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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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Challenges of the Interviewing Process From our analysis of the students’ reflective statements and a careful reading of the interview transcripts, we found that these novice interviewers were challenged in a variety of ways within the research context. In the majority of interviews analyzed, the definition of interview as “a meeting at which information is obtained” (Merriam-Webster, 2001) seems somewhat inadequate.

Much information may have been obtained, but sometimes it was not necessarily related to the researcher’s topic. Unanticipated and disconcerting events occurred prior to and during interviews. If information for a research purpose was the goal for these novice interviewers, quite often it was obtained via a series of “challenges” experienced during the interview process. These challenges included (a) unexpected participant behaviors, (b) consequences of the researchers’ own actions and subjectivities, (c) phrasing and negotiating questions, and (d) dealing with sensitive issues. Next, we discuss further each of these issues.

Unexpected Participant Behaviors

In several cases, the novice interviewers experienced situations they had not anticipated in their interview planning. These usually occurred at the beginning of the interview and took the form of the participant being late to the meeting, eating during the interview, having to interview in a noisy room (complete with children watching cartoons on television), and in one case, a Roulston et al. / LEARNING TO INTERVIEW 649 dog barking in the background. Diana described her reaction to just such a


There were three children in the room. One boy looked to be about 4 and was laying and watching cartoons. A little girl was in a playpen and reached up to be picked up as I came in. Jim [participant’s husband] distracted her with a toy.

There was a younger baby in a cradle, still asleep. About 8:40, [my participant] drove up. She came in and started talking to me about the problem with teenagers oversleeping. There was no other space to go to in the house and I asked [my participant] if she would like to come to my house for the interview. She said no and assured me that everything would be fine. She said the babies were no problem and that we would be finished before I knew it. That was just what I feared most. The delay combined with the room full of people and cartoons made me nervous and I really just wanted to go find someone else. I felt shaken and disorganized. I thought it would be rude and inconsiderate to refuse to do the interview since she made the time and obviously thought the environment was adequate. I asked her if it was going to be appropriate to discuss sex in front of the 4year-old. She was fine with that.

In her written reflections, Diana evaluated her interview as one that did not yield substantive information about her research question, and in fact, of the individual interviews analyzed for this article, Diana’s was completed in the shortest period of time. She attributed her inability to get to the “heart of the matter” (Geertz cited by Wolcott 1999, p. 87) to the distractions she experienced in the interview context.

On the surface, this interview seems like a pretty superficial account of [my participant’s] experiences growing up without much information about sex. Then she tried to change that experience for her daughters. I don’t think I was able to dismiss the distractions and be present in the interview. I missed the opportunity, if it existed, to get to the substance of how [my participant] educated her daughters.

Diana was surprised by her responses to the distractions of her setting and the effect it had on the generation of data for her study. She commented in her


I am surprised that I get so rattled if my “process” is interrupted—the individual interview. I am surprised that the skills I thought I had as an interviewer were my imaginary friends. I am surprised that I can prepare for an interview with really good intentions of not falling into bad habits, and then falling into bad habits. I am surprised that I need to practice as an interviewer before I do data collection.

Another student interviewer, Leah, described similar unanticipated

behavior from her respondent:

On the morning of our scheduled interview, [my participant] showed up half an hour late for our interview. Since she had another appointment on the same day, I only had about an hour to talk to her. During the interview, [the participant] 650 QUALITATIVE INQUIRY / August 2003 was chewing her bagels for breakfast. I didn’t mind that at all. On the contrary, I appreciate her time and efforts despite her tight class schedule.

Although Leah reports that she “didn’t mind” that the participant was late and eating breakfast during the interview, it was an unanticipated complexity she had not considered in her planning for the session.

Consequences of the Researcher’s Own Actions and Subjectivities Within this subtheme we include students’ descriptions of what they noticed concerning their actions and observations about their ability as interviewers to listen carefully. A number of participants noted how their instructions (or lack thereof) created problems later in the interview. For example, Jolene commented, I should have informed the participant at the beginning of the interview that I would be taking notes. When she saw me taking notes (to remember those future probes) she stopped talking, and I had to explain then what I was writing.

Jolene also recognized how her own beliefs and subjectivities impacted the formulation of questions.

Some of my subjectivities were evident in my area of questioning.... Now I have to confess: there was one occasion when I was really trying to lead the participant to give a specific answer. When I asked the participant to describe her curriculum in two or three words, I was trying to get her to say “survival skills curriculum.” I have heard her husband [her coteacher] describe the curriculum in these terms before, and I wanted to go into that with her because the “survival skills curriculum” is an issue for me. Unfortunately (or fortunately?), the participant did not take my lead.


Leah also described how her assumptions were evident in her interview:

Right at the beginning of the interview, I deliberately tried to reduce the effects of my assumptions by asking her a simple, close-ended question, hoping that question can help set any participant at ease and prepare [her], in this case, to talk further on my topic later. In fact my assumptions still got the better of me.

When she told me that she used to teach in two different schools, I didn’t probe on that response. I went straight ahead toward the first question on my guide. I should have asked her to tell me about those two schools where she once taught before I inquired about her decision to become a social studies teacher.

