Interviewing Part 2 – Insights from Interviewing Practice

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In the first blog post on interviewing (Interviewing part 1) I introduced you to the process of interviewing in the social sciences. In this blog post I want to build on the first part, but dive into real interviewing practice, explaining to you some of the issues I have come across when interviewing that you usually don’t read about in methods books. The list of experiences I want to share with you is not exhaustive but at least it sensitizes you to challenges of real life interviewing.

Common issues I have come across

  1. Interviewees try to look at your topic guide

This has happened to me on various occasions. You sit at a table facing your interviewee and put your topic guide (your questions) on the table as to fully concentrate on your research participant. However, as people are generally curious they will look at the guide to find out how many questions you have prepared, what will await them next etc. This will greatly distract both the interviewee and the interviewer and it will prevent a natural conversation from emerging. For this reason I have learned to memorize my questions as well as possible and to bring a clipboard with the topic guide clipped on to the interview, so that I have it close if needed without tempting the interviewee to look.

  1. Interviewees try to interpret why you ask certain questions

This has happened to me a lot! So be prepared for this. I don’t have an answer for how to behave best in such situations either. It is difficult. What I would usually do is try to reply to the interviewee in a way that shows my appreciation for their concern to thoroughly understand the interview but I would also try to be very honest about what I try to accomplish. So I would say something like: “Yes that is a very good aspect you mention here, which is also something I wanted to get to, but there is another aspect I tried to understand…”

  1. Interviewees get bored with the questions or get distracted (e.g. if you interview over phone or internet)

This is a very tricky situation. What has worked for me is trying to let the interviewee determine the direction of the conversation more autonomously to regain their interest. If this doesn’t work, I would try to get to the key questions quickly and then end the interview to make it less painful for both of you. If you want to be more provocative you can also ask the interviewee why this topic bores them. Maybe this will take the conversation in exciting new directions.

To stop them from getting distracted online, it is a good idea to explain at the beginning of the interview how important it is that you have their full attention. This will at least make it less likely that they engage in some other activity while you interview them.

  1. Interviewee answers with yes or no

This is a situation where you should seriously reflect on your own questions. Are they not phrased openly enough (i.e. open ended not leading to yes / no answers)? Can you think of other ways to probe for longer answers, such as “Can you tell me more about this?” “What is the story behind this?” “Do you have an example to illustrate this?” If the interviewee is still very much sticking to yes and no, then sometimes it is just best to end the interview early.

  1. Interviewee goes off to talk about something irrelevant for you

This is again a very difficult situation. You are glad they share their stories with you but you want to make sure you cover the key questions you have prepared. In this situation, I would stop the interviewee after a little while and say something like “That is so interesting, thank you for sharing, but going back to this topic…”

  1. Connection drops while interviewing (if online)

In this situation it is very important that you immediately write down what you were talking about when the connection dropped. Even if it is just a few seconds, you may both forget where you left off leading to valuable information getting lost. It happened to me on a few occasions and it is painful; so I now have a pen and paper ready so that I can write down the last sentences immediately after the connection drops.

  1. Interviewee has strong opinion you, as interviewer, don’t or even strongly disagree with

This is probably the most difficult situation to deal with and yes it happened to me. In such a situation it is really a question of what methodological standpoint you are taking. Are you a co-constructor of the narratives that emerge from the interview or do you think that you are a passive bystander? Depending on your standpoint to these questions you need to think about how to react. This is something you should really and carefully think through before you start any interview as to be prepared for the situation when it unfolds in the moment. If you decide to engage in a discussion with the interviewee rather than accepting his or her position then you should nonetheless make sure that you maintain a professional and polite tone at all times. I have found that in situations where I did challenge the interviewee on something I didn’t agree with, the most interesting insights were generated or co-constructed. Yet, it is a really difficult situation to deal with and you need to reflect on this on your own and possibly discuss this with your supervisor as well to find the most suitable approach for your specific research project.

