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An Analysis of “The Art of Hearing Data”

by on September 20, 2011

Qualitative Interviewing: The Art of Hearing Data

Herbert J. Rubin and Irene S. Rubin

The Rubin reading, entitled Qualitative Interviewing: the Art of Hearing Data, analyzes the components of not only a good interview in and of itself, but also the proper techniques in finding the perfect interviewee. The Rubins claim that the people who will be most advantageous to interview should be: knowledgeable about the topic, have a willingness to discuss it openly, and an array of opinions if the topic involves different views (66). With these three criteria in mind, the researcher can begin interviewing individuals who are important in the specific field of interest. These types of people are what Rubin refers to as “encultured informants” who he defines as “individuals who know the culture well and take it as their responsibility to explain what it all means” (66). If the interviewer successfully portrays their full and deep understanding of the material at hand, this first interviewee could give names of other “encultured informants” and create a social network that will allow the researcher an accessibility they didn’t have previously. Once the researcher has obtained interviews to the point that they are no longer learning anything new and feel they have a complete understanding of the topic, Rubin claims they have reached “completeness” (72). From here, the next step is called the “saturation point” (72) where the researcher goes beyond the circle they have been interviewing to see similarities or differences in people of other areas surrounding the same topic.


Besides understanding the topic being researched, the interviewer must portray to the person they are conversing with that they have a deep knowledge of the material including special terms and concepts. Using this technique, the ‘encultured informant’ feels comfortable discussing the topic at hand without dumbing it down or simplifying the important details. Rubin expresses the importance of fully understanding the narratives of interviewees and their descriptions, or nuance, when he says, “life is lived in details” (78).

I find myself thinking not of a specific article right away that applies to this reading, but class in general. Everyone has a different vantage point, like the theatre in the round that Rubin uses as an example in finding interviewees. When we discuss an article in class, there are ‘encultured informants’ who understand, for example, a political science paper better than an anthropology major. In a way, the semester as whole is like our topic, and everyone plays their own role in being the interviewers and interviewees. We are forced to search for examples in order to apply “shades of meaning” (81) and clarify our ideas and shape them to better fit our understanding of a topic. As far as readings go, anytime that someone in the article was interviewed, these steps were probably at hand. Paul Stoller’s article, The Taste of Ethnographic Things: The Senses in Anthropology, represents these interviewing techniques. For another class I took, I actually had to read the book that he references later in his article called The Sorcerer’s Shadow. In the snips he provides from this ethnography, he shows a conversation that provides the same insight that could be obtained through an interview. He discusses ideas in the Songhay language so that they are comfortable talking to him and he respects their culture. He is able, through his interviews with various people in the village, learn the complex system behind this culture.


Some Questions:

Although the Rubins summarize in a few sentences that it might be beneficial to put a narrative alongside an interview that describes what the interviewee is doing (twitching, smiling, laughing…etc), do you think that these seemingly small actions could influence the true meaning of what they are saying? If so, how could it be harmful to the overall project if these small actions were overlooked?

Another topic that the Rubins briefly covered was the ‘testing’ of the interviewees memory of an event that the researcher themselves attended. This would allow the researcher to see differences in the way the interviewee sees an event. Would doing this change the main idea of the paper? That is, analyze the ways in which seeing an event differently could be beneficial, or potentially harmful, to the research on a topic.



  1. 242colleencarey permalink

    Rubin’s suggestion of putting a narrative alongside an interview that describes what the interviewee is doing would be very beneficial. People’s expression say a lot about them and what they are saying. Their expression enables viewers to get a real sense of the interviewee’s feelings behind the topic. Not only does it enable viewers, but it shows how comfortable they are talking about the subject being discussed. Rubin gives the title “encultured informants” to be people that are “knowledgeable about the topic, have a willingness to discuss it openly, and an array of opinions if the topic involves different views.” Small actions and emotions could reveal if one is an “encultured informant” or not.
    Seeing an event differently can be very beneficial to a research topic. A good researcher wants to take into account many points of view and perspectives on a topic; this enables the researcher to have a holistic understanding of a topic. People’s background and past also influences the way in which they understand and see an event. It could be beneficial to the researcher to take this into account and understand that aspect of people.


  2. This article immediately reminded me of “The Taste of Ethnographic Things: Introduction: A Return to the Senses” by Paul Stoller. Stoller emphasized that instead of taking the narrow path on ethnographic studies, he suggest to slow down, broaden your view and use your senses-sight, touch, taste, feel, and smell in order to gather a more comprehensive story (Stoller 9). By being engaging, repetitive, curious, honest, communicative, and using his senses, Stroller was able to give the reader a story behind Djebo’s bad sauce in “Tastes in Anthropology.” Djebo’s bad sauce was her way of showing “anger formed form a complex of circumstances” (Stoller 22) Stoller captured this story just like Rubin suggest in his article “Qualitative Interviewing.” In Rubin’s article, he suggests, “researchers ask about complicated cultural behavior and multistep processes” (Rubin 7). Stoller does this by providing in-depth interviews with individual members of the family and people within the compound regarding Djebo’s bad sauce; it’s implications, and the normal cultural practices around this sauce.

  3. I think describing the “small actions” can absolutely be helpful when determining what someone is saying. Most body language is unintentional. The way we speak with our bodies almost says more than the way we use our words. As far as the second question is concerned, I think the idea of testing someones memory is an interesting and potentially effective one. I feel like, if you weren’t there, then you’re never going to know for sure what happened. If we get as many perspectives as possible, it might be convoluted, but it also gives us more raw data to work with, and works as a catalyst for us to form our own opinions and think critically.

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