Interviewing in Social Science Research Projects Part 1 – Some Basic Principles

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Interviewing is a very common method to collect qualitative data in social science research projects. Interviewing is a very time consuming but very fruitful method to use and much can be said about it. Due to this reason I will split this topic into two posts. In this first post I will cover some of the basic principles you should adhere to when interviewing; in the second post I will discuss some personal experiences and pitfalls I have come across or fallen into in the dozens of interviews I have conducted to date and I will explain how I tried to solve some of these situations.

Type of interviews

There are 3 types of interviews that are used:

  1. Unstructured: You only have an idea of what you want to talk about, but you have not prepared a set of questions you plan to ask. Instead it feels as if you are having more of a conversation than a formal interview.
  2. Semi-structured: You have prepared a set of questions and you have a clear idea of what topics you want to cover. You can still deviate from your questions and talk about new things that come up, but generally you aim to cover the same questions in all your interviews.
  3. Structured: You have a clear set of questions, often with yes and no answers. This is a very formal way of interviewing and most often used in survey research. It is less commonly used to collect qualitative data that aims to uncover meanings, experiences and stories of the interviewees.

Most typically interviews for qualitative studies are semi-structured, so the remainder of this blog will be based on the assumption that you conduct semi-structured interviews.

Preparation

  1. Define topic of interview: What do you want to find out?
  2. Who to interview and how to access them: Once you know what your topic will be, it is important to ask yourself who you want to interview and how you want to access them. If you want to find out about a certain subject that only a specific group of people know about, it is of crucial importance to find one first contact who can help you identify more interviewees who he/she thinks would be good candidates. From these new contacts you can then identify even more candidates and so on. This method is called snowballing and is often used in interview studies. While it may be difficult to get that first contact, in my experience, once I had it I have often found it very easy to get access to more interviewees.
  3. Topic guide: Before you start with your interviews you need to develop a topic guide. In this guide you should include all questions that you want to ask, grouped by theme or topic. You should also make sure that you have a logical order in which you want to ask your questions, though this order may need to be adjusted during the interview.
  4. How to interview (virtual, in person, telephone): During the time you seek access, you also need to think about how to interview. Will you be able to meet everybody in person for a face-to-face interview, can you call them by phone, can you do a video call with them e.g. through Skype? I have used all three of them on many occasions and while face-to-face is probably the best way to establish rapport between you and the interviewee, it is not always possible. In such cases Skype can be of great help and can also allow you to save significant amounts of money, if you don’t have to travel physically.
  5. Obtaining consent: Once you are clear on the above points, you should draft an informed consent form that details the aims and objectives of your research, the methods you use, the confidentiality procedures you have put in place and what will happen after the interview. Often universities provide examples of consent forms that you can adjust to your needs.
  6. Bring equipment e.g. recorder, pen & paper: In times of smartphones you usually carry your recorder with you, but you should still make sure that you know how it works and how good the quality is. If the interview is online you can download apps that record the interview for you e.g. “MP3 Skype recorder”.
  7. Location of interview: If the interview is face-to-face think about where you can interview in confidence and quiet without interruptions. Cafes may be a good meeting point but are not a good option due to noise and distractions. If the interview is online you should still make sure that you and your interviewees sit in a quiet room so that nobody will interrupt or overhear your conversation.
  8. Bring/Provide “thank yous” as incentive: It is always a good idea to let interviewees know upfront that you are grateful for the time they give you, due to which you will provide e.g. snacks, drinks, cookies, chocolates. Depending on budget, other incentives can be useful as well such as a small amount of money to thank them for their time. It is not necessary but often appreciated. If the interview is online, the least you can do is to offer the interviewees a summary of the results at the end of your study.

