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Elite interviewing

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Why is elite interviewing regarded as a research technique of particular relevance to politics ? Discuss its particular strengths and limitations in relation to political research.

       Increasingly, numbers of political analysts use and recognise elite interviewing as a major research method in modern political academics to obtain information and knowledge. One such reason is mainly because, there is a small social and economic elites who operate political power though, modern democracy promotes the participation of the citizen. Hence, elite interview plays a pivotal role in conducting political research and also in understanding the multifarious human interaction in the political apparatus. On the other hand it is not always the case where these interviews are agreed. The debate on how much "elite interviewing" should be brought into the political research is a vital question for current academics.

       In order to understand this type of research method in depth, firstly, this essay is going to define 'elite interviewing' and regarding it as a research technique of particular relevance to politics. Then the following paragraphs will examine the strengths and limitations of elite interviewing.

      When a researcher conducts a political research, a number of different methodological approaches are commonly applied in the questions to have a better insight what is the truth lies behind the topic. While various methods in political research limit respondent's reaction to a certain topic, interviews are not as superficial or as limiting the reaction. For instance, survey limits the respondent's answers and only produces statistical data, whereas an elite interview provides profound information that correlates to the process of power in political machine. Tim May emphasises on the richness of the interview method within political research by stating that "interviews yield a rich insight into people's biographies, experiences, opinions, values, aspirations, attitudes and feelings" (May, 2001:120). Hence elite interview considerably developed as main political research method to conduct and understand the works of political organisation.

      In the process of research, a researcher encounters problems with choosing types of interview among structured, unstructured and semi-structured. According to Stedward, researchers generally take the form of unstructured or semi-structured conversation between interviewer and interviewee in terms of interviewing elites, who has certain status or influence within an organization (Stedward, 1997:152). A "structured interview" is an interview that each person is asked same question in the same way so that any differences between answers are held to be real ones and not the result of the interview situation itself (May, 2001:121). Structured technique provides an element of statistical comparable data and so it is often used for survey research and quantitative research (i.e. marketing research).

       In contrast, "unstructured interviews" is said to provide it with an ability to challenge the preconceptions of the researcher, as well as enable the interview to answer questions within their own frame of reference (May, 2001:124). Basically, in this method, a researcher does not fix the structure of the interview, which means that interviewees are not limited in specific topics to go through. Instead it allows interviewees to induce the interview structure based on their specialising fields' knowledge.

      Another prominent research technique that can be used in elite interviewing is semi-structured interviews. This type of interview has similar characteristics to unstructured interview, due to a flexible agenda. Questions of semi-structured interviews normally have specific areas to cover, but interviewers can avoid the structure boundary in order to find out the truth of an interviewee, which would appear in his/her manner during an interview. In semi-structured interview, the researcher can reasonably arrange the structure of interview by using open-ended question. One such encourages interviewee to speak more freely about the subject in depth. Therefore, this type of interview is basically and most commonly used in elite interviewing and it will be discussed later in the following content.

      There is a distinctive point to notice in several forms of interviews mentioned above. One such point is that unlike the way how researchers have the control and guide the interview by using structured interview with fixed questions, unstructured interview allows the interviewee, i.e. elites, to conduct its own frame of interview.

      To truly understand the concept of elite interviewing, one has to understand the meaning of the term 'elite' as well as the methods indicated above. The word 'elite' is used to describe a small minority who has a privileged status within society due to their superior education and knowledge, giving them a dominant role within that society. Therefore, the definition of elite interviewing consists of two parts in learning about the methods used for the interview and also in the actual individual being interviewed. This also means that elite interviewing can be defined as an elite interviewing can be used whenever it is appropriate to treat a respondent as an expert about the topic in hand. (Stedward, 1997:151) In other words, any mother of young children can be said as elite, if the researcher was to search about current behaviour and habits about children in home. It should be noted that not everyone agrees with this definition but most believe that political studies has always been correlated to the structure and analysis of power. When power exists, politics, it can be argued, is taking place. Hence, political studies must concentrate on providing an understanding of the inspirations and opinions behind a person in power. This is so especially important because these individuals have such a foremost role in determining world events and it is for this reason that elite interviewing is such a crucial method in the field of political research.

      This political research into understanding the importance of these ruling elites is so important because the elites are the principal leaders of politics. Therefore, as Burnham suggests, elite interviews are often the most effective way to obtain information about decision-makers and the decision making process (Burnham et al, 2004:205). When one realises this connection, it seems natural to assume that understanding the beliefs, outlooks and exchanges of the elites consequently leads to an understanding of how politics work. However, the collection of data of these factors is very limited. Records of politicians' votes in Parliament or in other meetings do not necessarily offer complete insight into the workings of politics. This has led to extensive research through the means of elite interviewing.

      The reason why elite interviews have been chosen for this form of research is because they offer information into actions of which we know little about such as policy decisions that are out of the media and public eye. The interview offers further insight into the inner webs of politics and into the roles, views, interactions and responses of political heavyweights. Elite interviewing gives the researchers information that could not necessarily be obtained through official documents of the government or through the media, although the researcher should also be wary of exaggerated or fictional accounts. Another advantage of these elite interviewing is that while most politicians are far from being specialists in the inner-workings of a government policy, they hold important information into the producers and policy-makers of the government. And certainly, the politicians who are elite interviewed are the only ones who can give a true and real insight their own aspirations and subsequently their own actions undertaken within the political frame.

