Gathering Qualitative interview data
When I’m helping researchers prepare to conduct research interviews for the first time, there is a variety of attitudes. Some start with under-estimating the complexity of research interviews and say things like
· Well, it’s just a chat, isn’t it?
· I ask a question, they answer, right?
· I talk to people all the time as part of my job, how hard can it be?
Others are almost paralysed by the fear of the “what if”s
· What if I say the wrong thing?
· What if they don’t say anything?
· What if the batteries run out?
Most experience the more usual mild anxiety around behaving professionally and coming away from the interview with usable research data. Even if you’ve interviewed people in your job, what does a research interview look and feel like, how should I behave? After-all, how many research interviews have you conducted?
There are as many contexts for interviewing as there are contexts. Take a moment to reflect on your research interviews. Who will you interview? Where will you do yours? What will you need? Who else needs to be involved? Will it be pre-arranged or impromptu?
You might need to go ‘into the field.’ In qualitative research, where we value subjectivity and moving beyond objective facts, the context could be naturalistic and the tone and style is often more conversational than you might expect. Your congruence as a researcher is also important. Trying to adopt someone else’s style, is not recommended. There are as many ways to get research data, as there are research contexts. It is certainly not an interrogation.
A note of caution: Be aware that interviewing can be unpredictable. And there are power and control issues. You may leave feeling that you had a lovely chat with your charming executive, only to realise later that they avoided talking in any detail. Or you succeeded in securing your longed-for interview, only for them to say ‘oh you don’t mind if some of colleagues join me, do you?’
Well, do you mind? It could be fabulous news; a mini-focus group, or awful, finding yourself being questioned by the legal team. How will you decide what to do? You must prepare yourself and possibly them for what you expect in terms of behaviour, or the reasonable parameters of the interview. Whilst a situation like this is not irretrievable, (stay calm and un-defensive), good preparation and communication in advance is important.
So what do I need to do before interviewing?
There are many ways to address this question but I have two favourite frameworks.
The first is a simple set of Socratics.
· Who are they? Why them? Who else? Who is unsuitable?
· How will this affect the things I will say? How will I get them started? How will I know when we are finished? How will I get there?
· What do you need from them? What have you already told them? What will you tell them? What will you do? What do you need to bring with you?
· When will the interview take place? Does this leave you with enough time to analyse and report on your data? What are the time-frames that need to be communicated to others?
· Where? This is not just the setting of the interview, but also the logistics of getting to where the interview is, and back home again.
I like to combine the Socratic questions with, what I call, the Purpose Framework. (Drawn from the work of the Anthropologist, Gregory Bateson).
· The person – this links with the ‘who’ and ‘what’ of the Socratics. What’s their context? Are there cultural norms that I need to understand? What’s the benefit for them in agreeing to the interview?
You can probably already see how preparing for your interviews by asking yourself these kinds of questions would help you deal with that scenario we saw a moment ago, where you were the one being questioned intently by a legal team.
· The research – what is the research design? Is it just a one-off face to face interview, or are there different or more complex design elements (telephone interview, video recording scene-setting activities, elicitation devices, participant-led data collection tools to discuss and hand over).
· The Environment. Do you have control over the environment that you’ll be in? If not, who does? Will you be in someone else’s home? What do you need or not need? What is a nice to have, and what is essential? Have you communicated this?
· You. Don’t forget you, and your needs in all of this. To stay professional, request what you do need, rather than what you don’t.
· The Technical. When you first do your interviews you will have spare batteries, and back-ups of everything. Then you’ll get fed-up of lugging it around, or change bags at the last minute. Always check for batteries and a spare pen!
But this leads me to the last bubble, What else?
· What else could I do? What’s my plan B?
There’s always a new ‘what else?’, so I can’t predict them all here. But perhaps it’s as simple as the need to combine the interview with the examination, say of an animal, or a piece of equipment. Your context will determine these ‘what else?’s
And finally the central question.
· ‘What is my purpose?’
You will have many purposes at any one time, to stay safe, be ethical, get answers to research questions, get your degree with minimal effort even (not all purposes are morally good), but when faced with choices in any research interview, thinking in terms of the purpose of the research, is my best advice for keeping you on track.
You can watch this blog presented on YouTube here, and the detail of this blog is part of a bigger course, where you can learn much more about qualitative research data gathering and analysis, and have lots of fun with interactive exercises. It runs over 2 half days with an optional unit to learn the specifics of coding with our Quirkos software. You can find the dates for the next course here
I look forward to seeing you on one of our courses, soon.