Conducting interviews in Pakistan: An account from the field
Pakistan has been under the spotlight of the international media since 9/11, most of the times in an extremely negative fashion. Often mentioned with reference to Islamist militancy, its support to the Taleban and the enmity with India, Pakistan makes the headlines for the wrong reasons. At first glance, doing fieldwork in such a context appears a daunting task given the potential security issues that a researcher would face while conducting interviews in the country. Although I was indeed confronted with some issues, primarily related to accessing some parts of the country, my overall fieldwork experience has been very positive.
I spent two months in Pakistan at the beginning of 2015 to conduct semi-structured elites interviews, as part of my PhD on the role of Pakistan’s domestic politics in Pakistan-China relations. I was able to conduct a wide range of interviews with journalists, academics, bureaucrats, senior officials and high-level political figures. Here I share my own experience of doing field research in Pakistan, including some practical tips for other researchers who might be interested in doing fieldwork in this country in the forthcoming years. The accounts presented in this post are based on my own experience, but I believe that they can also be applied, and relevant, to other countries and disciplines.
My first encounter with Pakistan was on a sunny winter day in January 2015, when I arrived at the Benazir Bhutto International Airport in Islamabad. I knew that my time in the country was going to be relatively limited, so I immediately bought a local SIM card and started focusing on the interviews. (As an aside: make sure you have enough copies of your passport, and bring along also some ID pictures before going on fieldwork; you will need them to buy a local SIM card and access libraries or private institutions.) In this respect, planning well ahead of fieldwork was crucial. Getting access to the elites is a universal challenge confronting IR scholars and social scientists more generally. As such, I adopted the so-called positional approach, identifying the people I wanted to interview according to their position in the different departments of the Pakistani government that were more relevant for my research topic. I started contacting some of them about three weeks before heading out to Islamabad, with varying degrees of success. While I managed to arrange some interviews via email, once I was in Pakistan I soon realised that snowballing (i.e. relying on the interviewee’s personal acquaintances and networks to identify other people to interview) was going to be vital. As such, always ask your interviewees who you should talk to next and if they have her/his contact number. If you are lucky, they will call some of their contacts for you and you will end up having suddenly a few other appointments booked, without going through the painful process of requesting an interview with a Minister or the Head of a Ministry’s Department. Snowballing acquires a particular importance in countries like Pakistan where personal connections carry the greatest weight, both socially and professionally.
When to start contacting people brings into the discussion also the dilemma of whom to interview first. There is no right answer to this question. My own experience suggests that before interviewing the high profile figures, or the ones that you think might be more relevant to your research, an initial period of warm up with academics and journalists helps a lot, as it gives you time to test the questions you devised from behind a desk in your department. At the same time, you have very little leverage on when to schedule an interview and you certainly do not want to miss a key actor just because you think is not the right moment. You need to call the right shots.
Hospitality was a distinctive feature of all the people I have met and interviewed in Pakistan. “You will never pay for a lunch while in Islamabad”, one of the interviewees told me while he was driving to the nearest restaurant in the F-6 Kohsar market. No interview would ever start without the standard question “Would you like some chai or coffee?” and you’d better accept even if it is the fifth of the day! This is also very important vis-à-vis the interview process. The first few minutes are the ones in which you establish a relationship with your interlocutor; doing this over a cup of coffee makes things slightly easier while you are trying to build up your credibility by introducing yourself and your work. In this respect, being a foreigner also helped me; I was constantly explaining the roots of my interest in Pakistan and this helped me to break the ice, particularly at the beginning of the interviews.
As for the interview process itself, getting the information you are looking for can be difficult. “There is no harm in asking, but they will tell you what they want”, I was once told by a Pakistani friend. Elites are usually very selective in the kind of information they are willing to share with researchers, especially if they are facing a PhD student. As such, one of the most difficult tasks in conducting interviews was to push my interlocutors to go beyond what one can easily find and read in the newspapers’ headlines. This was made even more challenging by the friendly nature of Sino-Pakistani relations, commonly referred to as an “all-weather” friendship. To overcome this issue, I adopted an indirect method to challenge my interlocutors politely, namely quoting what other people said with reference to a specific aspect I was interested in. It generally worked very well.
Another question regarding interviews was whether to record or not. Soon after the first interviews I realised that recording was preventing some of my interviewees from sharing their views on important aspects of my thesis. Given that I can take notes at a good pace, I thought that avoiding the use of a recording device would improve the information I was getting from the interviews. The result was that I started having more informal conversations with my interlocutors, which resulted in better data that I could include in my thesis. However, it was extremely important to transcribe immediately the content of the interview on my laptop. Taking notes, instead of recording, can thus be a great advantage; but it is crucial to write down the notes while the interview is still fresh in your mind and you can easily recall the flow of the conversation.
As mentioned above, being a foreigner had some important implications. Some of my interlocutors saw me with suspicion, as a westerner who was researching Pakistan and hence with a biased view; I constantly emphasised that I was trying to provide a balanced and objective analysis of my PhD topic. Conversely, some of my other interviewees were extremely open and willing to share their views, precisely because I was a foreigner -and hence not deeply entrenched in Pakistan’s party politics. A Pakistani friend was surprised by the access I had to the top echelons of Pakistan’s government and he commented that, as a Pakistani national, it would have been more difficult for him to arrange those kinds of interviews. `
The logistics of fieldwork are equally important in ensuring that you can make the most out of your time. I have already mentioned above the importance of getting a local SIM card upon arrival in the country. A second, crucial point was to hire a car with a local driver and to build trust with this person, as he was driving me around a place that I was visiting for the first time. These considerations are particularly important in Pakistan, where public transport is limited and you need to be able to reach the interview location in a reasonable amount of time. In addition, given the busy schedule of some of the people that I was interviewing, I once received an interview confirmation at a very short notice. The logistics of the fieldwork are a therefore a complementary, but extremely important, part of fieldwork in Pakistan. Relying on taxis would have not enabled me to make efficient use of my time.
My personal experience of conducting interviews in Pakistan has been largely positive. Being exposed to the local culture and way of thinking provided me with a solid understanding of the domestic and foreign policy dynamics of the country. It was an extremely stimulating experience both personally and professionally and I look forward to the opportunity of returning to the country in the near future.
Funding for fieldwork was provided by the School of Politics and International Relations, the Institute of Asia and Pacific Studies and the Centre for Conflict, Security and Terrorism.
Institute of Asia and Pacific Studies
School of Politics and International Relations
University of Nottingham
Image: Photograph of the Author from an interview with Senator Mushahid Hussain Syed.
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