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Conducting interviews with vulnerable people

As a young social scientist in the late '90s, I needed to conduct interviews with 16-18 years old heroin users in Hungary. The interview consisted of sensitive questions about substance abuse, family relations, sexual behavior etc. We needed to create a unique atmosphere to build trust and maintain a deep conversation with these young people.

Most of the researchers were much older in their 30's, 40's, 50's minimum double the age of the interviewees, if not triple. There was also a considerable difference in socioeconomic status. Researchers had a decent middle-class life, while most youngsters were from marginalized backgrounds or became marginalized due to drugs. Not really a match for a horizontal, deep conversation.

The research team decided to abandon the traditional interview arrangements. It was not an option to conduct them in our office, and in many cases, it was impossible to visit the home of the youngsters if they had any. Going to a Café is much better, but the topic was too delicate to discuss at a public place, risking being overheard. We also needed to do something radical to handle the massive power gap between the researchers and the youngsters.

Research team leaders were very creative in coming up with the idea of sacrificing part of their research budget, bringing all the researchers and interviewees to a small village of Transylvania: Torockó.

We decided to spend together an entire weekend in the village's guest house. But before any conversation, any interview has occurred, all the participants, including researchers and youngsters, had to climb up those famous rocks of Torocko. There is a very steep path leading up to the top, and the last few meters were literarily closer to climbing than walking.

That was the perfect moment when we could fill the power gap. It turned out that 16 years old people, even after an intense period of substance abuse, were in much better physical condition than 40+ years old social workers and sociologists. All the interviewees were already on the top, watching how the decent researchers were rolling back, again and again, dirt themselves, messing their clothes and panting exhaustively for their life. On the last meters, you saw 3-4 skinny interviewees pushing or pulling up to the top an overweight, completely exhausted researchers losing the last pieces of their pride and ego.

That was the moment when teenager drug users and adult researchers had their first REAL encounter where everybody showed their vulnerability equally.

Next morning, interviewees could decide with whom they wanted to conduct the interview. And most of them chose the person they helped out on the rock. It was one of the best interviews of my life.

On the 27th of August, on our next SEIP Saturdays event we will guide social entrepreneurs on conducting interviews with vulnerable people for your market/customer research, team management or stakeholder analysis.

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