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Pfaff | Lessons from Key Informant Interviews on Political Islam in Berlin

December 21, 2015

Steve Pfaff
"In qualitative research we're not as good at reporting our surprising findings," Pfaff told the audience. "We change our original expectations, we tweak those instead. But in the paper from this research I did, I said I didn't expect that."

More than 30 graduate students, faculty, and staff interested in qualitative multi-method research attended the inaugural Qualitative Multi-Method Research Initiative (QUAL) Speaker Series talk by sociology professor Steven Pfaff. On Nov. 19, 2015, Pfaff presented his 2005 study on political Islam in Germany as an anatomy of a qualitative research project – where he conducted interviews with key informants in Berlin. The project is a good example of how a PhD student or junior scholar might conduct qualitative research on a shoestring budget and with a limited timeframe for data collection, Pfaff said. Key lessons include:

  • Choose the Appropriate Instruments for the Research Question

Pfaff chose a qualitative research design (key informant interviews) because survey data available had few respondents and survey questions would have been insufficient for the depth he wanted to explore.

  • Field Work: Plan but Remain Flexible

With a $2,500 total project budget and just three weeks in Berlin, Pfaff had carefully identified the targets for his 40 key informant interviews – but despite meticulous planning and preparation, the response rate was low. Pfaff faced typical data collection obstacles in the field – last-minute rescheduling by busy sources, some language barriers, etc. In the end, he had a disappointing 12 interviews.

  • Stay Open to Unexpected Sources and Surprise Findings

Despite the low response rate of interviewees, Pfaff stumbled upon an unexpectedly productive meeting. A government official responsible for religious affairs became very interested in the research and gave Pfaff a lot of data he had gathered for a census on mosques, Islamic organizations, and Turkish immigrant associations in Berlin. The 12 interviews proved to be rich in surprises of their own.

  • Report the Unexpected Results of Qualitative Research

The surprises in his field work did not simply yield interesting data points, Pfaff actually concluded that his model, the one built on existing survey data and theory, was too structural.

  • On Skype Interviews

In some instances, Skype may be helpful and increase response rates from busy politicians and government officials. But in other instances, it is important to do an interview in person. The religious affairs government official who shared his Muslim organizations census data with Pfaff would not have likely been so helpful if that conversation took place over Skype.

  • On Snowball Sampling vs. “Representative” Samples

With hard to reach populations, snowball sampling is absolutely appropriate – asking each interviewee to refer the researcher to someone else they should talk with. “Representative” sampling in qualitative research is a different concept from that in quantitative methods. In qualitative work, it means being deliberate, intentional, and careful about selecting the targets for key informant interviews and being transparent about whose voices are represented and why and which voices were intentionally left out.

Steve Pfaff

“In qualitative research we’re not as good at reporting our surprising findings,” Pfaff told the audience. “We change our original expectations, we tweak those instead. But in the paper from this research I did, I said I didn’t expect that.”Valentina Petrova