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Keywords:

  • elite interviews;
  • Russia;
  • national identity;
  • ethics;
  • fieldwork

Abstract

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Situating the interview
  5. Gaining access
  6. Conducting the interview
  7. Consequences
  8. Concluding remarks
  9. Acknowledgements
  10. References
  11. Biography

This article discusses the strategies and country-specific challenges of conducting elite interviews overseas. Drawing on examples from fieldwork undertaken in the Russian Federation, it explores the ways in which the knowledge produced from such interviews is contingent on the analytical approaches selected; the researcher's time-specific entry into the field; issues of ethics; the contemporary political environment; and notions of insider/outsider. Undertaking elite interviews overseas places the researcher in a particularly intense and unique set of power relations with his or her research subjects. This provides both opportunities and challenges, which ultimately have the potential to elicit insights into the personal convictions and beliefs of the political and intellectual elite, as well as the contexts within which they operate.


Introduction

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Situating the interview
  5. Gaining access
  6. Conducting the interview
  7. Consequences
  8. Concluding remarks
  9. Acknowledgements
  10. References
  11. Biography

Elite interviewing is a widely implemented research tool in the study of politics. It has the potential to be an extremely valuable, appropriate and rewarding technique for forming understandings of political events and discourses. However, for many undergraduate and graduate researchers, especially those conducting research overseas and in a foreign language, it can prove to be a challenging, daunting and even confusing approach. This article explores how undertaking this kind of research overseas places the researcher in a particularly intense and unique set of power relations with his or her research subjects, which at the same time provides an opportunity for the researcher to elicit insights into the beliefs, convictions and contexts of elites.

The article comes from an engagement with the political and intellectual elite in the Russian Federation as part of a doctoral research project on the significance of the disputed Southern Kuril Islands1 in various ideas of post-Soviet Russian national identity. From the beginning of the 1990s, certain members of this elite launched an attempt to persuade the wider public of their conception of ‘Russian’ identity and, with it, to gain legitimacy for their own specific political projects of controlling, influencing, reforming and harnessing the power resources of the post-Soviet Russian state. For different elite groups, both in Moscow and the Russian Far East, the status and destiny of these islands had the potential to send a powerful message to the world, and more importantly to a domestic audience, about their differing conceptions of what is Russia and who is Russian (for a broader discussion of these questions see Trenin, 2001, p. 16).

Particularly during the 1990s, a number of academics and specialists, as well as certain ministers and bureaucrats within the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, promoted the idea of a territorial concession over these islands as a way to normalise relations with Japan and gain significant investment and aid for restructuring the new Russian state. For them, a transfer of the islands to Japan could also serve as a symbol for a vision of a new ‘post-imperial’ identity, which would overcome what they saw as the aberrations of the Soviet past (see, for example, Kunadze, 2000). However, at the opposite end of the political spectrum, other ‘identity coalitions’ (Tsygankov, 2010, pp. 16–17) regarded the fragmentation of Soviet space as a disaster and used the issue of the Southern Kurils to emphasise the value of the state's territorial integrity above all other political, social and economic considerations. For them, the issue of these islands could be used as a tool to undermine the Presidency and in particular the pro-Western and reformist agenda of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The political elites involved in these debates were of particular interest for this study because they enjoy a disproportionate advantage in their ability to create, challenge, subvert and shape categories of national identity (Dodds, 1993, p. 72). While such an approach assumes that elites ‘guide’ discourses of national identity, this is not to deny the role of audience interpretation and consumption, which inevitably constrains elites and can even produce their subjectivities (Dittmer and Dodds, 2008; Muller, 2008). However, within the limits of this article, attention is focused on the elite-driven side of the process and in particular the methodology of elite interviewing. The article seeks to highlight some of the practices and consequences of interviewing elites; the different possibilities of knowledge produced by being an ‘outsider’ versus an ‘insider’; how traditional assumptions of power between interviewer and interviewee can be inverted; the effect of wider political contexts on the research process; and the ethical implications of interviewing.

