We will define our April focus broadly to include any qualitative or quantitative methods that involve questioning, prompting, or working with participants to collect or generate data. Find the unfolding series here.
Katy Wheeler and Bethany Morgan Brett have written a book about interview research, forthcoming from SAGE Publishing. We will let you know when it is available for pre-order, but in the meantime, they agreed to answer a few questions about collecting data with interviews.
JS. What do you see as the main advantages of interviews over other forms of data collection?
Katy Wheeler & Bethany Morgan Brett. Interviews are an incredibly flexible and versatile method and have many advantages. Qualitative interviews allow you to gain access to rich data about your participants’ experiences, memories, and feelings. They are a responsive method which means you can follow-up on and explore issues that are relevant to each participant. Probing for more depth and detail is a key element of qualitative interviewing and this enables you to develop a rapport with your interviewees. Not only can you gather great data using this method, but we have found the people often really enjoy being interviewed and having the opportunity to talk at length about an issue that matters to them.
We have both used interviews in our own research to great effect. Katy has used interviews to learn how issues like Fairtrade consumption, waste management and environmental education are instituted at the local, national and cross-cultural level, talking to policy makers, private companies, activists and consumers. Whereas Bethany has used free association narrative interviews to understand how people negotiate the experience of ageing as they enter midlife, and cope with their older relatives moving into care. She has interviewed people who have ageing parents, care home residents, and care home staff. It is hard to imagine another method that could have captured these very diverse issues in such a rich and detailed way.
We are obviously keen proponents of qualitative interviews, but we are wary of claiming that interviews are better than other forms of data collection. It will all depend on your research question and whether your research topic lends itself to using qualitative interviewing.
JS. If you were advising a new researcher about whether to use interviews for data collection, what would you advise them about why and when to use this method to collect data?
Katy Wheeler & Bethany Morgan Brett. Many students and new researchers come to us assuming their projects will involve qualitative interviews – often because they want to avoid statistics! But this is not the best criteria on which to base your decision. Instead, you should base your decision on whether your research question is best answered using qualitative interviews.
If you have a research questions that begins with ‘how’ and ‘what’ then these are the sorts of questions that tend to be most suited to qualitative research. Research questions that focus in on how people experience the social world and attach meanings to those experiences are likely to be well-suited to qualitative interviews. It’s important that people have a real interest or ‘personal stake’ in the topic you will be talking to them about. From experience, we know how difficult it is to ask people to talk at length and in detail about something they have little interest or direct experience of.
Qualitative interviews are good for exploring research questions that deal with sensitive topics (like sexual encounters, health problems or experiences of discrimination). For example, Bethany’s project asked how people make the decision to place older parents into care and she found this sensitive issue was best addressed through interviews where she could build a rapport with her interviewees and give full attention to each unique story.
Interviews are often used when other sources of information are unavailable about a topic. For example, when researching how an environmental education programme came into being in Scotland, Katy found that although there were many documents about the policy decisions made, there was little information about how different organisations came together and worked to achieve those policy goals. Qualitative interviews were the most effective way of gathering this information.
JS. How should researchers prepare for interviews?
Katy Wheeler & Bethany Morgan Brett. The best advice we can offer to become a skilled qualitative interviewer is to practice! To be a good interviewer you need to be a good listener and be good at thinking on your feet to develop questions that can probe for more depth and detail. Becoming a skilled active listener takes time. But there are several ways you can practice active listening and the sorts of skills needed to ask good follow-up questions before you conduct your interviews.
- You could listen to a radio or tv interview and as you do, make a note of the sorts of questions that the interviewer asks of the interviewee. What do you think of these questions? Would you have asked these questions if you were conducting a qualitative interview? What other questions might have been asked that would have followed up on something the interviewee said? Spend time coming up with alternative probes and follow-ups.
- You could do a practice interview with a friend. Listen carefully for phrases like ‘you know what I mean’ and be sure to probe fully. Notice how it feels to interview someone with whom you have a shared history – it may feel awkward to probe or you might feel at ease interviewing them.
- Learn from others’ transcripts. Visit the UK Data Service (or a similar online repository) and download an interview transcript. Go through the transcript carefully and look at the questions asked by the interviewer and the answers given by the interviewee. Try to find examples of things the interviewer did well and less well? Like the radio/tv interview, ask yourself if you would have asked the same follow-ups and write alternative questions that could have been asked.
All of these practice activities are about getting you into the habit of routinely reflecting on good and poor practice. This really is the best way to develop these skills and make active listening more automatic.
JS. What do you suggest for researchers who are studying sensitive, politically hot, or other tricky subjects?
Katy Wheeler & Bethany Morgan Brett. Be prepared and plan your questions carefully!
For a sensitive interview, remember that your interviewee has agreed to take part and should have been warned beforehand (when setting up the interview) that the topic might be difficult for them. Questions should build towards the more difficult/sensitive and you should expect to spend some time putting the participant at ease. Take a pack of tissues with you if you think they might cry, and some information about local support services (don’t be tempted to offer counselling, this is not your role).
For interviews with elites, do your homework. Look at how they have spoken about the ‘hot topic’ publicly and think carefully about how you can pose your questions to avoid a rehearsed answer. Elites will often have less time available and may cut interviews short because of changes to their schedule at the last minute. So, it’s a good idea to prioritise your questions (never ask a question you can find an answer to online) and move more quickly to the difficult topics. Take a watch and keep an eye on it to make sure you don’t run out of time.
Relevant MethodSpace Posts
- Getting Started with Archival Research
- Finding Data in Documents and Datasets
- Collect Data from Participants
- The Value of Researching Lives Qualitatively through Time
- What exactly is “Online Data”?
- Creative Approaches to Biographical and Life History Interviews
- Collecting Data with Interviews
- What are the Most Common Means for Collecting Data?
- Conducting Focus Groups