Conducting the interview

  1. Speak slowly and clearly: This will make the transcription afterwards easier and will also make it easier for your interviewees to follow your questions and understand them fully.
  2. Introduce yourself: This may sound obvious but especially when it is an online interview, it is easy to forget this. It is important that your interviewees know who you are so that they can establish some initial trust.
  3. Clarify objectives: Make sure the interviewees are clear on what this project is all about and give them the opportunity to ask questions.
  4. Start interview with fairly easy questions: This is very important as you don’t want to be too demanding at the beginning and you need to slowly work your way towards more complicated and/or personal questions.
  5. Try to build up trust and rapport between you and your interviewee e.g. by telling them something about yourself: This has often worked for me. I ask them about something personal and I make it easier for them to answer by providing a personal story of my own.
  6. Ask more difficult questions later on: Once the trust is there it is much easier to ask delicate questions.
  7. Be sensitive: Not everybody is always willing to talk about all the things you will want to talk about. Respect this and stop pushing, if it is clear that they don’t want to go there.
  8. Probe for more details if something interesting comes up: For instance, ask “can you be more specific”, “do you have a concrete example”.
  9. Clarify complicated statements by rewording them and by asking if you understood this correctly: Ask them “Did you mean…” or “To sum up, I understood this…”
  10. Complete interview and tell the interviewee what happens next: Once the interview is done, be clear about it, tell them how you will proceed and how long you estimate it will take before you can provide them with a summary of the results.
  11. Thank them for their participation and time
  12. Possibly ask for contact detailsg. email address so that you can provide the interviewees with the results of your study, should they be interested.

After the interview

  1. Reflect on the interview: What has gone well and what hasn’t? How can you improve next time?
  2. Develop topic guide further: Possibly new issues or themes have come up in one interview that you hadn’t thought about previously. In such cases I have often extended or modified my topic guide to include these new issues for the remaining interviews.

Ethnomethodology – A Provocative Research Method Missing the Point?

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***This blogpost is adopted from an earlier blog I wrote as part of an assignment during my master’s degree, I have slightly altered and adapted it.***

A big organisation. People do their work. One man doesn’t fit in. He is watching, observing, analysing. That’s Mark Rouncefield’s job. He is an ethnomethodologist.

During my master’s I had a very valuable course that thought me how to do research in academic contexts and introduced me to the different kinds of methods out there. One particular lesson I remember was that on Ethnomethodology, a very interesting and provocative qualitative research method, taught by Mark Rouncefield of Lancaster University. This lesson really challenged everything what I had read, learned and believed in the past. And it particularly challenged grand narratives and theories such as the ideas of modernity and postmodernity. For these reasons I find it quite important to revisit this subject in this methods blog, though it is a much more philosophical and less hands-on post than usual. So, if you are interested in the philosophical discussions behind doing research, this post is for you!

Sociologists argue that there are underlying social constructs that shape society which influence our work, home, the technologies we use, our understanding of our identity – capitalism being one of them (e.g. as discussed by sociologists such as Richard Sennet in his book “Corrosion of Character: The Personal Consequences of Work in the New Capitalism” – I highly recommend it). This is just one side of sociology though. There are many different streams. A very prominent one that I have strongly identified with recently is that of social constructivism which argues that everything is socially constructed including technologies, gender identities etc. (e.g. Bjiker & Law, 1992 in “Shaping Technology/Building Society”; MacKenzie & Wajcman, 1999 in “The Social Shaping of Technology”). Theories are a fundamental element of such approaches to sociology in their attempt to untangle the grand narrative that builds our society and civilization.

Mark Rouncefield on the other hand is an ethnomethodologist; another fancy word with probably a purely academic meaning and most likely not much controversy, so it may seem at first sight, but bear with me as I will explain how it relates to sociology and why I find it fascinating and relevant!

According to Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ethnomethodology) ethnomethodology is the study of everyday methods that people use for the production of social order. This method aims to understand how and through what practices people make sense of their world.

While this definition doesn’t seem to be too radical at first sight, when Rouncefield explained it, it became clear quickly how fundamentally different his approach is to that of sociology (even though strictly spoken ethnomethodology is considered a part of sociology). Even more drastic than merely being the opposite of conventional sociology, he aggressively rejects anything that has to do with it, especially when it comes to actively designing artefacts. He completely discards the idea of having a theory and a grand narrative as he considers these all to be “made-up speculations.