Situating the interview

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Situating the interview
  5. Gaining access
  6. Conducting the interview
  7. Consequences
  8. Concluding remarks
  9. Acknowledgements
  10. References
  11. Biography

Political and intellectual elites, due to their privileged status, are often the most visible producers, consumers and recyclers of identity narratives in politics and society. In order to interrogate the relationship between power, discourse and audience, we can examine the ways in which elites use professional and colloquial forms of language. In this article it is impossible to review the burgeoning and diverse literature surrounding the various approaches to linguistic, and specifically discourse, analysis (see, for example, Billig, 1991; Jupp, 1996; Mills, 2004; Phillips and Hardy, 2002; Potter and Wetherell, 1994; Punch, 2005; Wetherell, Yates and Taylor, 2001). However, it is worth noting here that when elite interviewing is employed alongside discourse analysis, it can help us better understand the practices and discourses put forward by different political actors at particular moments.

In political science there has been a recent appreciation of discourse analysis as a broad methodological category for contextualising ‘subjective’ meanings (Hansen, 2006; Pouliot, 2007). As Vincent Pouliot (2007, p. 374) has argued, through discourse analysis, ‘meanings do not belong to anyone anymore but become part of an intersubjective web inside of which every text or practice refers and stands in relation to others’. Therefore, the practice of both ‘experience near’ elite interviews and ‘experience distant’ discourse analysis can combine to create what Pouliot (2007, p. 374) terms a ‘sobjectified’ knowledge – one where subjective meanings (derived from interviewing) are ‘objectified’, allowing the researcher ‘to learn something other than what agents already know by connecting subjective meanings with context and history’.

The aim of this article is not to unpack this relationship between subjectivism and objectivism, but rather to focus on the conduct of elite interviews and the strategies and challenges involved in the ‘recovery of subjective meanings’ that this approach allows (Pouliot, 2007, p. 370). The point is to highlight at the outset that elite interviewing should not be viewed as a stand-alone technique. Rather it is at its most effective alongside interpretive approaches like discourse analysis, which can help us understand the ‘specific bits of intersubjectivity [gained from elite interviews] in terms of a larger whole’ (Pouliot, 2007, p. 370). If there is no such contextualisation, then the subjective meanings from elite interviews are rendered in isolation and are prone to misinterpretation as they find themselves outside the ‘webs of meaning’ through which their meaning is constituted (Pouliot, 2007, p. 370).

Thanks to discourse analysis, collective identities and shared meanings can be traced within sources such as official policy announcements, presidential speeches, political debates, as well as literature, cinema, commentaries, expert analysis and blogs (Pouliot, 2007, p. 376). While these easily accessible texts can provide much of the essential intersubjective context noted above, it is elite interviews that can ‘provide the political scientist with an insight into the mind-set of the actor/s who have played a role in shaping the society in which we live and an interviewee's subjective analysis of a particular episode or situation’ (Richards, 1996, p. 200). The remainder of this article focuses on the specific challenges and opportunities of conducting these elite interviews overseas and in a foreign language, as well as in a particular political context.

Gaining access

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Situating the interview
  5. Gaining access
  6. Conducting the interview
  7. Consequences
  8. Concluding remarks
  9. Acknowledgements
  10. References
  11. Biography

In contrast to the proliferation of sources for discourse analysis, particularly the abundance of online textual and audio-visual material, gaining access to elites can prove to be one of the most challenging aspects of the research process, especially for an inexperienced PhD researcher in the early stages of their research. Access to these elites is by definition restricted; therefore, the most likely approach to interviewee selection is through a purposive sample, that is, interviewees are chosen with a purpose directly related to the topic of the research. Some researchers, such as Sharon Rivera, Polina Kozyreva and Eduard Sarovskii (2002), have argued that probability sampling is a viable option in approaching elite interviews in Russia. However, in their case they had the benefit of a major research grant, as well as local researchers within their team. For a PhD project the possibilities for this type of sampling are usually somewhat more limited and sample sizes are likely to be small, particularly as elites can be acutely ‘conscious of their own importance’ (Richards, 1996, p. 199).

