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«LEARNING TO INTERVIEW Learning to Interview in the Social Sciences Kathryn Roulston Kathleen deMarrais Jamie B. Lewis University of Georgia A large ...»

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10.1177/1077800403252736/ August 2003


Learning to Interview

in the Social Sciences

Kathryn Roulston

Kathleen deMarrais

Jamie B. Lewis

University of Georgia

A large proportion of social science investigations rely on interview data, yet few

researchers received formal training in interviewing. The authors investigated how novice researchers developed their interview skills, reporting on postgraduate students’ experiences and reflections during an intensive 15-day interview course. Data analyzed for the article include audiotapes and transcripts of in-depth interviews and students’ written critiques and journal reflections. Challenges faced by novice interviewers conducting in-depth interviews included unexpected participant behaviors, dealing with the consequences of the interviewers’ own actions and subjectivities, constructing and delivering questions, and handling sensitive research topics. The authors also discuss the transcription of audio-recorded talk and include their own and students’ reflections concerning the learning and teaching of interviewing. Finally, the authors provide recommendations for teaching interview skills for the purpose of doing social science research.

This study informs teachers of qualitative research and researchers who seek to develop their interview skills.

Keywords: teaching qualitative research; qualitative interviewing One thing I know I have learned is that interviewing is much more diffi

–  –  –


Claire’s reflection on the complexity of the interview process provides

some insight into an unavoidable and ubiquitous feature of doing interviews:

That is, one can never be sure what will occur. Sacks (1992) commented that one cannot invent new sequences of conversation and feel comfortable about them. You may be able to take “a question and an answer,” but if we have to extend it very far, then the issue of whether somebody would really say that, after, say the fifth utterance, is one which we could not confidently argue. One doesn’t have a strong intuition for sequencing in conversation. (p. 5) Similarly, interview data cannot be “invented” prior to the interview itself. As interviewers, we might anticipate a certain kind of narrative or description from our respondents, but we can never be sure what will happen. This is, no doubt, a source of anxiety for some researchers, excitement and anticipation for others. For novice researchers, learning about interviewing and doing interviews are different tasks. In this article we explore some aspects of what novice researchers did in interview settings as they developed this research skill. Findings concerning students’ reflections on their learning in a 15-day intensive interview course are discussed, and we conclude by making some

observations about how one might go about teaching interview skills to novice researchers. We posed the following research questions:

Research Question 1: What are students’ responses to a series of tasks in interviewing skills?

Research Question 2: What difficulties do students encounter in learning to become skilled interviewers?

Research Question 3: How might interview skills for the purpose of social science research be effectively taught in university settings?


As a research method, interviewing has been approached from a multitude of perspectives. It is beyond the scope of the present article to provide an in-depth account of literature concerning interviewing and debates concerning the use of interviews as a method of data generation. Our interest here is to investigate the teaching and learning of interview skills for the purposes of research. Here, we refer the reader to more in-depth treatments of different types of interviews as discussed by various authors and qualitative methodologists. These include general introductions to qualitative interviewing (Kvale, 1996; Seidman, 1991; Weiss, 1994) and texts devoted to explicating specific interview genres—for example, focus group interviews (Greenbaum, 1993; Krueger & Casey, 2000; Morgan & Krueger, 1998), the Roulston et al. / LEARNING TO INTERVIEW 645 “long interview” (McCracken, 1988), oral history interviews (Dunaway & Baum, 1996), and the “ethnographic interview” (Spradley, 1979).

Potential problems of interviewing as a research strategy and approaches to analysis of data generated have likewise been discussed and critiqued at length from various theoretical perspectives. (See for example feminist, postmodern, and sociolinguistic treatments of the interview as a research method in Briggs, 1986; Graham, 1983; Oakley, 1981; Reinharz, 1992;

Scheurich, 1995; conversation analytic and ethnomethodological perspectives to data analysis in Baker, 1997, 2002; Rapley, 2001; Rapley & Antaki, 1998; Roulston, 2001; Roulston, Baker, & Liljestrom, 2001; and narrative approaches to interviews and data analysis in Mishler, 1986; Riessman, 1993, 2002.) The recently published Handbook of Interview Research: Context and Method (Gubrium & Holstein, 2002) provides an excellent starting point for any researcher contemplating using interviews as a method of data generation.

In this article, we follow Holstein and Gubrium’s (1995) injunction to investigate both the “hows” and “whats” of the interview process. Holstein and Gubrium argued for the notion of the “active interview,” emphasizing “that all interviews are reality-constructing, meaning-making occasions, whether recognized or not” (p. 4). We too see the interview as a site in which interviewers and interviewees co-construct data for research projects rather than as a setting that provides authentic and direct contact with interviewees’ realities (Atkinson & Silverman, 1997; Silverman, 1997). In this article we specifically investigate the process of learning and teaching interview skills in a university setting.

Although there is some literature available that investigates how interviewing skills are taught, these studies are primarily found within the field of medicine and report on students’ and doctors’ perceptions and evaluations of courses of instruction devoted to developing interviewing and consultation skills (Lynch & Tamurrino, 1992; Mannion, Browne, & Fahy, 1999; Nestel, 2001; Usherwood, 1993). Other studies provide descriptions of course structure and activities for students learning how to conduct and participate in job interviews (Hindle, 2000; Rohn & Lee, 2001; Walker, 1993). However, the consultation interview and the job interview are different in purpose to the social science research interview. Although some guidance might be gleaned from a review of this literature into possible ways of facilitating interview experiences (mock interviews, feedback on audio- and videotaped interviews, authentic interviews, etc.) for students, these studies provide little insight into how novice interviewers develop their skills in interviewing or how interviewing as a tool for the generation of research data might be effectively taught.

