Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

On ‘Elite’ Interviewing in Semi-Secretive Jurisdictions



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As many DPhil/PhD students in criminology and other social science disciplines come to realise, utilising semi-structured ‘elite’ interviews as a qualitative research methodology[1] involves a steep learning curve.  This post relays part of what I was able to learn from two separate fieldwork journeys to Southeast Asia during my DPhil at the Centre for Criminology (2010-2013).  The first trip, from September 2011 to January 2012, comprised fieldwork interviews in Singapore and in Malaysia’s capital city Kuala Lumpur.  The second trip, from September 2012 to April 2013, was to conduct similar fieldwork interviews in Bangkok, Thailand, and in Jakarta, Indonesia, either side of a stint as a visiting research scholar at the University of Western Australia’s Crime Research Centre in Perth.  The interviews I conducted in Southeast Asia concerned the use of the death penalty in each relevant jurisdiction, and in particular the executive clemency power and questions over its incidence vis-à-vis executions in each state.  I spoke with lawyers, judges, prosecutors, NGO staff, academics and journalists, comprising 64 interviews in total.  The reason for conducting interviews was simple enough – executive clemency’s decision-making process and case-based justifications are opaque in most jurisdictions.  More generally, within the literature on the topic, Lilleker has acknowledged that interviews have the potential to provide:

insights into events about which we know little: the activities that take place out of the public or media gaze, behind closed doors ... interviews can provide immense amounts of information that could not be gleaned from official published documents or contemporary media accounts. (Lilleker, 2003: 208)

However, not all I needed to know could be found in the relevant academic literature,[2] or even in the Department of Politics and International Relations’ otherwise excellent semester-long course on interviewing.  In my own research, I faced particular difficulties arranging and conducting interviews as a non-citizen within four jurisdictions with semi-secretive criminal justice systems.  Below, I provide several practical suggestions to other researchers interested in conducting interviews on politically-sensitive criminal justice topics such as the death penalty, building on a chapter I wrote for Professors Mary Bosworth, Carolyn Hoyle and Lucia Zedner’s new book, Changing Contours of Criminal Justice (Pascoe, 2016).  Many of the following issues do not arise to the same extent when interviewing powerbrokers inside the UK’s more transparent institutions, or generally when interviewing within the researcher’s own country of citizenship.[3]

1. On breaking the law in entering the jurisdiction or in obtaining information

Knowingly risking deportation, imprisonment, or worse, is of course a bad idea, and such proposals are unlikely to be approved by university ethics committees anyway.  For example, in my own case, Vietnam’s official death penalty statistics are a state secret that I could not gain access to without violating national law and committing a criminal offence (Prime Minister’s Decision No 01/2004/QD-TTg, 5 January 2004; Hood & Hoyle 2015).

Nonetheless, particularly with immigration laws, there are grey areas that researchers can explore.  For example, doctoral researchers may not fall into any of the established visa-entry categories (involving ‘hard’ scientific research, journalism, internships, or visiting professorships) and might instead qualify for visa-free entry.  When exploring these ambiguities, the researcher ought to consider a balancing approach: is the information obtainable through in-country interviews worth the potential risk (de Búrca, 2014)?  Moreover, is the information obtainable any other way (such as by telephone or skype interviews)?  If a doctoral researcher does decide to conduct in-country fieldwork, then depending on the jurisdiction concerned, he or she may only have one chance to obtain the data, before becoming ‘known’ to the authorities after publishing the results.  Ask the right questions, but ask lots of other questions too!

If entry visas become an obstacle, when is conducting in-country meetings with potential interviewees not considered ‘research’ at all?  Keeping a close eye on the precise immigration laws of each jurisdiction, several questions to consider in planning fieldwork are these: can the researcher meet with the intended interviewees as part of short-term official academic conferences?  Does merely ‘talking to’ people about a stated topic count as interviewing them, if these discussions are not cited in the final publication?[4]  Uncited, informal conversations (rather than ‘semi-structured’ interviews) with experts still have the potential to result in new archival leads, and further contacts with interviewees present in jurisdictions where research is not so restricted.  This is akin to the well-established ‘snowballing’ approach (Davies, 2001).  Likewise, is it possible to interview permanently exiled residents of the jurisdiction under study, as I did with a prominent Singaporean political figure, or residents on temporary overseas visits (so long as the conversation does not threaten their life, liberty or career once they return)?

