Is This a Blog Post About Leading Questions?

Yes. Yes it is.

More specifically, it’s about the dangers of leading questions in doing research, something that I was lucky enough to experience firsthand this week. Leading questions are those which either have a specific answer, or a limited number of answers to choose from (i.e. yes or no). That much is obvious. However, the significance of limiting someone’s answers when you’re trying to do research into their livelihood or other activities in which they are engaged is not immediately obvious. For example, if you asked me if I was a race car driver, I’d probably say no and follow it with an explanation of my actual occupation. The same is not true of everyone; you might get a simple no, or some explanation, or even a yes if you asked this question of a Ghanaian.

Why? It has little to do with Ghanaians not understanding the concept of a race car driver, and a lot to do with cultural barriers. First, the word used to describe the concept of a race car driver might not be understood during conversation. Sometimes if you can ask the same thing in the local language, you’ll get a different answer than if you were to ask it in English. Unfortunately, my Dagbani isn’t quite at that level just yet. Second, maybe it is generally understood that if you’re asking a yes or no question, you want a yes or no answer. I’ve noticed that with people I don’t know very well, this is true; low trust means that they are reticent to go into further detail aside from what I specifically ask. Finally, you might get a yes to the race car driver question, even though the individual is definitely not a race car driver. This is likely because yes is the answer that that person thinks you want and that they might get some benefit from giving it to you. Many times this is due to interactions with donors who are, in fact, looking for a particular answer so that they can decide whether or not to give support.

On the first day at my office, I was very conscious of the leading questions I was asking of my colleagues; in practice, it is very difficult to talk in open questions 100% of the time. The result: at least three different descriptions of the role of my office within the Ghanaian government, two of which came from the same person. Instead of asking “What is the role of the Regional Education Office?” I attached my assumptions about the office’s role and asked questions specifically about those assumptions. Herein lies another danger of leading questions: they are unlikely to garner information that you don’t already think you know. Thankfully, I was able to come in on day two and phrase my questions more effectively to get a more complete picture of things. I’m going to have to continue to be conscious and active in my question-asking in order to make sure I keep that up as I gather more information.

-C

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6 responses to “Is This a Blog Post About Leading Questions?

  1. Quick turn-around my friend. It took me close to a week to realize that I was asking rather leading questions in my office/farmers-group interactions!

    Great posts, and thanks for sharing your learning!
    – Brian

  2. Hi Christian.
    I read your post during my morning coffee today.
    Thanks, good reminder !
    Cheers, Ceve

  3. Nice post! Powerful and open-ended questions — important for anyone who truly wants to learn and explore (not just for development workers!). Thanks for the post.

  4. very important thing to be conscious of during your placement! way to catch it early!

  5. I echo all the other statements about catching it early – and offer a blog post on a similar (with a YT link, idk if your internet is strong enough for that) topic: http://beginninginbamako.wordpress.com/2011/05/23/policy-based-evidence-making/

  6. Great reminder! And again, good catch!

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