In the case of my own fieldwork, conducted primarily in Moscow but also in Vladivostok and Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, around 25 members of the political and academic elite were interviewed2 and in most cases access was gained as a result of the ‘snowball effect’; that is, one elite respondent recommended another and the momentum led to more and more contacts. The point of entry was to approach academics in my own country who had engaged with the relevant Russian elite at conferences and workshops, or through their own research. This led to initial contact with professors in Russia who were part of established academic and often political networks. The associated familiarity and trust that academics' recommendations brought with them then proved vital for gaining access to these wider networks. Such an approach, revolving around personal connections and networks, was invaluable and perhaps the only way to expand the pool of interviewees.

This method proved far easier and achieved greater success than a convoluted and often fruitless series of faxes and telephone calls to the secretaries or assistants of busy politicians, senior academics or civil servants. Just as Sean Roberts (2013, pp. 340, 342) described, I found that secretaries of high-ranking elites could at times be as much a hindrance as a help in arranging interviews as there was an extraordinary propensity for faxes and letters to be lost, or messages were simply not communicated to the elites concerned or even between other staff working within the same office. In the case of e-mails, as Anna Drzewiecka noted during her research in Ukraine, they proved almost useless in attracting a response from political elites; rather, ‘[t]raditional mail and fax messages followed by insistent phone calls each and every day are usually the only real guarantee that somebody will read your request through, and that you will in the end receive an answer’ (Drzewiecka, 2007, p. 296).

Rivera, Kozyreva and Sarovskii (2002, p. 684) and Roberts (2013, p. 340), conducting elite interviews in Russia more than 10 years apart (in 1996 and 2007, respectively), found that to secure an elite interview took on average 15–20 calls. In the case of Duma deputies and high-ranking officials this was similar to my own experience; however, some diplomats, academics and political elites – often those in lower positions than they had previously held – could sometimes agree after a single call. This was probably, in part, due to the careful targeting of elites who had previously demonstrated a special interest in the research topic. Indeed some of these elites seemed only too happy to sit down and to talk expansively on their positions and role in these debates.

During my own fieldwork, e-mails almost never raised a response from prospective interviewees and appeared all too easy to ignore. As the older generation of Russian political elites is inevitably replaced by a more internet savvy generation, emails may prove to be a more viable means of making contact with their offices. However, at the time of my research this was not the case and it was only through, the strategy of persistent faxes and telephone calls that a couple of useful meetings with important members of the political elite were achieved and from which the ‘snowball’ could be attempted anew. However, even with determined persistence, some prospective interviewees are never going to agree to a meeting or, more often, will favour the tactic of constantly delaying a decision in the hope that the interviewer will go away. With certain members of the elite there is a law of diminishing returns and the efforts involved in making dozens of calls and faxes begin to outweigh the increasingly slim chance of getting an interview. Over the course of my fieldwork I experienced the case of a disappearing diplomat and an eminent academician who was easily confused by dates. Rivera, Kozyreva and Sarovskii (2002, p. 684) similarly noted a significant number of respondents who could neither bring themselves to refuse an interview nor were able to commit to giving one (see also Roberts, 2013, p. 340).

In spite of the challenges of approaching elites and issues of non-commitment, during the course of my own fieldwork I was still able to interview serving politicians (in both the State Duma and Federal Council), a Russian ambassador, a former governor, as well as former ministers of the Russian government and a number of eminent academics and experts. However, it should also be acknowledged that access to elites is often conditional on certain externalities outside the researcher's control. For example, these interviews took place mainly during 2008 but if they had happened in December 2010, just after the then Russian President, Dmitri Medvedev, became the first serving Russian or Soviet leader to visit the contested islands (which was followed by protests in Japan, including the burning of the Russian flag outside the Russian embassy), then it is likely that such access would have been more problematic and controversial. In a somewhat similar context, Roberts (2013, p. 341) noted that, in his research on political elites in Moscow, access and the atmosphere of interviews became more fraught in the wake of a marked deterioration of Russian–British relations during the period of his fieldwork in 2007.

The moment of the research process is therefore critical, and a researcher's degree of access and their positionality is highly contingent on the ‘time-specific mode of entry’ into the research field (Ward and Jones, 1999, p. 307). A researcher can be fortunate or unfortunate in the timing of their fieldwork, and it is against changeable political backdrops that he or she also needs to be acutely aware of ‘how recent political developments may cloud [an interviewee's] interpretations of past events’ (McEvoy, 2006, p. 189). Sudden shifts in the contemporary political context can have consequences for the whole interview process regarding what is appropriate to discuss and what is not. Therefore, it is necessary to recognise that knowledge outcomes are to a large degree dependent on the timing of the researcher's engagement with his or her research subjects.

