Qualitative Research Interviews: Tips and thoughts

May’s meeting of the Qualitative Research Group I coordinate at The School of Dentistry was on Qualitative Research Interviews.  Andrea Rodriguez and I led a discussion by briefly presenting some reflections on our own experience of doing qualitative interviews. Below, we pulled together the main points that were raised by our group of health researchers. We don’t claim to have the answers to all these questions. However, what was clear is that the answers will often change from project-to-project and with different groups of interviewees. Hopefully, these notes offer a useful set of pointers to sensitive the work we are doing and help us think our methods through as we plan research that involves qualitative interviews.

PLANNING:

    • Be clear why you are doing qualitative research interviews: What data do you want? How are you going to analyse it? Are interviews the best way of doing this?
    • What are you hoping to get that you can’t get with questionnaires, desk-based research, participant observation, etc.?
    • Decide who you want to talk to and why.
    • Consider who you are actually going to talk to and why!
    • Consider location: Environment can alter qualitative research interviews. Also create risks. Workplaces? Homes? Coffee shops? Pubs? Streets?
    • Naming and location gives different frame and data – people might act as their work self, their informal self, their ‘other’ self, their aspirational self, etc.
    • Not all interviews are F2F: Telephone, Skype (Audio & Video), WhatsApp?
    • Develop an interview guide: It’s a guide not a schedule. Need to be responsive. If it doesn’t change you’re not listening and learning.

ETHICS:

  • Be clear on your ethics – not just the ethics form.
  • Explore possibilities for innovation while satisfying Ethics Board, e.g. can interviewees engaged in activities associated with social stigma or illegality consent by saying, ‘yes’ on tape rather than signing their name?
  • Are pseudonyms/professional names (e.g. for sex workers) acceptable when being interviewed about their profession? Might the decision to use a family vs married name say something about the interview frame?
  • What will you do with the qualitative research interviews, analysis, reporting, etc.?
  • Anonymity – who is it benefitting? Should we respect people’s wishes to be named? What does this say about our relationship with them?
  • Withdrawal – people can withdraw at any stage…including by not replying to your request to be interviewed.

QUESTIONS:

  • It’s not a test!
  • Is your question something the interviewee: Knows about? Is interested in? Has previously considered? Finds clear?
  • Are your questions too vague, abstract or large and can your interviewee reasonably answer them?
    • x What do you think about the current state of NHS dental provision?
    • x What do you think causes inequality?
  • What assumptions and judgments do your questions make?
    • Tell me about why you let your children frequently eat sugar between meals.
    • What do you think is wrong about not visiting the dentist every six month?
  • Explore the value of using field notes to record non-verbal events in qualitative research interviews, our response to the process, information on the context and feeling. Not all data is in the words – valuable not to lose this by focusing on transcript – or sections of it – as this can lose context.

RELATIONSHIPS:

  • Trust building with potential participants can begin long before interviews: participate in events, engagement with the community, offer services.
  • Reserve enough time to build trust with the organisation that will facilitate/mediate your access to potential participants but also reserve time to make yourself more familiar with these participants before starting interviews.
  • Understanding the qualitative research interviews as an interaction between two persons. There is a clear aim behind of doing this but in the end is an interaction where both researcher and participant will be affected.
  • Be professional and courteous but aim to develop rapport. People prefer to talk to nice people.
  • Sometimes, because of the nature of issues explored during the interview, the participant can want to extend their contact with you. Consider how to manage the balance between your professional boundaries, the respect for the time given to you and the common feeling that came up after they shared their lives with you.
  • Don’t probe hoping the right answers will fall out – instead engage and be interested. Why do you want to know more about this?
  • Be sensitive to the power relationship and enabling fluidity in this.
  • Who is in control? Does it matter if the interviewee leads? Should we be answering questions? What can we gain from that?
  • Value of unstructured interviews (Feminist research, Grounded Theory)
  • Value in moving beyond the ‘first moment’ (Denzin & Lincoln, 1998) where the researcher is the dominant voice.
  • Ensure you are (Active) listening  – they are the expert.
  • Respond based on what your interviewees say not your planned next question. (Be in the moment.)
  • Interviews develop in a shared space, are we prepared for emotions to be part of that sharing? Sharing can have an impact on all parties involved.
  • When things are shared with us – stories, emotions, traumas, etc. – have we built expectations about that with our interviewees? Do we appear to be ‘stealing’ or exploiting their sharing?
  • Be comfortable with pauses and silence, and expression of emotions.
  • Recognise that not everyone will be eloquent and/or forthcoming about all questions. Possibly not asking the right (open) questions for them? Challenge of not just representing chatterboxes in analysis.
  • Repeat and summarize – Use recipient’s language but also rephrase to check you’ve understood.
  • Interview and run? How many times do you need to interview someone?
  • Be sensitive to power dynamic: gender, status, social capital, literacy, race, membership of community.
  • Consider how we manage our dress and language as indicators of status and reproductions of power and difference.
  • Remember, the interviewee is doing you a favour!

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