Structures, Positions & Tech Choices in Online Interviews

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Thinking about your position in relation to participants and research problems.

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While all researchers need to be self-aware and transparent about their positions, when conducting research online every design choice relates in some way to technology choices, and selection of methods. Four questions were asked about the position of the researcher, and metaphors I introduced to help us think about how we might relate to participants in online interviews, focus groups, participant observations, or creative methods. (See related post “Metaphors for Thinking about Qualitative Researchers’ Roles“)

Question 1: who came up with miner and traveler metaphors? 

Steiner Kvale and Svend Brinkman have written a number of excellent books about interview research. InterViews: Learning the craft of qualitative research interviewing (Kvale & Brinkman, 2014) is excellent. They discuss the miner and traveler metaphors in chapter 3. FYI, you can download chapters 1 and 2 here. You can also find more writings from Kvale in the SAGE Research Methods database; see list and access information at the end of this post.

Question 2: Could you please talk a little bit more about “taking a position as a researcher”?

Question 3: For gardener approach, how to cultivate the relationship between researcher and participants via online platforms

Question 4: Would you need more time allocated to be a gardener or traveler vs a miner? I’m just wondering how this practically impacts time allocated for an interview.

I’ve excerpted and adapted chapters from Qualitative Online Interviews in response to these three questions. In addition to exploring the metaphors of miner, gardener, and traveler, I discuss position in terms of insider or outsider status.

Taking a Position as a Researcher

Qualitative researchers value closeness to the participant. Unlike researchers who send out surveys or work with Big Data, the qualitative researcher makes close, immediate contact with participants—often to discuss personal views, attitudes, or perspectives. How close is too close? At what point does the degree of intimacy with the organization, group, or participant, or familiarity with the research problem, jeopardize the researcher’s ability to carry out the study? When do conflict of interest and/or researcher bias taint the findings? Self-awareness about these issues is critical: is the researcher receptive to alternative views or already set in terms of expectations for the ways participants will answer questions?

The researcher should know from the earliest design stage where he or she stands to guard against biases or conflicts of interest. Any real or potential bias resulting from insider positions should be transparent to the reader; otherwise, it could undermine the value of the study. Researchers must be able to explain whether, or to what extent, they are working from an outside or inside position. The position of the researcher will inform not only the perspectives the researcher brings to the study but also lenses used to analyze the data.

Robert Stake (1995) distinguishes etic issues as those that originate in the literature and/or from the larger research community outside the case. Stake defines emic issues as those that emerge from the actors within the case. VanDeVen (2007) describes the outside researcher as a “detached, impartial onlooker who gathers data,” compared with the inside researcher, who is a “participant immersed in the actions and experiences within the system being studied” (pp. 269–270). VanDeVen describes the value found in complementarity of knowledge gained from research that uses the insider perspective to provide a concrete grounding in the research problem in a particular context or situation, together with research from an outside perspective that uses empirical evidence to build a broader understanding of the scope of the problem.

Interview research can be conducted from a full range of positions. Some methodologies are inherently oriented to an insider or outsider research role. Researchers are necessarily insiders when they conduct autoethnographies, participant observations, or action research. Some insiders contribute data in the form of reflective journal entries or field notes to complement data collected from participants. Researchers are typically outsiders when they conduct research using observations or archival or historical records analysis.

The E-Interview Research Framework (Salmons, 2015, 2016, 2012) offers two ways to think about the researcher’s position. The first is with an etic/emic continuum, and the second is by use of metaphors to examine relationships between researchers and participants.

Insider (Emic) or Outsider (Etic) E-Research Positions

The E-Interview Research Framework posits that the position of the researcher vis-à-vis the research participants and phenomenon is important to consider in a study using online interviews and/or observations. In online research, some degree of balance between insider and outsider perspectives may be needed because at least a minimal degree of knowledge of the situation, culture, and type of experience being studied may help the researcher develop rapport and trust with the virtual research participant. Insider status may help the researcher gain access to an online environment or community. At the same time, the outsider can bring broader, objective understandings of the research problem into the study and devise thought-provoking or challenging interview questions. Whether inside, outside, or somewhere in the middle, the researcher needs to state a clear position and provide a rationale for how that position serves the study.

While the etic/outsider or emic/insider positions seem to be either/or, the distinction between them is not precise. In a discussion of an online ethnographic study, Paechter (2013) draws on Labaree’s earlier work and observes the following:

Labaree (2002) suggests that, while the mainly outsider researcher has to ‘go native’ in order to understand the local culture, insiders have, by corollary, to ‘go observationalist’, distancing themselves introspectively from phenomena. Insider positioning also necessitates the observation of oneself and one’s relation to the research process; in this way, research makes outsiders of us all. (p. 75)

As this quote explains, in many situations, the researcher may vacillate between insider and outsider perspectives at different stages of the study. The researcher may have inside knowledge, access, or experience without conducting the study from an exclusively emic stance. The insider may begin with questions that emerged from experience, then generate new areas of inquiry after consulting the literature.  By practicing what phenomenological researchers call bracketing or epoche it is possible to avoid allowing insider knowledge to unduly influence the interview. Whether or not the study follows a phenomenological approach researchers can intentionally clear their minds of preconceived notions and listen without prejudgement to each respective research participant’s responses (Moustakas, 1994). This continuum illustrates some options.