In the context of this discussion, it is also worth briefly considering some of the features and implications of the ‘hybrid regime’ or ‘managed democracy’ within which this research was conducted. As Roberts has explained, the latter term serves to highlight, in the Russian case, ‘the somewhat confusing mix of democratic institutions, but also the lack of tolerance for adversarial politics, [and] the uncertainties of competitive elections’ (Roberts, 2013, p. 338). As J. Paul Goode (2010, p. 1058) points out, for elites operating in what he calls hybrid regimes, this can result in a potential dilemma over ‘whether a foreign researcher's study somehow flows into a broader condemnation of the regime for which they will be held individually responsible. When the possibility appears credible or even just conceivable, the easiest (and safest) decision is to refuse participation in the study’.

In Russia, such a dilemma became further complicated in July 2012, when a new law came into effect which required foreign-funded non-governmental organisations (NGOs) involved in political activity in Russia to register as ‘foreign agents’. Among other things, this new law, and the controversy surrounding it, bring the possibility of heightened tensions in the researcher–respondent relationship, which may even exclude the viability of interviewing certain types of political elite as they become increasingly wary of responding to interview requests from foreigners.

Although my own fieldwork in 2008 received a significant share of refusals from elites, I was nevertheless able to gain access and insights into the specific research topic as well as into the style and workings of politics in Russia at the time. Therefore, it could also be said that in ‘managed democracies’ methodological approaches that test the openness of governments and society are highly appropriate and necessary techniques for understanding the condition of contemporary politics. On this point, much of the discussion over conducting elite interviews in this article could also be applied to other states in post-Soviet space and beyond. Obvious parallels would be with ‘managed democracies’ in Central Asian states, as well as certain other East European states. Informal conversations with academic colleagues working on China and Turkey would also suggest that some of the features discussed here could apply to these countries.

Conducting the interview

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Situating the interview
  5. Gaining access
  6. Conducting the interview
  7. Consequences
  8. Concluding remarks
  9. Acknowledgements
  10. References
  11. Biography

Related to the discussion in the previous section, ethical concerns are a critical element of interviewing in ‘managed democracies’. Even in a more general sense, due to the fact that research is an intervention in the social world, ‘it is always as much a matter of ethics as of techniques’ (Deacon et al., 1999, p. 23). Therefore, despite the high social and educational status of elite interviewees in this research, great importance has to be placed on ensuring their informed consent. As William Harvey has noted, transparency is vital, both in terms of ethics and in gaining the interviewee's trust (Harvey, 2010, p. 203). In the case of arranging my own elite interviews with the elite, the research topic and my academic post and affiliation were initially sent to the offices of elites through a letter or fax written in Russian. If the interviews had been arranged through a previous contact, the letter was presented at the start of the meeting. The letter also contained a brief summary of the research and a list of proposed questions (around a dozen), at the same time as emphasising how important the insights of the particular individual would be for the scientific value of the research.

One significant detail of these letters was the use of a university or departmental seal, which was stamped over the signature. The value of these stamps should not be underestimated in Russia, where they often carry far more weight than the actual signature. Such small details can have profound implications for advancing the researcher's credibility and trust with the interviewees. Even seemingly minor material objects such as these, together with wearing the appropriate attire (in this case a smart suit and necktie), can help demonstrate the researcher's respect for the norms and status of the elites being interviewed.

Based on the questions presented in the letter, semi-structured interviews took place with the aforementioned elite – all of whom were male, highly educated and no younger than 40. This reflects the prevailing gender balance and age structure of established elites in Russian politics and the academic fields I was engaging with. The interviews invariably took place in the offices of the elites concerned and I would concur with Robert Mikecz (2012) that placing the interviewees in this situation allows the researcher to gain crucial contextual insights. A framed picture of Japanese calligraphy on an office wall, the books on their bookshelves, as well as pictures of the famous people and politicians they have shaken hands with can, without a word being spoken, tell a lot about the context and interests of the particular elite being interviewed. Most of these interviews lasted about one hour, and after some ‘small talk’, and a few introductory remarks, a request was made for the interview to be recorded on a digital recorder. Initially, I was concerned that this request might be turned down by interviewees. However, of all the interviews conducted, the only case where a recording was refused was by an official from the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who explained that the Ministry had a public relations department for official announcements.

