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Gulen | Conducting Elite Interviews in Turkey and Israel

December 4, 2018

Berkay Gulen

Berkay Gulen is researching decision-making mechanisms in Turkey’s foreign policy change between 1991 and 2014 and the effects of this change on Turkish-Israeli relations. In addition to diving into speeches and other secondary source archives, she spent several months in 2017 and 2018 in both countries, collecting more than 80 interviews with key stakeholders – from retired and currently serving diplomats, to academics, think tank analysts, to journalists and business people.

Originally from Turkey herself, Gulen is completing her PhD in International Studies at UW and learned a great deal about conducting sensitive research in the field through her data collection. To share tips for conducting expert interviews and insights on best practices for research in Turkey and Israel, she shared her experience with the QUAL community in fall 2018.

Importance of Preparation

Berkay Gulen

PhD Candidate Berkay Gulen shared her sampling approach for elite interviews in Turkey and Israel.

The most important sources in Gulen’s research were the think tank and academic interviewees, she said. To gain access to them and retired and current diplomats, she started reaching out to her own contacts in Turkey in 2016, and asking them for referrals and introductions. The journalists and business people she met with became her liaisons.

In Israel, Gulen said she affiliated herself with a local think tank, which was instrumental in establishing trust relationships with contacts she made in the country. As a bonus, she gained a mentor from the think tank who served as her cultural informant who helped her prepare for and maximize her interviews.

Before her main fieldwork began in 2017, Gulen conducted several preliminary interviews in summer 2016 and fall/winter 2017. After each round of interviews, she shortened and simplified her questionnaires/semi-structured interview protocols. She also revised her questions for future interviews but emphasized the importance of not providing her interview questions to sources in advance, unless specifically requested. Sending the questions in advance tends to get people overly focused on the wording of the questions and sets them up to anticipate specific topics, which in turn makes it more difficult to ask follow up questions in the moment and lead a more organic conversation.

Berkay Gulen

Gulen explained what worked best in Turkey was different from the most effective approach in Israel when it came to securing interviews.

The most frequent push-back Gulen faced, in both countries, was a question – is she a spy and is the United States sponsoring her research. Her local Israeli think tank affiliation helped alleviate such concerns, she said. And her snowball, yet purposeful, sampling was another useful approach for building trust – she scheduled some interviews (not just the preliminary ones) just for background and in order to obtain referrals to more key sources.

Cultural Differences and Fieldwork Logistics

“Scheduling interviews before you arrive – it’s a beautiful dream,” Gulen told the grad students and faculty at her QUAL Speaker Series talk. She found that the best way to set up interviews in Turkey was when she was already in the country, by reaching out to contacts by SMS text and introducing herself, her affiliation, and what she is researching, and asking if she can call them to set up an in-person interview. In Israel, her university affiliation was also important, as both countries’ sources value higher education. Unlike Turkey, however, email (not just phone) was an effective introduction tool.

In Turkey, Gulen informed people upfront about her privacy policy, she did not record interviews and didn’t share her notes with anyone, including her advisor – thus putting source at ease and encouraging a more honest interview. In contrast, her Israeli think tank mentor told her recording the interviews in Israel would make people feel safer and trust the process more, so she always offered to record those conversations, asking for permission upfront.

Graduate students and faculty at Gulen's talk

Graduate students and faculty at Gulen’s talk discussed sampling and interview techniques.

What Gulen found worked well in both Turkey and Israel, was to Google her sources before each meeting, often in a few different languages, and make note of the top results -which served her well in establishing rapport with small talk in the beginning of each interview. She also advised those doing field work internationally to ask their cultural informants what is appropriate to bring when going to someone’s home for an interview. She also advised to budget accordingly and offer to pay the bill if meeting at a café or restaurant.

For more detailed tips from Gulen on how to plan for and conduct interviews abroad – including how and why to keep fresh notes, backup your data, and update your advisors on your progress in the field – see the slides from her talk.