Through investigating their interview experiences and resulting transcripts, these students both demonstrate their ability to see how their assumptions as researchers contribute to the ongoing flow of talk and the types of responses made by participants. Similarly, in class discussions and readings that interrogated the complexity of the interview as a site for data Roulston et al. / LEARNING TO INTERVIEW 651 generation, a number of students found that their prior understandings of

interviewing were disrupted. For example, Jolene wrote in her journal:

In this class, through our readings and our interviewing assignments, I have become conscious of the interview as the site for the joint construction of meaning between the interviewer and the participant. Before this class, I didn’t really think about the interview process. I just thought, “I ask. The participant answers,” and I didn’t consider how the “ask” and the “answer” influence each other and blend together to become “the interview.” Students within the course had been advised to listen carefully to their respondents, limit their contributions to the interaction, and aim for an 80/20 or 90/10 ratio in their interviews (that is, 80% to 90% respondent/10% to 20% researcher talk). What happened in actuality? Overall, students evaluated their listening skills highly. This occurred irrespective of how much talk they contributed to the interview—this varied from 9% to 41% of lines of talk across transcripts analyzed. (See Table 1 for an overview of researcher/ respondent contribution to interview talk as transcribed.) In cases where participants rated their listening skills highly yet also contributed substantially to their interview talk, this was rationalized through the intent to “build rapport” with the respondent. For example, Heather (who

contributed 33% of the lines in her transcription) commented:

I was a good listener. I enjoyed listening to what [my participant] had to say. I tried to take her comments and build upon them to find out more about her school experiences. She shared many things that did not have any connection to school and I listened without interrupting.

Heather justified her contribution to the talk via theoretical means:

I enjoyed the time I spent talking to [my participant], it was very enjoyable and interesting. There were a few things that I felt did go well. It was very conversational. The interview moved smoothly where [my participant] shared and I responded without interrupting but with comments and probing that provided a smooth flow. Black feminist thought supports the idea of dialogue and sharing that helps to establish opportunities for sharing meaningful experiences. It was a comfortable conversation of sharing back and forth.

Yet another respondent, Jolene, recognized her need to talk less when conducting research interviews. Although she contributed 13% of the lines in her transcript and few “continuers” (e.g., yeah, um) and comments, she nevertheless stated in her reflections: “I need to learn just to bite my tongue and stop talking after I’ve asked the open-ended question.” This observation is somewhat at odds with Jolene’s self-evaluation elsewhere as a good listener. However, here, Jolene also refers to the “noise” in her head during the interview process and her growth over the duration of the course in “quieting” the distractions of self-talk.

652 QUALITATIVE INQUIRY / August 2003 TABLE 1: Researcher/Respondent Contributions to Interview as Displayed in Interview Transcript by Number of Lines

–  –  –

As I noted in the beginning of the course, the “listening” aspect of interviewing comes easy for me. I’m good at keeping my mouth shut and letting the participant talk. That’s probably the “introvert” in me. However, I feel I have developed in my ability to concentrate during the interview on what the participant is saying. Previously, my mouth may have been “quiet” but I was “noisy” in my head. Now I am able to focus more intently on what the participant is telling me.

I feel more “present” during my interviews.

Evidently these students reflected in some depth on the readings and class discussions and continually linked topics discussed to their own experiences of interviewing. What we find interesting in students’ reflections and critiques is their different views and assumptions about the kinds of interviews they aim to conduct. For example, Sharon spoke of the interview as conversation, a position adopted by a number of students in the class: “I think that Roulston et al. / LEARNING TO INTERVIEW 653 when the participant is able to see the interview as a conversation, they will begin to relax and share and not worry about only giving information.” Others took a more formal view of the interview. For example, Noelene

wrote about her experience of the in-depth interview:

Because I have visited this participant’s class and I am myself an adult ESL teacher, I had to be very conscious of not agreeing, disagreeing, sharing my own experiences, or offering my own opinion. I had to remember that our talk was “an interview,” NOT a “conversation.” But as soon as the interview ended, I could talk more freely with her as a colleague.

Once again, we argue that it is advantageous for novice researchers to examine their own assumptions about interviewing and the stance (represented earlier by conversational and more formal approaches) that they are likely to take in the interview setting. These approaches will generate different types of data and imply different theoretical approaches to research generally and data analysis specifically.

Phrasing and Negotiating Questions

This subtheme includes several interrelated issues concerning keeping the interview flow focused on the research topic and questioning (phrasing openended questions, providing appropriate probes for follow-up on respondents’ accounts, question clarification, etc.). For example, one participant recognized the difficulties she had in keeping the interview talk focused and related to her research topic. This participant commented in her reflections, “My frustrations came with my questions and the way I asked them. I did not

do a very good job.” She stated:

I was disappointed with how I asked the questions, my failure to get more stories, and how I let the interview seem to go all over the place. In the end I was grasping for things and it did not stay focused on school experiences. After reflecting on the interview I also realized that I left out the focus of being a woman. I did not ask any questions about what [my participant’s] experiences were as a Black woman. (Heather) This was common in the data we analyzed. Irene described the lack of

focus on the research topic as the major problem with her interview:

The biggest problems that I seem to have consistently center around focus.

Sometimes that focus problem occurs because I’m interested in what the participant is saying and completely forget to get back focused on the research topic and sometimes it occurs because the participant is talking about something that is of interest to me so I encourage them to keep talking about that rather than the research topic at hand.

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