This general willingness for the interview to be recorded is perhaps indicative of the elites' comfort in speaking in front of the media and ‘on the record’. With elite interviews (as opposed to with certain non-elite categories) the researcher is nearly always dealing with an articulate, well-informed and even powerful individual – in other words, an elite more than capable of carefully considering whether or not to meet an academic researcher, as well as deciding whether the interview should be recorded, and of choosing what information to disclose or not. Even so, at the end of the interview, after the conversation had taken place, interviewees were asked whether they were still willing to be cited. During my entire fieldwork, none of them requested anonymity.

However, even with these assurances, the researcher has to use his or her own ethical judgement when it comes to reporting their research outcomes. Conducting any interview comes with a certain responsibility, and part of this responsibility is not to put interviewees into positions that may adversely affect their careers or, in some countries, their safety. Although a particular interviewee may not be concerned about making highly critical remarks against the ruling elite during an interview, against the background of unstable political contexts and the uncertain trajectories of ‘managed democracies’, it would seem prudent that in the case of especially emotional or controversial statements the interviewee should remain anonymous or be characterised more vaguely in the presentation of the research as an eminent academic based in the capital, or a local politician from region X.

As Peter Burnham et al. (2004, p. 250) remind us, political research cannot be conducted in a ‘moral vacuum’. While the researcher is likely to leave the fieldwork site, perhaps never to return, any respondents used in their research may not have such a choice, thus making it desirable to err on the side of caution when quoting respondents (Roberts, 2013, pp. 346–348). As Roberts (2013, p. 348) has noted, in such cases special care should also be taken in securely handling and storing the confidential data produced from interviewing, including avoiding the transmission of this material over the Internet.

Another essential part of the interview process is for the researcher to be responsive and perceptive to the language and behaviour of the interviewee. Building up a rapport with the interviewee and being involved in the discussion for some time before asking a ‘contentious, critical or tricky question’ is an obvious but effective strategy for eliciting information (Richards, 1996, p. 203). However, as Rivera, Kozyreva and Sarovskii (2002, p. 686) noticed, elites ‘can expound on their responses at great length, especially in the early stages of an interview’. My own experience was that interviewees sometimes seize on relatively bland and uncontroversial ‘starter’ questions and then talk at length, all the while eating into the precious time that you have been allotted. On at least a couple of occasions, I suspected that this could have been a strategy to avoid and delay questions that they did not want to answer.

Therefore, the interviewer has to try to strike a balance between deferentially listening, and guiding the interview forwards. Reading the atmosphere during each interview is crucial for knowing when to ask the right question, at the right time, in order to ensure the continued flow of valuable responses. Equally, sometimes knowing when to be silent or to omit questions proved to be just as important as knowing when to speak. Listening again to the recordings of my interviews, it is interesting to note how the position of the interviewer changes over time, both in the tone of voice – and related bodily and speaking position – as well as the confidence that comes with improving in a second language. Over the course of the fieldwork, my ability in both the command of the Russian language and a related confidence in interacting with the political elite increased, which had the inevitable effect of producing somewhat different responses and knowledge at various stages of the fieldwork.

Consequences

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Situating the interview
  5. Gaining access
  6. Conducting the interview
  7. Consequences
  8. Concluding remarks
  9. Acknowledgements
  10. References
  11. Biography

One interesting feature of my fieldwork in Vladivostok, Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk and even Moscow was a certain curiosity from the elite as to why a researcher from the United Kingdom had travelled so far and was interested in such a seemingly obscure topic as the Southern Kuril Islands. In most cases, this interest translated into a willingness to share opinions and contacts. This was perhaps accentuated by the opportunity to put forward their ideas on an issue they felt passionately about to an international audience. Andrew Herod experienced something similar when interviewing trade union leaders in the Czech Republic, which led him to conclude that ‘my ability to emphasize my position precisely as an “outsider” was, I felt, more beneficial for conducting the research than had I been a local Czech and thus a cultural insider’ (Herod, 1999, p. 317; see also Mullings, 1999; Sabot, 1999).