A continuum between etic and emic options offers more nuanced ways of thinking about our relationship to participants, setting, and/or research problem.

Rethinking Research Metaphors: Travelers, Gardeners, or Miners?

A second way to describe the researcher’s position builds on Kvale’s metaphors of the researcher as a miner who digs for the data or a traveler who journeys with the participant to discover the data (Kvale & Brinkman, 2014)). Most common interview practices lie between these two extremes. Given the e-interviewer’s need to cultivate relationships with participants to develop trust and rapport online, I have added a new metaphor: the gardener (Salmons, 2010, 2012). The interviewer as gardener uses the question to plant a seed and follow-up questions to cultivate the growth of ideas and shared perceptions. Researchers can use miner, traveler, or gardener approaches within the same study. For example, at a preliminary “mining” stage of the study, the researcher could provide background information needed to develop “seed” questions. The process of cultivation could entail “traveling with” the participant.

The etic/emic continuum meshes with this metaphorical framework. The concept of etic/emic describes where the researcher enters the study, with or without previous knowledge of the participants, setting, or research problems. A researcher who comes from an outsider, etic position might need more time to cultivate relationships. And an insider might not be seen by the community as a researcher, and need to take on a more formal demeanor in order to “mine” for data.

For an example of an insider perspective, see: How Indigenous Doctoral Students Succeed, an interview with Indigenous PhD student, Casuallen Atuatai.

The concept of etic/emic can also help define shifts of position during the study. The miner, gardener, or traveler metaphors can be used to describe the researcher’s intentioned and real relationship with the participants in the process of conducting the study.

While at the extreme end of the spectrum a researcher working from a purely etic position might precisely fit the mining metaphor, most researchers will look for ways to apply these metaphors in various ways as insiders or outsiders. The gardener and traveler may find that they need the access to participants and familiarity with the online milieu that comes from either having some level of emic position or collaboration with a gatekeeper who can provide this essential understanding. Again, these models offer a more nuanced set of choices than does an overly simplified etic/emic binary model. By considering these choices at the design stage, the researcher can make decisions that will fit the study, best aligning the researcher with the research purpose in the context of the information and communications technology (ICT) used for the interview medium and setting.

Positions and Interview Structure

Another model, the Typology of E-Interview Structures (Salmons, 2010, 2012), illustrates relationships between the level of structure and flexibility in online interview research. On one end of the spectrum, structured interviews use predetermined questions in a planned order when interviewers query respondents.

At the other end of the spectrum, few or no questions are framed in advance and conversational, unstructured interviews occur between researchers and participants. Between these extremes, there are many variations generally termed semistructured interviews, interviews with a basic structure but varying degrees of flexibility in planning and exchange.

The role, position, and power of the researcher are related to the structure as well. Anyone could conduct the structured interview, and perhaps a research assistant would be preferable since the interviewer needs to remain neutral for this interview type. In semistructured and unstructured interviews, however, the researcher must respond to the participant and make decisions in the moment about whether to allow the participant to go off in a new direction or to bring the participant back to the researcher’s agenda.

Structured Interviews

Structured and survey interviews occupy one end of the continuum with what is essentially a live version of the questionnaire. The metaphor for interaction at this end of the continuum is excavation; the miner dispassionately digs for facts in response to a set of questions. “‘Knowledge’ is waiting in the subject’s interior to be uncovered, uncontaminated by the miner” who conducts the interview (Kvale, 2007, p. 19). In structured interviews, the same questions are posed in the same order and the researcher maintains a consistent, neutral approach to questioning. Options may be limited to multiple choice, yes/no, or three to five alternative responses on a Likert-type scale. Structured interviews may also pose open-ended questions to elicit short narrative answers. Interview respondents do not have the option to redirect questions or elaborate on responses. Structured interviews can serve as an initial stage to help the researcher generate items for exploration using observations and/or less structured interviews.

Semistructured Interviews

Semistructured interviews endeavor to balance the organization and framework of the structured approach with the spontaneity and flexibility of the unstructured interview. The researcher prepares questions and/or discussion topics in advance and generates follow-up questions during the interview. In more structured standardized open-ended interviews, interviewers may ask the same open-ended questions in the same sequence but with varied follow-up questions and probes. They also may ask a consistent set of questions but vary the sequence based on responses. In more flexible guided open-ended interviews, researchers create themes or develop an “interview guide” of topics to discuss but do not develop precise wording or sequence in advance of the interview (Kvale, 2007).