2. In a semi-secretive jurisdiction or not, at some stage the interviewer may know more about the topic than do the interviewees

In conducting interviews, after one assertion is corroborated (Davies, 2001), there is a law of diminishing returns.  When a doctoral researcher reaches this stage, or even beforehand as a hypothesis develops, it is important not to put ‘words in the mouth’ of remaining interviewees.  The best advice here is to use open questioning (Halperin & Heath, 2016), refer back to the interview’s semi-structured plan, and develop an awareness of how the interviewer’s presence affects the interviewee’s responses (O’Sullivan et al, 2016).  If the interviewee’s answers refute the interviewer’s hypothesis, the write-up must acknowledge this, just as quantitative researchers still report outlying data points.

3. Conducting research on a politically-sensitive topic in a semi-secretive jurisdiction places an awesome responsibility on the researcher not to ‘create’ false knowledge

A historical narrative on an opaque, under-researched topic born of erroneous ‘elite’ interview data may mislead for many years afterwards.  There are several ways to counter this danger: first, as described above, to allow the interview data to speak for itself, whether or not it supports an existing theory or hypothesis.  Second, to use ‘elite’ interviews as part of a triangulation strategy, alongside official government records, media reports and NGO publications (Davies, 2001; Merriam, 1995).  Employing ‘elite’ interviewing methodology is not an excuse for being lazy with documentary materials, even though the researcher may face exactly the same problems of access within semi-secretive jurisdictions.  Nevertheless, researchers should beware of an ‘echo chamber’ effect amongst unofficial (e.g. NGO and media) publications which rely on the same few informants or sources: in my own research, this was a particular problem with death penalty statistics.  Third, Davies (2001) argues for a rule of thumb requiring two independent interview sources to be in agreement, or else the particular assertion is not citable.  This is similar to the standard generally adopted by print journalists (Broersma, den Herder & Schohaus, 2013).  Finally, the writer can state conclusions cautiously, and allow the reader to reach his or her own judgement on the material (Johnson & Zimring, 2009).

Daniel Pascoe is an Assistant Professor at the School of Law, City University of Hong Kong, and an MSc, MPhil and DPhil graduate of the Centre for Criminology.  Daniel’s email is dcpascoe@cityu.edu.hk and he Tweets @DC_Pascoe


Bailer S, ‘Interviews and Surveys in Legislative Research’ in S Martin, T Saalfield, and KW Strøm, The Oxford Handbook of Legislative Studies (Oxford University Press 2014)

Broersma M, B den Herder, and B Schohaus, ‘A Question of Power’ (2013) 7(4) Journalism Practice 388

Davies PHJ, ‘Spies as Informants: Triangulation and the Interpretation of Elite Interview Data in the Study of the Intelligence and Security Services’ (2001) 21(1) Politics 73

de Búrca A, Preventing Political Violence Against Civilians: Nationalist Militant Conflict in Northern Ireland, Israel and Palestine (Palgrave Macmillan 2014)

Halperin S, and O Heath, Political Research: Methods & Practical Skills (2nd ed, Oxford University Press 2016)

Hood R, and C Hoyle, The Death Penalty: A Worldwide Perspective (Oxford University Press 2015)

Johnson DT, and FE Zimring, The Next Frontier: National Development, Political Change, and the Death Penalty in Asia (Oxford University Press 2009)

Lilleker DG, ‘Interviewing the Political Elite: Navigating a Potential Minefield’ (2003) 23 Politics 207

Merriam SB, ‘What Can You Tell from an N of 1?: Issues of Validity and Reliability in Qualitative Research’ (1995) 4 PAACE Journal of Lifelong Learning 51

O’Sullivan E, G Rassel, M Berner, and J DeVance Taliaferro, Research Methods for Public Administrators (6th ed, Routledge 2016)

Pascoe D, ‘Researching the Death Penalty in Closed or Partially-Closed Criminal Justice Systems’ in M Bosworth, C Hoyle, and L Zedner (eds), Changing Contours of Criminal Justice (Oxford University Press 2016)

Sharan T, ‘The Dynamics of Elite Networks and Patron-Client Relations in Afghanistan’ in D Lane (ed), Elites and Identities in Post-Soviet Space (Routledge 2012)


[1] I refer to interviews with political and legal decision-makers and relevant experts as ‘elite’ interviews to distinguish these from interviews with potentially vulnerable parties such as defendants, prisoners, voters, and children.  With ‘elite’ interviews, the power imbalance generally favours the interviewee over the interviewer, whereas when interviewing ‘down’, the reverse is true (Bailer, 2014).

[2] As a starting point, several useful texts and articles on ‘elite’ interviewing are provided in the reference list, below.

[3] Nor are the issues that I personally faced in conducting fieldwork in semi-authoritarian states akin to researchers entering conflict areas – for two recent examples here, see Sharan (2012), and de Búrca (2014).

[4] It is often good practice to contact such persons only after entering a semi-secretive jurisdiction.