Asking ‘How?’ vs. ‘Why?’

What I Wish I Had Learned in J-School

I’m currently reading Tricks of the Trade: How to Think About Your Research While You’re Doing It, a wonderful book by American sociologist Howard S. Becker.

As I pursue a career in design research, I’m constantly surprised by how much overlap there is with journalism and how I wish I had been exposed to formal research methodologies as a journalist. I believe students’ exposure to each field could only strengthen their understanding and ability to parse and accurately report information.

For example, Becker writes about how changing an interview question from “Why?” to “How?” will get people to talk without asking for justification. In journalism school, we were taught the 5-W’s (who, what, when, where, why and how) but not when to use each. Becker explains:

“I first understood that “how” was better than “why” as a result of doing field research. When I interviewed people, asking them why they did something invariably provoked a defensive response. If I asked someone why he or she had done some particular thing I was interested in, the poor interviewee understood my question as a request for a justification, for a good and sufficient reason for the action I was inquiring about.

When, on the other hand, I asked how something had happened—”How did you happen to go into that line of work?”—my questions ‘worked’ well. People answered at length, told me stories filled with informative detail, gave accounts that included not only their reasons for whatever they had done, but also he actions of others that had contributed to the outcome I was inquiring about.

“How” questions gave people more leeway, were less constraining, invited them to answer in any way that suited them, to tell a story that included whatever they thought the story ought to include in order to make sense. As a result, they invited people to include what they thought was important to the story, whether I had thought of it or not.”