As I understood, he believes that claiming to look for underlying causes in society and meanings in our behaviour is a waste of time and only a sociologist imposing his or her theory on the world: he basically considers sociologist assuperfluous. Instead he proposes that it makes a lot more sense to actually go out and study what people do by documenting every step of their actions and how they do it. He looks at the daily processes that people engage in and tries to discover routines and exceptions to these routines. That way his ethnographic accounts of how people live can then inform design decisions.

For design, he believes, looking at the grand narrative is no more than a mere distraction and not helpful in producing something useful to make people’s lives better. In that way sociology is highly impractical, and again superfluous.

Ethnomethodology – the best way to design?

Wow! What a drastically different approach to what I had known so far and seen in academia. Fascinating. What do you think? It definitely got me thinking! I can clearly see his point, for a general theorization of why society is how it is is not directly or visibly constructive in designing artefacts. Yet, I also feel that he is missing a crucial point in completely rejecting grand narratives of society. From the point of view of a constructivist – the vantage point I have come to identify with the most – one tries to understand why our society is how it is, which includes an analysis of power structures. Our norms and behaviours are shaped by underlying values of our cultural background and this background is also reflected in the artefacts we use as our designers shape and are shaped by our society. In this way society advances and brings about innovation.

Another aspect of design I have recently come across is the widespread tendency of designers to infer that their own preferences will also be liked by other people. One example of such “egocentrism” (this is how it is officially called as I learnt from behavioural science literature), I came across recently in the use of email. We automatically assume that people understand emails as we do while writing them; yet often this is not so, leading to misunderstandings (Derks & Bakker, 2010, have a really good paper on this topic). This can also be a problem for designers of new technologies, another example being computer games that often exclude women as most game designers are still mainly young men.

My point is then, if we don’t question the underlying hierarchies and power relationships at play and only observe the existing processes, how do we identify inequalities and how do we hear the voice of the marginalized not present in such ethnographic studies?

More inclusive alternatives

An interesting approach, again something Rouncefield would reject, is that of Standpoint Theory (which I read about for the first time in Haraway (1988) and it made a lot of sense to me) which says that the voice of the unheard needs to be considered in the design process as well in order to be truly objective and hence to bring about innovation for everybody. Where is the criticality in his approach that could lead to social change and advancement? How can disruptive technologies evolve (for me disruptive meaning that they are disruptive to society in terms of change for the better), if we only manifest what we already know? How can the marginalized be heard and how can designers help them and give them a voice if they are absent from the places where ethnographic studies take place?

These questions I started to think about while listening to his ideas and they remained unanswered as he simply said it didn’t matter to him why society was how it was. Don’t you also think he should try to answer these questions?

Again, I totally see his point that for design it is important to observe the existing, as new emerges from the old, just like Schumpeter already argued in his notion of creative destruction. Yet, I argue that to detect and mitigate social inequalities, one also has to have a look at the grand narrative and the underlying causes for power hierarchies. Together, I believe these two approaches could become very powerful indeed in their attempt to create truly innovative and inclusive designs.

Bjiker, W.E. & Law, J., 1992. Shaping Technology/Building Society. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Derks, D. & Bakker, A.B., 2010. The Impact of Email Communication on Organizational Life. Cyberpsychology: Journal of Psychosocial Research on Cyberspace, 4(1), [online] Available at: <http://cyberpsychology.eu/view.php?cisloclanku=2010052401&article=1>  [Accessed on 31/01/2013].

Haraway, D., 1988. Situated knowledges: The science question in feminism and the privilege of partial perspective. Feminist Studies,  14(3), pp.575–599.

MacKenzie, D. & Wajcman, J., 1999. The Social Shaping of Technology. 2nd ed. Buckingham: Open University Press.

Sennett, R., 1998. The Corrosion of Character: The Personal Consequences of Work in the New Capitalism, New York: WW Norton & Company.