A metaphor for the semistructured interviewer is the gardener. The gardener realizes that harvest is not possible without planting the seed. At the same time, many seeds can be sown without results if contextual conditions of weather, soil, and care are not in balance. The researcher–gardener realizes that the question seeds the participant’s thought process. With reflective listening and encouragement, the answer will emerge. With it, both the researcher’s and the participant’s understanding will grow.

The researcher could carry out an email or text-message exchange, or provide a written or recorded introduction to themselves and the study to establish credibility.

Unstructured Interviews

At the other end of the continuum, unstructured interviews are used to collect data through what is essentially a conversation between the researcher and participant. The metaphor for interaction at this end of the continuum is the “traveler on a journey to a distant country whose journey leads to a tale to be told upon returning home.” The traveler has conversations with people encountered along the way, asking questions and encouraging them to tell their own stories (Kvale, 2007).

In the unstructured interview, questions emerge from the context and events occurring in the circumstance of the interview. The unstructured interview may be a planned discussion in a formal interview setting. Alternatively, it can be naturalistic, meaning it occurs onsite where the participant lives or works, in conjunction with other field or participant observations.

Structure, Position, and Technology

There are no firm rules about what information and communications technology (ICT) aligns with what level of structure or with the researcher’s position. Like many topics in qualitative research, the answer starts with “it depends . . . .” Some considerations for each interview type are addressed below.

Structured Interviews

  • What technology will allow the researcher either to read verbatim the questions and response options or to cut and paste prepared questions in text? Which will be preferable to participants? What will make it easy for participants to see or hear the questions and respond quickly? In a fully structured interview, is there a reason to conduct it synchronously (given the need to coordinate schedules to do so) or can you securely e-mail or post the questions for asynchronous response?
  • Will the structured interview be accompanied by some data collection via observation? If so, will the researcher look for the same kinds of nonverbal cues during the interview and the same kinds of posts, records, or activities for each participant? Will the same ICT be used for the interviews and for observations?

Semistructured Interviews

  • What technology allows the researcher to deliver the main questions so participants can easily see or hear them? What technology allows for timely delivery of follow-up and probing questions?
  • To what extent are synchronous spoken or written exchanges used for all or some of the interview? Are both researcher and participant frequent text-chat communicators who are able to think and type quickly enough to make a less-structured interview work smoothly? Or might the researcher find that trying to think of questions or follow-ups and then type them is too slow a process.
  • If visuals will be used to prompt discussion, will they be used in the same way across all interviews (more structured) or will different images or visual exchanges be used in different ways for each respective interview?
  • If a virtual world or game is used as a setting, will time be needed to navigate to different settings or show various features, possibly creating a gap between question and response? Would this type of interview be best conducted as a semi- or unstructured interview?
  • Will the semistructured interview be accompanied by some data collection via observation? Will the same ICT be used for the interviews and for observations? To what extent will observations be consistent from one participant to the next? What kinds of nonverbal cues will the researcher look for during the interview, or will the researcher look for emergent cues? What kinds of posts, records, or activities will the researcher observe to learn about each participant? Or will the researcher follow up on particular responses by looking for related posts and materials after the interview?

Unstructured Interviews

    • What ICT allows for natural dialogue, such as video or web conferencing, so the conversation can easily flow and change course? If you want to conduct an asynchronous, unstructured interview, how will you retain focus on the research purpose between communications?
    • Will the semistructured interview be accompanied by some data collection via observation? Will the same ICT be used for the interviews and for observations? Will the researcher develop observation approaches based on each interview? What will guide such observations?

 

Closing Thoughts

An unanswered question for online researchers relates to the potential impact of a “cyberspace effect.” Does cyberspace as the interview medium or location make people more open and willing to communicate, or does it make them more secretive and protective of privacy? Does the online environment permit or enable them to provide different kinds of responses than they might in a face-to-face interview? Is this difference advantageous or a limitation given a specific research problem? Researchers choosing to interview online will need to consider these questions in the context of their own studies, given the topics under discussion in the interview and the nature of participants’ online communication experience. As well, the researcher with some degree of familiarity not only with the phenomenon but with how that phenomenon is discussed in online communities or social media may need to discern the ways associated topics are discussed online.

References

Kvale, S., & Brinkman, S. (2014). InterViews: Learning the craft of qualitative research interviewing (Third ed.). Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications.

Moustakas, C. (1994). Phenomenological research methods. Thousand Oaks: Sage.

Salmons, J. (2015). Qualitative online interviews. Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications.

Salmons, J. (2016). Doing qualitative research online Doing qualitative research online. London: SAGE Publications.

Salmons, J. (Ed.) (2012). Cases in online interview research. Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications.

Stake, R. E. (1995). The art of case study research. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications.

Van de Ven, A. H. (2007). Engaged scholarship : A guide for organizational and social research. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Related MethodSpace Posts

    More Resources about Interview Research in a SAGE Research Methods Reading List

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