Throughout my research I experienced a feeling of being treated with more interest, and perhaps more respect, by being a foreign researcher from a well-known British university than if I had come from a local university. Being from a foreign institution also avoided some of the ideological associations of being affiliated with local universities, and the fact that in Moscow some academic institutions and departments stand for very different values than others, and therefore would be viewed in different ways by elites. Of course, such ideological baggage is also true of foreign universities but elites in Russia were at least less aware of these associations.

However, had I been a different kind of ‘outsider’, say a Japanese scholar, whose government contests the sovereignty of the Southern Kurils, then the reaction and openness of this elite might have been somewhat different, producing a different kind of knowledge. Similarly, with politicians, government officials, diplomats and senior academics being predominantly male in Russia, if I had been a female researcher then my ‘outsider’ credentials would have been further accentuated. This is likely to have led to a different dynamics in the interview, which might have elicited more candid or unguarded disclosures, and the potential for a different and no less valid knowledge to be produced.

The production of knowledge from interviews can therefore be just as dependent on the interviewer as the interviewee. In this relationship it needs to be recognised that the politics of ethnicity, race, gender, citizenship and age are all of vital importance to knowledge outcomes. This is not to suggest that one form of knowledge is more ‘authentic’ than another but merely to point out the reflexivity of the fieldwork process; that is, it is inherently bidirectional, contextual and mutually constituted, through which various kinds of knowledge can be produced. The essence of this reflexivity is that any researcher needs to be acutely aware of their positionality in their research outcomes. As Cindi Katz (1994, p. 71) has succinctly put it, ‘I am always a gendered, historically constituted social and political actor who works as a social scientist and teacher. I am always, everywhere, in “the field” ’.

Another critical point is a constant need to be aware of the power relations between interviewer and interviewee. David Richards (1996, p. 201) has noted that ‘by the very nature of elite interviews, it is the interviewee who has the power. They control the information the interviewer is trying to eke out’. However, Zoë Slote Morris (2009, p. 213) has argued that even in elite interviews there are a number of significant elements to the empowerment of the researcher, in terms of his or her role in guiding the interview, and control over what is published and its meaning. In the case of my interviews, Richards's view on power relations could be questioned by the fact that nearly all the interviewees knew very little about me, while I often knew a lot about them. By previously compiling a detailed biography of each member of the elite chosen for interview, a comprehensive knowledge of the interviewee's background can put the interviewer in a position where he or she can instantaneously triangulate information in order to verify points and statements (see Davies, 2001; Ho, 2008; Lilleker, 2003).

This ability to triangulate with supplementary sources has the potential to invert the traditional power relations and notions of control between ‘non-elite’ interviewer and ‘elite’ interviewee. In my interviews, the prevailing view that elites ‘are generally “in control” of the interview’ (Roberts, 2013, p. 342) did not always hold. Rather, knowing your interviewee can be an empowering factor, which can even give the interviewer the confidence to challenge the respondents' statements in the context of their previous publications or speeches. Reviewing such texts immediately prior to a meeting proved especially useful in gaining a measure both of their ideas and also of what their potential ‘style’ would be like during an interview.

Finally, one of the unwanted side-effects of conducting research in distant, overseas locations can be local media interest in the researcher. During the course of my research I found myself the subject of both TV and newspaper interviews. Such media interviews can give the researcher a useful experience of being on the other side of the microphone. However, when dealing with something even vaguely controversial (a category that certainly applies to the contested Southern Kuril Islands) there is a danger that your statements and words can be reinterpreted, misinterpreted or taken out of context. This is particularly problematic and tricky when you are often conducting these interviews in a foreign language.

The research topic inevitably came up in some of these interviews and often involved employing the most intricate diplomatic skills to negotiate such questions as ‘what is your opinion on the future of the islands?’ This is especially true with local journalists actively looking for a story. In these situations, it is sometimes necessary to defend robustly your own impartiality, such as by insisting that you never state your personal opinions on certain topics to the media. However, this will not deter the most determined hacks and it resulted on more than one occasion in having to write to the journalist or editor concerned in order to delete statements I had never actually made. Of course the obvious solution is to follow the strategy of some of the elites I was interviewing and not commit to an interview. However, one local journalist was undeterred by this strategy and simply invented and misquoted lines from previously published work.

