by Michela Musto
I’m sitting outside the Sun Valley Aquatics Center on a Friday evening, interviewing Cody, Jon, and Elijah, three nine and ten-year-old boys. Halfway through the interview, Jon runs to a bush about 20 yards away. A minute later, Cody also jumps up and tells us “I’m gonna go get Jon.” The two boys come back laughing. Cody stops laughing long enough to explain, “He farted! I got mad so he went over there [to fart again].” For the rest of the interview, the boys take turns leaving the interview to go visit what they call “the fart bush.”
When I first began researching gender and athleticism at Sun Valley Swim Team [SVST], I never guessed I’d soon be spending my Friday evenings discussing the finer points of flatulence with nine and ten-year-olds. As a feminist sociologist, I am aware of the power imbalance that exists between researchers and participants. This imbalance is far more pronounced when interviewing children, who may feel pressured or worry about giving “incorrect” answers. So my original research plan was based on collecting ethnographic data only.
However, after conducting six months of ethnographic research at SVST, I found it difficult to fully understand swimmers’ experiences simply by observing. During swim practices, I stood on the pool deck next to the coaches. From my position, I couldn’t informally interact with the athletes. I considered swimming with the kids, but without training for several hours a day, I wouldn’t have been able to keep up!
I decided to use interviews to develop a better understanding of athletes’ opinions about swimming and gender. To put kids at ease, I gave swimmers the choice of being interviewed alone or with their friends. By accident, I ended up interviewing several of the swimmers in both solo and group interviews. This accident revealed a lesson I’ll carry with me in the future, especially when interviewing children. I found that when interviewed alone, many of the kids provided short, direct answers to my questions. Take Brady’s answers to my questions during his solo interview:
MM: Are there any differences between baseball and swimming?
Brady: One of them you play on land, and one of them you play in the pool.
MM: That’s true. Anything else?
Brady: One of them, the pool gets really cold and the fields get really hot so…You both need your arms for both of them and your legs for both of them.
MM: Mmm hmm, are they like equally hard?
Brady: Umm…I’m gonna have to go with swimming for more hard. ‘Cause baseball is just, it can be physically hard, swimming is both physically hard and mentally hard.
During his solo interview, Brady made eye contact with me, provided a short response, and then paused, waiting for me to ask the next question. After prompting Brady several times, I learned that swimming was “more hard” than baseball, but his responses remained succinct.
However, I found that group interviews took on a much different rhythm. This shift was very clear when Nick wandered over and began chatting with Brady and me. Brady immediately became much more animated and talkative when Nick arrived. Whereas the single participant interviews took roughly 40 minutes to complete, Brady and Nick talked for over an hour together.
Here’s an excerpt from Brady’s conversation with Nick:
Brady: …This kid’s an awesome butterfly-er, he got like first at the California Classic, which means he’s like the best in Southern California.
Nick: [holds up 2 fingers]
Brady: I thought you got first in the 50 fly? At the California Classic, Nick had a tough meet…We’ll go next year. Dude next year, people are gonna be scared of you.
Nick: I’ll be 11, for JOs [Junior Olympics].
Brady: But at JOs people are gonna be scared of him. He’s sort of like the Nate Brown…Yeah Nate Brown is this really nice kid from Southern California Swim Team. He’s the amazing butterfly-er. Yeah.
Nick: And then I beat him.
MM: You beat him? But Nate is really fast?
Nick: Yeah but only in butterfly—
Brady: The only two kids that beat me in JOs were Ethan Herrington from Waves Swim Team and Robert Smith from Warriors Swim Team, and Robert Smith beat me by like four tenths and Ethan Herrington beat me by like six tenths. So I mean it wasn’t photo finish, but it was still close. I mean you saw the race, wasn’t it close, not photo finish?
Nick: Yeah, it was close.
After Nick joined Brady, I barely had talked at all. Instead, the boys took the lead and spontaneously introduced topics to talk about. The swimmers also acted less reserved during group interviews. For example, Cody, Jon, and Elijah peppered their conversation with fake punches, jumps, and shrieks. And while all this additional interaction is great to witness and note as a researcher, what was most valuable, I realized, is that within this more relaxed format, the power balance had shifted. The kids now played a more active role in shaping the rhythm and style of the conversation. As a researcher, and as a feminist, this was an exciting change to witness.
Does this mean that researchers should always interview kids in groups? Not necessarily. If the kids hadn’t been close friends, the group interview format may not have worked as well. Through my research I found that it’s important to be flexible and open to trying different techniques when conducting qualitative research with kids. You never know where some trial and error might take you—but for your sake, I hope you don’t find yourself sitting downwind from a fart bush.
Michela Musto is Ph.D. candidate in sociology at the University of Southern California. Her article, “Athletes in the Pool, Girls and Boys on Deck: The Contextual Construction of Gender in Coed Youth Swimming,” is published in the June 2014 issue of Gender & Society. To view the article, click here.