Brieschke (1997) is one teacher of qualitative research methods who did report on an interview course. This author outlined an interview project 646 QUALITATIVE INQUIRY / August 2003 undertaken by graduate students as part of an introductory seminar aimed at providing an overview of the “processes of developing a research question and collecting, interpreting, analyzing, and presenting qualitative data” (p.

86). Focusing on the issue of “race,” Brieschke reported how students in the class constructed an interview protocol, conducted interviews, and analyzed data. Class members used a standardized interview protocol for their first interview before attempting an unstructured, open-ended interview.

Although some detail is included in relation to how the activity was conceived and carried out, Brieschke pursued the implications of students’ responses to their investigation of race rather than issues relating to the students’ processes in learning to interview. In contrast, we address the teaching and learning of interview skills specifically.

The purpose of this qualitative case study is to examine and describe novice interviewers’ experiences of learning to conduct interviews for the purpose of social science research projects. Because it has been estimated that 90% of all social science investigations rely on interview data (Briggs, 1986), we believe that it is important to investigate further how researchers learn to conduct interviewing for the purpose of data generation. We begin by describing the design of the study, data collection, and analysis before presenting findings.


The data used in this article are derived from a study of a qualitative interview course taken by 16 doctoral students at a college of education at a large Research I university in the United States. The program in qualitative inquiry at this institution provides extensive training to large numbers of students undertaking research in education and other disciplinary fields. The interview course was an elective, with two prerequisites, including an introduction to qualitative research heavily steeped in theoretical and philosophical underpinnings of qualitative research and a course in qualitative research design. All of the students were aiming toward conducting individual research projects in the social sciences as part of their postgraduate studies, and a large proportion of the class were undertaking the requirements of a certificate in qualitative research.2 In this intensive Maymester course in which the class met daily for 15 successive days, students engaged in discussions of issues relating to interviews as a research method, analyzed and discussed model interviews, and conducted different types of interviews, including in-depth, phenomenological, focus group, and oral history interviews. Students investigated the subjectivities they brought to their individual research topics via the process of bracketing interviews described by phenomenologically informed researchers (Pollio, Henley, & Thompson,

1997) and reflected through journal writing over the period of the course on Roulston et al. / LEARNING TO INTERVIEW 647 both the process of interviewing and the development of their skills. Because of the short time period in which this course was conducted, students often practiced their interviews with peers. For example, the focus groups were conducted within the class. The participants of the in-depth interviews, in contrast, included both members of the class (in cases where a participant could be found who “matched” the research interest of the researcher) and others who were participating in studies conducted as independent projects for which institutional review board approval had been gained.

The first and second authors teach qualitative research methods courses (both theory and method) within the college and collaboratively plan the three core courses in the program that they teach (qualitative research traditions, designing qualitative research, and qualitative data analysis). Each also teaches optional courses in specialized areas of qualitative research. The second author taught the interview course. Although she has taught interviewing for many years as a core component of other courses, this was the first time to have undertaken a specialized course on the topic. The first author gave one guest presentation concerning transcription practice during the course and was otherwise uninvolved in either planning or teaching the course. The third author was completing her Ph.D. at the time of the study, was not a member of the class, and had undertaken all coursework requirements of the qualitative certificate.


At the beginning of the course, students were invited to participate in a study investigating the development of their interview skills across the course. All 16 students gave their informed consent to participate in the project and to provide course materials for analysis. These included reflective journals, transcripts and critiques, audiotapes, and videotapes. Several students exercised their right of veto over certain sections of data, indicating that some items were not to be used by the researchers for conference presentations (e.g., videotapes), and several chose not to make available copies of some items (audiotapes and/or transcripts and journals) to us.

It is beyond the scope of a single article to report our findings from our analyses of all data. Here we report our analysis of the in-depth interviews conducted by 12 students. Interviews from 4 of the 16 students were excluded because we were missing either the audiotape or the transcript, or in negotiation with the instructor, the student had conducted a different kind of interview (e.g., a second oral history rather than an in-depth interview).

Beginning by subdividing the data set, we each took responsibility for data from 4 participants. We listened to the audiotapes of the interviews and repeatedly read through the transcripts, student critiques, and journal reflections on each interview. We conducted an inductive, thematic analysis of stuQUALITATIVE INQUIRY / August 2003 dents’ critiques and journals to identify emergent themes. These included events and experiences that students defined as problematic during interviews, what students said they learned about interviewing from engaging in practice, how students evaluated their performance in the interviews, and what aspects of the interview and/or interview process stood out for them.

We also investigated students’ observations of their practice in their critiques and reflective journals by comparing these with our own examination of the interview transcriptions and audiotapes.

In the article we discuss findings in three thematic categories: (a) challenges of the interview process, (b) transcription issues, and (c) reflections on learning and teaching interviewing. We follow by summarizing and discussing these findings and conclude the article by presenting some observations for consideration by those who teach interviewing skills for the purposes of research.


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