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.

Transcribing Interviews – Made Eas(y)ier: 9 Helpful Tips

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The longer you are at university (and this mostly applies to students of the social sciences and humanities), you will most likely be asked to do little research projectsat one point. This can be a daunting task at first, but, in fact, I think these are the most fun and interesting projects you will get to do as a student. Yet they can also be very burdensome in terms of how much work needs to be done for them. Especially when it comes to qualitative research that involves interviews or focus groups. If you have to do this kind of research, most of the time you will be expected to transcribe your interviews and that means that you will have to tape record the interview and then listen to it again to type up – word for word – what has been said. This is called a “verbatim transcription”.

Sometimes your professors may not expect you to transcribe verbatim; this is something you should check out before you get started as it can make a huge difference in how much time you need to allocate to your research project. A verbatim transcription of an interview of 1 hour is often said to take you 6 hours, so for each 10 minutes you will have to budget one hour transcription time. This sounds horrible and it can be, but you will find that re-listening to an interview and typing it up can also be a very useful way of already getting mentally started with your analysis. I will get to this again in a second.

Here are my 9 top tips for how to transcribe effectively, all based on my own experience of having transcribed dozens of interviews, and more, myself.

 

  1. Clarify whether you need to:
    1. Transcribe Verbatim
    2. Include pauses (and think about how you will mark these pauses e.g. with a [pause])
    3. Include ehs, uhs etc.
    4. Include change of tone, laughter (in most social sciences it is usually enough to transcribe all spoken words but there are disciplines e.g. linguistics where you need to include changes of tone and a lot of other aspects of language in your transcriptions, this will add to the above estimation of 1 hour for 10 minutes of interview)
  2. Get a comfortable seat. You will be sat at your desk for quite some time, so make sure you sit comfortably.
  3. Get a comfortable keyboard on which you can type away without making too many mistakes! This will save you a lot of time of having to stop the tape and correcting what you have misspelled.
  4. Practice speed typing! Make sure you are as fast as possible in typing because you will need to keep up with the tape. Though it is unrealistic that you can type as fast as you or your interviewees speak, it is well worth trying to optimize your typing as you will have to stop the tape less often and will be much faster.
  5. Use good speakers and/or good earphones: Since you will be sat at your desk for some time constantly listening to a tape, you should make sure that your equipment is good enough and not harming your ears.
  6. Change between listening to earphones and your computer’s speakers. This is from my personal experience. It can really become painful to listen to a tape via earphones for many hours, so I would recommend you switch between earphones and speakers.
  7. Take breaks. It can be very tedious and straining to transcribe for a long time uninterruptedly, so make sure you take breaks and switch to other tasks to make it less painful. I usually transcribe in the mornings then take a break and do something else in the early afternoon and may go back to transcribing again in the late afternoon. You need to find out what works best for you.
  8. Start analyzing the interviews as you transcribe. This is what I found most useful in transcribing interviews. As you re-listen to the interviews you will again and again find very interesting passages that you want to remember so make sure you already mark these passages by e.g. highlighting them in a specific color. This will make the analysis phase much easier and it will also save you time. Also, mark these passages with timestamps so you can always go back to them easily if needed.
  9. Use transcription software!!!! This is probably the most important tip I have for you and I have not discovered this possibility until recently. There is software that will help you transcribe by allowing you to regulate the speed of the recording, to fast forward or backward, to easily stop and start, to print timestamps and most importantly to type in your browser!! So you won’t have to switch between the player and the word processor. It can all be done in the same interface. This has actually helped me cut my transcription time by at least 1/3 if not more. The software that I have been using recently is completely free and you don’t even need to download anything as it is 100% browser based. It is called otranscribe and you can find it here: http://otranscribe.com/

I hope that these tips will help you make transcriptions a less painful and even useful experience for you, and if you have any additional tips about this subject, please feel free to comment.