      In addition, elite interviewing is useful for many reasons for meeting a person face-to-face can help the process of obtaining data for a research. One such advantage is that the elites who are being interviewed may provide information about their personal backgrounds, goals and aspirations. Secondly, the assumption, that elites are experts in their fields, leads to interviews being an opportunity for the interviewer to find out information and also learn new, personal insight of the interviewee. As Ethridge puts it, in the hands of a skilled researcher this research method can produce very detailed information, not least because interviewer can ask follow up questions to clarify ambiguous responses, probe in new directions and elicit information from reluctant subjects (Ethridge, 1990:193). Thirdly, being able to interview the elite may lead to institutional rapport and thus, help in accessing other forms of important, needed data sources such as official papers and corrupted government officials/representatives or documents, which very rarely occur during research. However, obtaining such vital information by elites is possible because elites are often on the pinnacle of wherever they work, whether that is in a firm, a government or society.

      However, it should not be taken for granted that elite interviewing is necessarily a perfect form of research technique because of the long preparation required for such research. As elites are very limited (hence the term 'elite'), they are often hard to track down. This problem is much easier to deal with if the person to be interviewed is a politician. These men have secretaries and offices to publicly promote themselves but some elites have decided to stay out of the public eye (especially if that person has decided to retire) and the increase in research time at locating these people should not be underestimated. Even when this problem has been solved, persuading these elites to take part in the research may, in some people's opinion, be a harder task and indeed, many researchers are very unsuccessful in obtaining the good will of the elites.

      The list of problems does not end there for one should take into account the distances between the researcher and the elite, if the researcher has been fortunate enough to have had a positive response from the elite. At the rare exception of certain elites who stay within one area, most elites move around the world and being able to track down each one of them when under limited time and finance is a difficult, if not impossible, task. Finally, we should remember that these elites have been constantly exposed to other forms of media and know the dangers of being misinterpreted by the press. Although this exposure to the media helps these men to be much more articulate and knowledgeable, it also means interviewees are often unwilling to answer certain types of questions or topics that may be sensitive to them.

      Not only these potential disadvantages which stated above are the limitations, but also there are more within elite interviewing. When one reviews the disadvantages of elite interviewing, the conclusion is that additional secondary data is needed to reinforce the views and outlines obtained through elite interviewing. According to Hertz and Imber, the best research on elites combines different forms of methodological approaches to develop the research findings (Hertz and Imber, 1995:p.ix cited in Burnham et al, 2004:202). One such method is known as 'triangulation,' which is type of research where empirical data or a broad sample of interviews is obtained to strengthen the arguments of elite interviewing. However, there is still a problem and perhaps the most important problem within elite interviewing. Interviewees, as human beings, are susceptible to giving an account that has been influenced by human emotions. Consequently, interviewees may justify or overstate their actions and roles to support their claims, which under certain extreme circumstances may be twisted to even be a false claim. According to a research by Darren G Lilleker (2003:211), a colleague of his did a research asking thirteen prominent individuals about their role in determining the government policy on the Suez Crisis in 1980s. The replies of these 13 men shocked the colleague for every account was nearly completely different to each other with majority stating that they had "misgivings" about the way the situation was handled. In these accounts, the unanimous decision was that the British Prime Minister at that time, Anthony Eden, was wholly to blame for the crisis. It seemed almost ironic to point out that he had died already and could not defend himself against these allegations. As a result, Darren G Lilleker concluded that elite interviewing led to elites pointing fingers at each other when a problem occurred and especially to where the scapegoating could not be contested and disputed.

      A researcher should remember this problem is inevitable so it is not in the interests of a researcher to criticise the interviewees. Instead a researcher should remember that it is they who must not be subjective and not be influenced by some rather more persuasive accounts by certain people and be biased as a result. A subjective account of events may not necessarily be a biased account and instead be the reality researchers are on the lookout for. Yet this leads us to realise that researches can just as be biased as an interviewee's account.

      In conclusion, some critics argue that elite interviewing (in terms of qualitative research methods) is sometimes lacking validity and reliability. It also misses rigour of quantitative research, producing 'soft' data that is subjective and not easy to replicate (Jupp, 2006:249). Despite the fact, the qualitative research like elite interviewing has increasingly been recognised and utilised for political research to obtain information about political process.

      However, elite interviewing should not be used as the only method of research because of its many limitations. What it does do is offer a preliminary basis on where the research can start to probe, test and prove its hypotheses and conclusions. This preliminary basis can only be supplemented through further research such as the one stated above: triangulation. It is only through this way a research can avoid becoming biased or subjective and instead offer credible solutions to a problem. Moreover, if this interview is carried out by capable researcher, then the effectiveness of elite interviewing will make a greater contribution to political knowledge and understanding. (2,265 words)


Berry, M. (2001) 'Validity and Reliability Issues In Elite Interviewing' in Tufts University: Department of Political Science


Burnham, P., Gilland, K., Grant, W., and Layton-Henry, Z., (2004) Research Methods in Politics, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan

Bryman, A., (2004) Social Research Methods (2nd edn), Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Ethridge, M., (1990) The Political Research Experience: Reading and Analysis, London: M.E. Sharpe.

Da Rocha, M., 'Elite interviewing- advantages and limitations within political research' in Mimersbrunn


Dexter, L.A., (1970) Elite and Specialised Interviewing, Evanston: Northwestern University Press.


Jupp, V., (2006) The SAGE Dictionary of Social Research Methods, London: SAGE Publications Ltd.

Lilleker, Darren G.., (2003) 'Interviewing the Political Elite: Navigating a Potential Minefield', Politics, vol.23, no.3, pp.207-214.


May, T., (2001) Social Research: Issues, methods and process (3rd edn), Buckingham: Open University Press.

Stedward, G.., (1997) 'On the Record: An Introduction to Interviewing' in Burnham, P., (1997) Surviving the Research Process in Politics, London: Pinter.





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