologist who wants to interview witnesses owes it to himself, the interviewees, and ufology in general, to familiarise himself with oral research methodology. In "Q & A 101" I touched briefly upon some types of questions, and the general approach used by lawyers to interviewing / questioning witnesses.

The study of history shares much with the legal method, but can differ in some important respects as well. The following sources are excellent starting points for any ufologist genuinely interested in learning the nature of oral research methodology, which is a necessity if they want to have their work taken seriously.

Baum, Willa K. Transcribing and Editing Oral History (Nashville: American Association for State and Local History, 1977).

Davis, Cullom et al. Oral History: From Tape to Type (Chicago: American Library Association, 1977).

Dunaway, David K. and Willa K. Baum, eds., Oral History: An Interdisciplinary Anthology (London: Altamira Press, 1996).

Grele, R. J. Envelopes of Sound: The Art of Oral History 2nd Ed. (Chicago: Precedent Publishers, 1985).

Lance, David. An Archive Approach to Oral History (London: Imperial War Museum, 1978).

McMahan, Eva M. and Kim Lacy Rogers, eds. Interactive Oral History Interviewing (Hillsdale, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1994).

Thompson, Paul. The Voice of the Past: Oral History 2nd Ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988).

Vansina, Jan. Oral Tradition: A Study in Historical Methodology (London: Routldge & Kegan Paul, 1965).

I offer the following sage words of wisdom from Cullom Davis, Kathryn Back and Kay MacLean, from Oral History: From Tape to Type, at. p. 8:
Collecting oral history requires proficiency in such specialized skills as historical research, equipment operation, and interviewing; it also demands sensitivity, alertness and empathy on the part of the interviewers. Contrary to popular impression, preparation and interviewing can be tedious and tiring work, and sometimes even unproductive. Veteran oral historians have had their share of unsuccessful projects, and a bad interview will always remain a bad interview. Of some consolation (as well as anxiety) is the fact that collecting, if not the totality, is the sine qua non of oral history. Without a taped interview one can never have a transcript or a bound oral history memoir. Collecting is the crucial first stage of oral history and therefore it deserves careful attention and extensive practice by the novice.
Q & A 101

There are a number of methodological problems within ufology. To me, however, the most serious relates to the process of interviewing people who may or may not have something to offer to the study of the UFO phenomenon (these people are often, and incorrectly, as I have pointed out elsewhere, referred to as "witnesses" by ufologists).

There are many different ways to ask a person a question, or a series of questions. There is no one, absolutely correct way to do it - for example, a defense lawyer cross-examining a prosecution witness will often use leading questions, often requiring a simple "yes" or "no" answer, whereas, as a general rule, he is not permitted to use leading questions when examining his own witness (there are, as always, a number of specific exceptions that prove the rule); instead, he would use open-ended questions.

There are reasons for this rule, which can be discerned from an examination of both the types of questions that can be asked, and the effect they can have on the "witness" testimony that is given as a result.

For the purposes of ufology (and borrowing from Legal Interviewing and Counselling by David Binder and Susan Price), here are four basic categories of questions of which ufologists should be aware:

1. Open-ended questions - In general, questions can be classified in terms of the breadth of information that they seek to elicit from the interviewee. At one end of the spectrum are open-ended questions, which allow the interviewee to select the information related to a general subject which he believes is pertinent and relevant. A ufological example might go something like this: "Could you tell me what you observed on the mesa that day?"

2. Leading questions - At the opposite end of the spectrum is the leading question.The structure of this type of question provides all the data which the interviewer believes is pertinent or relevant. The question makes a statement and, in addition, suggests that the interviewee ought to affirm the validity of the statement. A ufological example might go something like this: "You saw a flying saucer on the mesa that day, did you not?"

Between the totally open-ended question at one end of the spectrum, and the absolutely leading question at the other end, there may be an infinite variety in the forms of question. There are, however, two other significant types of questions:

3. The Yes / No Question - These are phrased in such a way that the interviewee can respond with a simple "yes" or "no." A ufological example might be: "Were there police officers on the mesa?"

4. Narrow Questions - Narrow questions both select the general subject matter, and choose which aspect of the subject the interviewer wishes to discuss. In restricting the interviewee to discussing that aspect of the general subject which the interviewer has selected, the interviewer is asking the interviewee to put aside whatever notions he might have as to the importance of information, and adopt instead the priorities of the interviewer. A ufological example might be: "How old were the police officers that you saw?"
As a general rule of thumb, ufological interviewers should begin with, and try to stick to, as much as possible, open-ended questions; narrow questions can be employed to focus in on particular pieces of information for which the interviewer would like further clarification. The goal should be to use these two types of questions to elicit as much information as possible from the interviewee, without distorting the answer.

This last consideration should be paramount. There are many ways in which the type of questions that are asked can influence the accuracy with which interviewees recall and relate information. Here are four of which ufologists should be especially aware:

1. Improper use of leading questions - Assuming the interviewer knows best, the interviewee will often go along with the interviewer's suggestion rather than indicating he does not know the answer, or is unsure of the answer. By an unconscious use of leading questions, the interviewer can unwittingly lead an interviewee into adopting a favourable but ultimately inaccurate view of the event or situation being discussed.

2. Pressuring the interviewee for too much detail - People do not perceive all of the details of any given event; therefore, they cannot usually report precisely everything that occurred. When pressed for too much detail, they will often "fill in" the details they can't remember by taking what they can recall of the event, and then using logic to reconstruct the event by imagining details that would be consistent with the facts that they do remember. This is usually an unconscious process. An interviewer who states in advance what he believes happened, or who asks leading questions, may inadvertently encourage an interviewee to "reconstruct" events to fit in with the interviewer's version.

