December 10, 2009

How Too Many Interviewees Can Be a Problem

In Santo Domingo, Rene Vicioso, leader of the NGO “Bienvenido Seas,” has been helping me find people to interview for my project on the consequences of deportation. With his help, I have completed nearly 40 interviews in just three weeks. Really, it has been too many interviews, and too fast. The problem is that it is hard to say “no” when people begin to line up for interviews. The problem has become more severe in the past few days, and I finally had to put a stop to it. Let me explain.

On Saturday, Rene and I went to Los Guandules – a poor neighborhood in Santo Domingo close to the Ozama River. I was glad to have the opportunity to go to this neighborhood, as it likely would not be a good idea for me to show up there unaccompanied, looking for deportees. With Rene and another deportee from that neighborhood, there was no problem.

When we arrived in Los Guandules, Rene saw a deportee he knew and told him I was looking for deportees to interview. I thought I would be pushing it if I did four, but that it was feasible. I ended up doing six, as deportees from all over the neighborhood began to line up to be interviewed. When I told them I had to stop because there was no light in the community center, and because I was tired, a number of guys outside were disappointed. But, I told them I would be back the next day.

On Sunday, we went back. This time, I did eight. It was more than I wanted to do, but, again, the guys were lined up outside, waiting to be interviewed. As people knew guys were waiting outside, they tried to rush through the interview, and sometimes didn’t give full responses. At some points, the people outside yelled at the guy inside to hurry up. This was slowly dissolving into a disaster. Nevertheless, I kept going with the interviews.

Why, you must be wondering, were people lining up to do the interviews? At this point, it is pretty clear to me that it is because of the financial incentive. In the two previous countries where I did interviews – Guatemala and Jamaica – I also used a financial incentive and did not have this issue. I base my financial incentive on the minimum wage for a day’s labor. In Santo Domingo, I think I may have overestimated the minimum wage. A couple of people told me that it was 300 pesos, so I believed them. Plus, that is equivalent in dollars (US $8) to what I was giving people in Guatemala, a poorer country. When I asked Rene how much I should give interviewees, he suggested 300 pesos. It turns out that the minimum wage here is actually lower – about 3,000 pesos a month, meaning that I should be offering 150 pesos for the interviews.

Finding the right financial incentive is important. I want to compensate people in some form for their time. However, I do not want people to do the interview just for the money. The compensation is meant to be symbolic, not an incentive to do the interview. Live and learn, I suppose.

Anyway, back to my story. On Tuesday, we went back again to Los Guandules. At that point, I was not really interested in going back, but, did not want to offend Rene, who has been helping me tremendously. So, I agreed to go back again. On Tuesday, I completed ten interviews. Way too many for one day, but, it was too difficult to turn people away.

On Wednesday, Rene called me and asked me to meet him downtown. I was not sure what the plan was for the day. I brought my recorder, but did not bring copies of my interview guide. When I met Rene, I told him that I was no longer interested in doing interviews en masse. It has its merits – I was able to get lots of stories and have a very good idea of the profile of people who leave los Guandules in boats for the United States, and then are deported. However, it has its disadvantages – we don’t have the time to delve deeply into the story. I told Rene we could continue to do interviews, but just one at a time. He asked me if I could do two that day. I reluctantly agreed.

We walked a few blocks over to the edge of the Colonial City. Waiting for us in a park were twenty men – all deportees who wanted to be interviewed. I couldn’t believe it. I was in the same situation again. These men were not from Los Guandules, but from Maria Auxiliadora and Villa Francisca – two other poor neighborhoods also close to the Rio Ozama. This time, however, there were going to have to be a lot of disappointed people, as I was not going to do the en masse interviews. Rene told them I was only going to do two. We explained there had been some confusion and apologized. There was some grumbling, but it seemed to turn out okay.

My first interview was a mini-disaster. Halfway through the interview, he told me he had to hurry up because he was late for work. I had explained to him at the beginning that we were going to take our time, and he didn’t mention his time constraints. I suggested we stop and finish the interview another time. He said we could keep going a bit longer. We kept on talking, but eventually, he had to go to work. I should have cut the interview off when he first mentioned his rush, but, again, live and learn.

I was able to take more time with the second two interviewees. I did two more, as the first one had been rushed. After I finished, there were still about six guys hanging around. I told them I was sorry, but I couldn’t do more. They were disappointed, and asked for bus fare back home. I gave them 50 pesos each. Before doing that, however, I asked them to tell me when they had gone to the US and how long they were there before being deported. They each had spent about a year or less in the US, so their cases are less interesting for my project.

Overall, it was an interesting experience to interview over twenty people in just a few days. In terms of my research, I am not sure if I will be able to use all of the interviews. At this point, I can barely remember their stories. However, now, I need to sit down, listen to the recordings, and decide whether or not I will use the interviews.

The good news is that I still have plenty of time to complete more interviews – one at a time – if I need to.

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