Six degrees of separation is a concept that describes social interconnectedness. The idea, popularized in a 1990s movie, is that each human on the planet could reach any other human, by way of friend-to-friend introduction, in six steps or less. For example, you are six (or fewer) people away from meeting your favorite celebrity you happen to adore. Research has explored this social interconnectedness and, while the actual maximum number of intermediaries may be in dispute, we do live in a small world.
If you are faced with doing a needs or community assessment, social interconnectedness should be comforting. Most good community assessments conducted for project planning involve interviewing key informants selected for their special knowledge about their communities. Key informant interviews can provide a quick source of detailed information important for planning. This tip sheet from USAID talks about the basics of conducting key informant interviews.
However, when Karen and I provide training on community assessment, we find our workshop participants feel daunted by the prospect of actually identifying key informants. So take heart, readers. Our social interconnectedness means good key informants are just a friend or two away.
The interview sampling approach I use is described in this article by Tiffany. It is a participatory evaluation method that engages stakeholders in framing evaluation questions and recruiting interviewees. These stakeholders are your first key informants. You most likely will find them among members of the project team initiating the community assessment. It is likely that their interest in a community was sparked because someone on the team knew someone in the user community.
Those stakeholder key informants can, in turn, direct you to more key informants who can talk about their own and their peers’ needs, desires, opinions and lifestyles. After each interview, you ask a key informant “Who else do you recommend that I interview?” and “What important information can that person add to my understanding about the community?” As a result, your key informants share in refining your community assessment inquiries. Their recommendations allow them input into the direction of your project plans. Because your key informants are likely to be opinion leaders in their communities, you can generate enthusiasm and possibly forge important partnerships, assuming they respond positively to your project. Key informant interviews are your first step in building trust in the user community you’re assessing.
To find key informants who can truly help you gather good project-planning information, be clear about the information you’re seeking. That way, your stakeholders can refer you to the best interviewees for your needs. For guidance on the type of information you should gather in a community assessment, check out these NEO blog posts on Diffusion of Innovation Part One and Part Two.
Ideally key informants get something in return for participating in interviews. At the very least, key informants who are opinion leaders have valuable information about your project or organization to share with their peers. More significantly, your interviewees will assist you in bringing valuable services or resources to their communities.
I want to share two examples of projects where I used this approach to key informant sampling. A few years ago, I led a community assessment project for Cumberland County (North Carolina) Public Library and Information Center, which wanted to improve its service to the military community affiliated with Fort Bragg. (Public Libraries published an article about this project here.)Public librarian Jennifer Taft received funding from the State Library of North Carolina for this project and also participated in the community assessment process. We started by interviewing a cadre of her colleagues from the Fayetteville Community Blueprint Network, composed of representatives of local organizations that served military families. Jennifer and her colleagues had worked together to put on a community forum on post-traumatic stress. After each interview with her forum colleagues, I collected recommendations for other key informants. I did the same with my second wave of interviews. Our sample grew until we had a good sample of interviewees and focus group participants with experience-based perspectives on the military community. All worked in organizations that provided services to military families. Most also were members of military families (that is, service members, veterans or spouses). The key informant interviews had an advantage beyond providing useful information. Relationships established in the interviewing phase provided the library with the contacts it needed to participate, for the first time, in on-post activities.
In a different project, I worked with the National Network of Libraries of Medicine South Central Regional Medical Library to explore how it could support public libraries in hurricane-prone counties. Our sampling process began with contacting librarians at the state libraries of Louisiana and Texas, both of which actively supported public libraries during Hurricanes Katrina and Ike. They introduced us to key informants from “further-in” libraries that valiantly helped waves of evacuees from communities that suffered direct hits. Our contacts pointed us to libraries that were struck by the storms and restored services quickly in order to help their community members. After we completed our interviews, these librarians became valuable partners in helping us develop NN/LM resources. (You can read about the Gulf Coast library community assessment here in Public Libraries.
Still worried about locating good key informants? I assure you, you can have faith in the interconnectedness phenomenon. It has always worked for me, starting with my very first qualitative interviewing project. That project occurred in the 1970s when I was an undergraduate at Penn State. I was enrolled in an undergraduate class taught by an American folklorist. Our extra credit assignment was to find three legends from our own families or social circles. In those pre-Internet days, most modern-day legends were ghost stories. I was immediately overwhelmed. What friend of mine could possibly have a ghost story to share? Turns out, the first person I saw after class had a haunting tale. And so did the next person. Within days, I was 10 points closer to getting an A in the course. Everyone, it seemed, knew someone who had seen a ghost.
So remember, you are probably less than six people removed from a great key informant. Just get a handle on what you want to know in your community assessment, talk to anyone affiliated with the community, and you’re on your way.
And, if you know somebody who knows somebody who knows Kevin Bacon, kindly send their contact information to Cindy or Karen?
Reference: One of the most well-known studies of interconnectedness was
published by Travers, Jeffrey, and Milgram, “An Experimental Study of the Small World Problem”, Sociometry 32(4, Dec. 1969):425–443