I recently completed my 100th interview as part of my dissertation project on the role of public and private interests in shaping the content of climate policy in California, Massachusetts, and Oregon. That means that 100 state legislators or their staff, executive branch agency heads or their staff, environmental and consumer advocates and industry lobbyists (some, but hardly all, now retired) decided it was worth anywhere from 20 minutes to 2.5 hours of their precious time to help a graduate student understand their fascinating world, and how it works.
I am immensely grateful to these individuals for their time, their perspective, and their candor, which will greatly enhance my ability to advance scholarly knowledge in my dissertation.
Although the project is not yet done, I wanted to take this opportunity to reflect on my experiences with doing these first 100 interviews, and what I learned from the process. Here are my main takeaways (other than the substance of what I learned, which readers will have to wait for the dissertation/book and articles for, except for some attendees of the upcoming political sociology mini-conference in New York City, who will only have to wait 2 more days ):
State politics and policy making are hugely important and few people – including many scholars – realize the extent to which this is true. But those who work in and around it certainly do. Given the polarization and dysfunction in Washington, D.C., people are finally starting to catch on, but I found it striking how unaccustomed many of the folks I interviewed were to academics being interested in talking to them about what they do. Only very few news outlets that very few people follow cover the ins and outs of state-level politics and policymaking. And reserachers’ interest in generalizability can sometimes make it unappealing to study a few states in great depth. But talk to just a few of these folks that I did and you’ll quickly realize what a mistake it is for us not to be paying attention to them. If you don’t believe me, you can read Ben Merriman’s book, Conservative Innovators, Alex Hertel-Fernandez’s book, State Capture, or Sarah Anzia’s article, “Looking for Influence in All the Wrong Places: How Studying Subnational Policy Can Revive Research on Interest Groups.” Okay, fine, so I’m not the only one paying attention to state politics … but still, I think more people should.
Informants don’t remember stuff that happened a long time ago … until they do. One of the challenges of doing policy-focused, historical research that uses interviews is that people do not so clearly remember stuff that happened 10+ years ago. At least not right away. It was amazing how many people at first said things like “I’m kind of fuzzy on the details” or “Oh gee, how could you expect me to remember that?” But jog their memory with stuff you found in the archives, with stuff you were told from other informants, or stuff you read in old newspapers, and suddenly, they can’t stop talking about how much they remember. It’s amazing. I learned that pairing archival and interview-based research is indispensable for projects like mine. When the researcher does her/his homework beforehand, the informant accounts become sharper and more reliable. At least that’s what I found.
Persistence, professionalism, and politeness are the three “P”s that constitute the “secret sauce” for gaining access to political actors. This population is extremely busy and in some cases disinterested or reluctant to talk to researchers. So what’s the secret to gaining access? I can only speak from my own experience, but for me, I think the three “P”s were key.
Persistence – I found that if the initial contact didn’t work (especially if was by email), it was tempting to get discouraged. What if the potential informant is simply not interested? That may be the case, but I found that through the right combination of follow-up phone calls, tapping into social networks through referrals (keep in mind some IRB protocols may not allow for this), and in rare cases, showing up unannounced at the person’s office, was a very effective strategy. Often people were simply busy or hesitant to engage when they had no clue what the project was about or what role they may play in it. Showing up unannounced may sound a bit extreme and, sure, it didn’t always work, but I found that, when it worked, it often worked for the same reason that traveling to the person tended to work better than trying to get a hold of them over the phone: people tend to think, “If this person is willing to go to such lengths to get my attention or interest, maybe it’s actually worth me paying attention or being interested.”
Professionalism – needless to say, persistence without professionalism is no good. Throughout the entire process, I found that it was helpful to treat informants professionally. I respected their choice to say things off the record, I offered to run quotes by them in context before I publish them, and I assured them I’d communicate with them throughout the process.
Politeness — similar to professionalism (and perhaps not independent from it), being polite was an essential secret to my success. Indeed, I found that pairing persistence with both professionalism and politeness was key. I addressed people by their formal titles, in cases in which they had them, I told them (repeatedly) how much I valued their time, and I always sent them a thank you note afterwards.
Overall, doing these interviews has been a great experience. Not only am I excited about what they’ll mean for my research, but the experience reminded me why sometimes being an extrovert in academia isn’t such a bad thing, and can even be an asset. And now, on to the transcribing (which I’m very grateful to have two research assistants helping me with) and coding!