Pope Francis and “Elite” Interviewing in Social Science

We received today from the Jesuit Catholic magazine America a gift, in the form of a 12,000 word, candid interview with Pope Francis. Read the full article here.

Sociologists employ a variety of methods to better understand the social world; in-depth interviews are among them. In my current research on personal parishes (i.e. non-territorial parishes) in the U.S. Catholic Church, I have conducted more than fifty in-depth interviews, supplementing my national survey of dioceses. Most of these interviews have been with pastors, offering deeply insightful accounts of their congregations and the broader phenomenon of personal parishes. A handful of Bishops have also generously offered their perspectives.

These kinds of conversations – what may be called “elite interviews” – are incredibly useful in research for several reasons.

Among them:

(1)    People “at the top” often shape the story.

You can triangulate through talking to others and creative data-gathering, but elites often carry disproportionate influence. Indeed, that’s in part what constitutes the “elite.” Thus, hearing how they see the issue at hand can teach us a lot about how the rest of us see it.

(2)    Elites make the decisions.

Being in decision-making positions, these individuals may know more about who, when, and why certain decisions are made. Rather than gathering data via speculation, elite interviewing lets you find out (and verify) from the source him/herself.

(3) They (often) know what they’re talking about.

Elite interviewees may possess knowledge in a given area that surpasses that of many – if not most or all – others in their field. This expertise can fill in gaps exposed elsewhere in your research.

Now, all that said (and more), here’s the challenge: elite interviews can be incredibly difficult to secure. As political scientist Kenneth Goldstein put it (2002), this may involve more “art than science.” These people are frequently in high-power, high-responsibility positions. Read: They’re busy. And they’re able to say “no.”

Moreover, interviewing for social science is different than interviewing for journalism. Social science questions are geared toward understanding, explaining, and revealing patterns. You aren’t just looking for a headline or the best “spin,” forgotten by the next news cycle. You have a particular focus area (which your interviewees may or may not be willing to elaborate upon!). Ethics also come into play: research requires consent and voluntary participation. This formality — not to mention the final product — leads to a different character of interview than that conducted for journalism.

So – back to the original point – we celebrate when others provide us with a glimpse into something on our social science “bucket list” but unlikely to transpire. In this case: a three-day, 12,000 word, candid interview with the Pope. Christmas came early for sociologists of Catholicism this year.

P.S. Pope Francis – if you read this and want to talk about personal parishes, please email me. I’ll go anywhere, anytime!!

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