3. Obtaining conclusions which distort - In some instances, asking a person for a conclusion before obtaining the details on which the conclusion is based can lead to distortion. For example, if the interviewee is first asked, "Do you believe that flying saucers have crashed, and that the government has recovered them?" the person's "yes" or "no" answers may shape his subsequent reporting of a specific alleged crash retrieval case.

4. The use of too many narrow questions - As stated above, the focus of the interview should be to allow the interviewee to tell his story in his words, as fully as he can recall it. Unless he is given this opportunity, which can best be accomplished through open-ended questions, certain facts and details will often not emerge. As a consequence, the story he relates might be more limited than it otherwise would have been.
After all, as Mr. Justice Beck, of the Alberta Court of Appeal, wrote in Maves v. Grand Trunk Pacific Railway Company (1913), 14 D.L.R. 70, 73 - 77 (Alta C.A):

"The chief rule of practice relative to the interrogation of witnesses is that which prohibits 'leading questions,' ie. questions which directly or indirectly suggest to the witness the answer he is to give. The rule is, that on material points a party must not lead his own witness... if he were allowed to lead, he might interrogate in such a manner as to exact only so much of the knowledge of the witness as would be favourable to his side, or even put a false gloss upon the whole."

Common sense then; common sense now.


FletcherMunson said...

Thanks for the interesting post and the reading list! They will be helpful, for sure.

Do you think it's possible to frame narrow questions in such a way as to make the interviewee comfortable enough to say, "I don't know"?

Seemingly, too many "ufologists" often ask too many leading questions and (in my opinion) too few narrow questions. Right now, it just feels like a lot of these guys are dancing around the truth, but not quite nailing it down because they don't ask enough narrow questions to get a truer sense of the whole context of an event.

Instead, it seems like each "investigator" just stick to questions that only pertain to a thesis that they bring to an interview.

Of course, I could be totally wrong in this assessment. And, I know that different interviewers have different styles within the framework you've outlined here.

Nevertheless, would framing a narrow question with something like, "If you can't remember, it's fine, but..." and then asking the question do the trick? Would that structure keep the interviewee comfortable and not unduly influence his or her memory, while also possibly yielding some peripheral information or details that could be useful in the investigation?

Paul Kimball said...

The thing about people is that they're always going to try to please (this is assuming that they're telling the truth in the first place, as opposed to someone who is lying). Personally, I was taught to avoid drawing their attention to the possibility that they might not recall something, as that might actually get them thinking about it, even on a subconscious level, so that they might be inclined to try and fill in gaps, even when you don't ask them to. The best way to do it is to simply ask the question, take the information they give you initially, and then through proper follow-up questioning see if perhaps their answers might be expanded upon.

You're quite right, however, that leading questions are a major problem. Here's a particularly egregious example of leading the witness, part of the interview that Frank Feschino conducted with Colonel Dale Leavitt about the Flatwoods case, as recounted at pp. 55 to 61 of The Braxton County Monster. The inappropriate questions are highlighted, with the worst one also bolded:

"Feschino: Where did you have to send all this? Did you have to send it to Washington?

Leavitt: The Air Force, that's what they wanted me to do.

Feschino: And they never told you any of the results?

Leavitt: No results. Never. They never do.

Feschino: Why do you think that? Do you think?...

Leavitt: You think something's wrong?

Feschino: Do you think they were trying to cover something up?

Leavitt: [Caught off guard by the question] Maybe."

Feschino followed up this sequence by a later one when he again asked Leavitt about a cover-up, and Leavitt expressed his opinion that it was. The problem is that we'll never know whether that was Leavitt's real opinion, or the result of Feschino's leading questions and interview technique (another example, when discussing the oil Leavitt found on the ground - "Feschino: I guess spaceships have oil leaks too.")

Here's how this segment of the interview should have been conducted, and the answers that probably would have been given as a result.

"Feschino: What did you do with all of the stuff you collected?

Leavitt: We sent it to the Air Force.

Feschino: Where?

Leavitt: [Wherever it was sent]

Feschino: Did you ever hear back from the Air Force about what you sent to them?

Leavitt: No.

Feschino: Do you have any idea why?

Leavitt: It was standard procedure. Our job was to collect the material, theirs was to analyse it. I wouldn't have had a need to know, whatever it was."

I should add that even in this revised example that I've done, the question "do you have any idea why?" could be seen as problematic, but I think given the context, it would not be out of order.

FletcherMunson said...

That's a great point about many interviewees' innate need to please.

The reason I asked about narrow questions is because, with some investigators, there is a frustrating lack of context when it comes to reporting an incident. But I definitely see your point. Maybe a less rigid follow-up with an interviewee could help.

I heard an interview with Nick Pope a little while ago (in fact, you may have been involved) in which he spoke about the surprising lack of follow-up in the UFO field. That shocked me. I figured getting in touch with interviewee after the initial interview would be standard operating procedure for a UFO investigator -- if for nothing else, just to see if the interviewee has experienced any other strange activity. I know money can be a major factor in such decisions, though.

Sorry to think out loud here, but it just seems like there is a part of an explanation (or at least part of one) hiding in these cases that investigators could be ignoring or missing simply because it doesn't fit their pre-supposed definition of a UFO encounter.

Thanks again for the post and the reply.