Therefore, researchers conducting overseas fieldwork, particularly in more apparently distant places, should be prepared for intense local interest, vastly different journalistic standards, and have prepared lines ready to deflect the most challenging questions (see Oglesby, 2010). While it is acceptable politely to decline uninvited approaches you cannot always be saved from the most unscrupulous of journalists. The potential degree of interest in the overseas researcher was brought home to me when, one afternoon, I noticed to my surprise a large picture of me in an advert for the local edition of a well-known Moscow tabloid on the giant TV screen in central Vladivostok. As one of my local academic colleagues in the Russian Far East helpfully pointed out, by being a relatively young academic from the ‘distant’ United Kingdom this perhaps attracted more local interest than if I had been a middle-aged professor from neighbouring China, or even the United States.

Concluding remarks

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Situating the interview
  5. Gaining access
  6. Conducting the interview
  7. Consequences
  8. Concluding remarks
  9. Acknowledgements
  10. References
  11. Biography

This article has introduced some of the strategies and techniques for conducting elite interviews overseas, as well as the country-specific challenges they present. Drawing on the case of post-Soviet Russia, it has highlighted how shifting political contexts have significant implications for access, openness and the knowledge produced. In recognising this dynamic aspect, the article has attempted to outline approaches for negotiating interviews with the Russian elite in the late 2000s, while raising thought-provoking questions on how the knowledge that such interviews produce is dependent on the analytical approaches selected; the researcher's time-specific entry into the field; issues of ethics; the political context; and notions of insider/outsider.

It has focused attention on how the undertaking of fieldwork overseas can place the researcher in a particularly intense and even inverted set of power relations with his or her research subjects. However, it is precisely through these special characteristics and dynamics that elite interviews overseas can give unique insights into how elites perceive and are perceived by their different audiences; as well as an appreciation of how the knowledge produced from these interviews is of an ephemeral and highly dependent nature, which, at the same time, can capture a particular moment of socio-political significance. In the context of ‘hybrid regimes’ and ‘managed democracies’ such approaches can bring new understandings of politics and society under these conditions, while at the same time highlighting the urgent moral and ethical responsibilities of the researcher.

Acknowledgements

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Situating the interview
  5. Gaining access
  6. Conducting the interview
  7. Consequences
  8. Concluding remarks
  9. Acknowledgements
  10. References
  11. Biography

The research conducted in this article was funded thanks to an ESRC PhD studentship. I am also extremely grateful to the anonymous referees, and to Klaus Dodds, for comments and insights on an earlier version of this article. All responsibility for errors and judgements is mine alone.

Notes
  1. 1

    They are contested by Japan where they are known as the Hoppo Ryodo (Northern Territories). In this article the Russian term for these islands is used and is a reflection of the fact that the elite interviews took place in Russia rather than any desire to privilege either side's claims to these islands.

  2. 2

    Interviews took place in Russian or English, with most conducted in Russian by the author. In the case of two interviews (at the Russian State Parliament and the Federal Council) a translator was employed. Even this detail is likely to have had a significant influence on the type of knowledge produced during the interview.

References

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Situating the interview
  5. Gaining access
  6. Conducting the interview
  7. Consequences
  8. Concluding remarks
  9. Acknowledgements
  10. References
  11. Biography
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Biography

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Situating the interview
  5. Gaining access
  6. Conducting the interview
  7. Consequences
  8. Concluding remarks
  9. Acknowledgements
  10. References
  11. Biography
  • Paul Benjamin Richardson is a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at the University of Manchester. His recent research interests include Russia's national development strategy in the Far East; the Eurasian Union and the reconfiguration of post-Soviet space; and the rise of nationalism and territorial disputes in the Asia-Pacific. He is also affiliated with the School of Regional and International Studies at the Far Eastern Federal University in Vladivostok. Paul Benjamin Richardson, School of Arts, Languages and Cultures, University of Manchester, Oxford Road, Manchester, M13 9PL, UK. E-mail: paul.richardson-3@manchester.ac.uk