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Created: January 31, 2002
Latest Update: March 1, 2002

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Methods: On Asking the Right Questions

Copyright: Jeanne Curran and Susan R. Takata and Individaul Authors, March 2002.
"Fair use" encouraged.

Since I normally tell you there are no "right" answers, how can there be "right" questions? Magic. A "right" question is one that serves as a probe to broad questions that run the risk of bewildering or intimidating our respondents. It is a question in which we do our homework, so that we don't foist the burden of thinking through the problem off on our respondents.

A graduate student at USC wanted to describe the importance of higher education to many facets of life. She passed out questionnaires with such questions as "What does your Ph.D. mean to you?" That was not the "right" question. She was essentially asking us to think through her subject and offer it to her on a platter. So she shouldn't have been surprised that most of us answered "money." It was simple; it was stupid; it got her out of our faces. We didn't have time to write her dissertation for her.

If the question is so broad that you won't be able to know what is meant by the answer, then you haven't done your homework. For example, "money" in some cases may mean "I want a secure income, and my education will provide that." But it might also have meant "I want to qualify for a raise and promotion, and my education will help with that." Or it might have meant "I could be more creative in curriculum development if my salary permitted me to not worry about everyday concerns." Or it might have meant "I want to get my parents off my back, so I can get on with my life." Money says all that, and lots, lots more.

So, if you want to know how people feel about the economic value of their higher education, then ask specific questions that will let them know what you're looking for:

  • Is it important to you that your education guarantee you a secure income?
  • Is your higher education essential to progress along your career path?
  • Does the income promised by your higher education matter in terms of freeing you to work more creatively with substantive issues in your field?
  • Does the income promised by your higher education matter in terms of freeing you of monetary worries?
  • Does the income promised by your higher education matter in terms of establishing status?
  • Does the income promised by your higher education matter in terms of satisfying someone else's demands for your economic welfare?
  • And so on . . . .

Notice how much less frustrating it is to answer these questions than the "what does your Ph.D. mean to you?" In an interview, we sometimes ask the very general question, but then probe with specific questions so that the respondent doesn't flounder uncomfortably, struggling to figure out what it is we want. Remember, if you perplex me, I'm less likely to cooperate with what you're trying to get me to do. Lead me gently. Think through probes. Give me a hint of what you're looking for.

With that brief introduction, let's trun to Jolie's questions:

    Questions ( I am focusing on mainly women for my study)

  1. What is the role of women? Are women dominated or equal to the men?

    Holy Toledo, Jolie! How would you answer that for the US? The role of women is to have babies? to raise children? to nurture? to work? to find a husband? what on earth do you want Father Peter to tell you? My smart ass streak would probably have answered "have babies." And you know me well enough to know that that would have given you no clue of where I was really coming from. It was the first answer that came to my mind that clearly indicated a role that only women could take.

    How could we adapt that question to let Father Peter know what you are really asking him?

      How about: "in Zambia, in the areas with which you worked"

    1. Do women's roles include both work within the family and outside the home?
    2. Are there opportunities for women to get paid work outside the home?
    3. If there are such opportunities is there ample paid work for women, or is it competitive to find such work?
    4. Do women take primary responsibility for caring for the children?
    5. Is it soscially acceptable for men to share caring for the children?
    6. Is it normative, or usual for men's role to include caring for the children?

    You get the idea. Give Father Peter a fairly concrete idea of what you're looking for. If you're barking up the wrong tree, he'll step in with ideas of his own.

    And the second half of that question. You don't even give him credit for a whole question on this. "Are women dominated or equal to the men?" Yikes, to borrow a phrase from Susan! You want a book or two on gender in Zambia? What would you consider examples of cases in which women are dominated? Are you looking for agency, free decision-maing ability, limits to physical freedom, limits to economic freedom, access to paid labor and its freeing effects, or domestic violence? And what does it mean "equal to the men." You probably had something in mind. Give Father Peter a clue as to what that was.

    And that's only one question! What about all these others?

  2. What social behavior contributes to women catching and spreading aids? (could you please explain ka-ja again?)Have you hear of the men with AIDS "cleansing" their body by sleeping with a virgin?

  3. What kind of education do women get concerning aids? (Church or other)

  4. When a woman has AIDS how is she treated in the community?

  5. If a woman has AIDS what kind of health care is available?

  6. Finally, in your opinion, what can be realistically done to prevent the spread of AIDS?

So What Do I Do Next?

Hmm . . . . . I think the first thing you should do is break these questions down to include much more specific probes. To do that, you'll need to consider just how much emphasis you want to give to each facet.

With women's roles, there may be some you are more interested in than others. With equality, there may be some aspects of particular concern to you. Consider which roles, and which kind of equality would matter most with respect to women who have AIDS. For example, if child care in Zambia is seen normatively as woman's role, then one of the needs the woman with AIDS might have is a community sharing of roles she can no longer manage. Conceptually linking each of these questions to your topics of main concern will help you eliminate aspects of women's role which are of little concern to you.

For example, if women are lifted in spirit by wearing colorful clothes or scarves or makeup or whatever, then women with AIDS might need some communal sharing of care taking to see that the woman has such bright colors and cheerful bits of finery to lift her spirits. Your concern there is not really whether men, too, rely on color and paint and feathers or whatever, but that individuals who are sick are guided in adding to their daily regimen small things that will make life more bearable.

Maybe someday we'll find ourselves sending Father Peter colorful little scarves for the whole village to add to their clothes and make themselves feel pretty and hopeful. It's little caring things that people everywhere can do for each other that make a difference in how we feel about our lives. UNESCO can provide funds. But love has to come from our understanding their culture well enough to know what we might be able to share with them. Focus on questions that will make them real to us.

As you follow this path, I'll try to locate additional sources of this data. But I think if you'll just send Father Peter a small list of such questions, he'll answer you far more easily. I'll bet he's struggling right now with trying to write your thesis for you.

love and peace, jeanne