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Elite interviewing is a method of obtaining information about a specific sample considered to be elite members of society who may be politicians or civic, economic, social, cultural, military, and intellectual leaders. The classic work on the topic of elite interviewing was written by Lewis Anthony Dexter in 1970. One example of elite interviewing is Harriet Zuckerman’s detailed interviews with Nobel laureates who won prizes from 1907 to 1972 and were living in the United States at the time.
A researcher should ensure that the information about and from this sector of society cannot be obtained elsewhere before embarking on elite interviewing so as not to waste time and effort. Elite interviewing requires being well prepared for the interview. Direct verbal interaction between individuals is used when face-to-face contact is imperative, when immediate responses are desirable, and when such use is feasible, meaning that there is a small sample, adequate financial support, and an availability of well-trained interviewers.
In elite interviewing, the usual interviewing rules do not apply. Because elites are used to being the focus of attention, standardized questions that are not tailored directly to them should not be asked. The interviewer(s)—an individual, a team of two or more interviewers, or a group—should do their homework, memorize the questions, and ask them in whatever order the conversation allows, letting the questions drive them to the heart of the research question. Elite interviewing allows the researcher flexibility to deviate from the set pattern of questions and probe areas of interest or vagueness. The greater communication between the interviewer and interviewee permits immediate checking on information, thus ensuring the reliability of the content by using rephrased questions or asking questions again.
There are certain drawbacks of the elite interviewing method, including cost in terms of time and money, problems determining the worthiness of the information obtained and the truthfulness of that information, and problems that arise from the interviewer’s bias and subjectivity.
Elite interviewing entails taking down quick keynotes to capture core issues because writing down answers during the interview process may be viewed as a discourtesy and a distraction that takes away from the flow of the interview. The interviewer therefore should jot down a few key terms and transcribe those notes immediately after the interview. Taping (audio or video) becomes acceptable as long as the interviewee is sure of the purpose and is guaranteed confidentiality. The key to a successful elite interview is making sure that nothing in the process is threatening or damaging to the interviewee’s self-esteem. A good elite interview benefits not only the researcher but also the respondents when they are able to speak to a good
listener, reflect on their thoughts on various issues, reminisce about past experiences, get stimulated intellectually by thinking about issues not often considered, and express views candidly without fear of the consequences. In this sense a good interviewer can obtain much information by watching out for body language and recognizing that silence can be expressive.
Suggestions for a successful elite interview include having a clearly defined objective; using terms that are operationally defined and explained to the interviewer and interviewee, and preferably pretested; and training interviewers via simulations and apprising them of the need to be ethical and to maintain confidentiality. Likewise, it is best to ascertain the optimum time for an interview, not too long, leaving both parties tired and bored, but not too short, resulting in one’s missing out on important information.
- Dexter, L. A. Elite and Specialized Interviewing. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1970.
- Johnson, Janet Buttolph, and H.T. Reynolds. Political Science Research Methods. Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2005.
- Lang, Gerhard, and George D. Heiss. A Practical Guide to Research Methods. 5th ed. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1994.
- Lasswell, Harold D., Daniel Lerner, and C. Easton Rothwell. The Comparative Study of Elites: An Introduction and Bibliography. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1952.
- Maxwell, Joseph A. Qualitative Research Design: An Interactive Approach. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage, 1996.
- Weisberg, Herbert F., John A. Krosnick, and Bruce D. Bowen. An Introduction to Survey Research, Polling, and Data Analysis. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage, 1996.
- Zuckerman, Harriet. Scientific Elites: Nobel Laureates in the United States. New Brunswick, N.J.:Transaction, 1996.
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