«LEARNING TO INTERVIEW Learning to Interview in the Social Sciences Kathryn Roulston Kathleen deMarrais Jamie B. Lewis University of Georgia A large ...»
654 QUALITATIVE INQUIRY / August 2003 Leah also reflected on the relationship between her research questions and interview questions and her intent as a researcher generating data for a specific purpose.
Since I’m uncertain about my research question, there should be more clarity with my topic. Some of the questions I asked have nothing or little to do with my research question. Since I’m interested in teachers’ perceptions, after context setting, I should go directly to [where] I want the interview to go. Get the question focused on [the] research question.
As seen in earlier excerpts, these students showed cognizance of the socially constructed nature of interview talk, recognizing that how their interview questions were articulated produced certain kinds of responses (and not others).
As in the quotation used at the opening of this article, some interviewers found themselves being questioned by participants concerning their questions. This often resulted in complex interaction concerning clarification of
the topic being discussed. For example, Leah reflected:
But when I asked her to tell me about her teaching experience just within the classroom, she found the question vague and wanted me to clarify. I didn’t expect that this seemingly straightforward question would have to be explained. So at that time, I failed to rephrase the question. Instead, I took a glimpse on the questions in my guide and came up with a really ill conceived question, “Tell me about what you believe about learning.” I believe I was giving [my participant] a hard time asking that question. She was at a loss for a while and was struggling to come up with something relevant to my peer question. I noted her situation and jumped in by giving her, I believe, an easier question.
This clarification of the interviewers’ questions occurred in multiple interviews analyzed in this study but is illustrated by examining the section to
which Leah refers in her aforementioned reflective statement:
Leah: So, uh, yeah. Tell me more about your teaching experiences just within the classroom, like instruction in the classroom.
Participant: Uh, do you, are you looking at, you want me to talk about what I did in the classroom or my experiences of kids in the classroom, or what would you like me to...
Leah: Yeah, okay. Uh, tell me about [what] you believe about learning.
Participant: Hmmm. In terms of nature of learning?
Leah: Yes, in terms of nature of learning. And how do you use this, your belief or employ your belief into your classroom instruction?
Participant: Okay, uh, in terms of... learning theory, although I must admit, I am desperately in need of a refresher course on learning theory. Uh, I, I see, uh, I think that the human brain is capable of different levels of thought and that those structures develop over time as kids age. And they go from a sensory motor stage through a concrete operation,
Roulston et al. / LEARNING TO INTERVIEW 655 Students’ reflective comments concerning difficulties related to phrasing of questions focused on constructing open-ended questions and recognizing the characteristics of speech that are natural to conversation (i.e., stumbles and slips in the articulation of questions) appearing within their own talk.
Sharon, for example, noticed that her questions were often “long and windy.” As I look over my transcripts I am embarrassed about the long and windy questions. A beautiful example would be “Of course. Good. So when you talk about, when you were talking about your high school experiences, and you talked about that especially that extra curricular activities led to positive relationships and positive things, what would a positive relationship or those positive things look like between you and a parent?”
Similarly, Roberta commented:
The questions that I considered particularly bad include the following. The poorly worded question regarding how [my participant] felt when her cooperating teacher asked her opinion of what worked and what didn’t during a lesson because it was wordy and ended up making little sense even to me. The question about who helped her learn to teach history or pedagogy, which was again, too wordy and confusing. And the question that got the interview off track—the one about an example of a specific history lesson.
Another participant, Eleanor, commented on a different aspect in her critique:
While transcribing the interview, I was aggravated at how many times I said “um” in asking my questions. Also, I almost always said, “tell me a little bit about” which bothers me. I think I did that in an effort to put [my respondent] at ease, but I shouldn’t say that, when what I really mean is “tell me in as much detail as possible.” Although we do not advocate for the elimination of continuers such as “um”—such talk might prove unnatural and difficult to achieve—we believe that it is useful for students to notice their own speech practices and reflect on how these contribute to the flow of talk. Through reflection on how interview data is co-constructed, novice interviewers will gain a fuller understanding of the different kinds of data that might be produced.
Dealing With Sensitive Issues
Occasionally, these novice interviewers encountered “sensitive topics” that posed interactional difficulties. For example, Eleanor’s respondent began to cry at one point in the interview. Eleanor chose to continue with the interview, and after a softly spoken comment, “that’s all right,” immediately posed another question. Her respondent recovered quickly and continued with the interview. In her reflections, this student described how her responQUALITATIVE INQUIRY / August 2003 dent “got pretty emotional” and that the interview at this point was “getting too tough.” Because she was not “comfortable probing for any more detail,” changing the topic was seen to be a useful way out of trouble.
Another student encountered a similar emotional situation in her interview. In her reflection, Claire described her reaction to her respondent Laura’s
crying as follows:
I became more vocal with affirmative utterances such as: “umm,” after the part in the interview where Laura began to struggle with her emotions. After a while, I tapered off again. This was not a conscious action on my part; I only noticed it upon transcribing the interview. I think it was a natural reaction on my part to her distress, an effort to lend her my support the only way I could at that point. It did not seem to distract her, so I think it was a positive thing.
Handling “emotional” situations in which both they and/or their respondents experienced strong emotional states was common in our data sets.
However, students commonly expressed relief when they found that they handled the situation competently.
Other participants encountered “difficult questions” that were hard to ask (Weiss, 1994, p. 76). For example, Heather described her difficulties in asking one of her questions, “Tell me about racial incidents or experiences that you
had in schools.” She commented:
I did not handle this very well. I was nervous about asking this, which I need to get over. Also, I do not think [my respondent] wanted to go there with me. When I asked the question she looked at me strangely. I did not do a good job of preparing her for the questions. It just came from out of the sky. I’ve got to think about how I can do this in order for the Black women in my study to be willing to share their experiences with a White female. I think that this question would be important to use in a second interview after we had established a rapport and trust. I definitely have decided on multiple interviews with my participants.
This student has defined the problem in her interview as one of “rapport” that may be remedied by multiple interviews. The reasoning Heather displays here is that if she knows her respondents well and develops high levels of rapport, she will be more likely to receive detailed responses to “sensitive questions.” This is in fact the approach to difficult questions recommended by Weiss (1994), who advocated developing a “reliable research relationship before entering the area” (p. 76).
The whole process of doing the transcription is lonely and tiring. But I see it as a necessary step, for novice interviewers in particular, to realize what kind of work we are going to be involved in, to get the first-hand experience of processing the data we collected, and to start data analysis from the moment you turn on the recorder and transcriber. It is a tough job, but has to be tough to be challenging enough for many researchers.
For Leah, the transcription process was particularly challenging because English is not her first language. She explained:
The transcription process is intensive and tough. With English as my foreign language, I found myself getting stuck many times in the transcribing process. I play by the rule of “rewind multiple times and move on.” If I still couldn’t get it, I made my best guesses possible and marked the place with (?). This experience also reminds me of the difficulties and problems I might come across in my future interviews when I have to interview native speakers of English. It’s so hard for me to comprehend when [my participant] began to talk fast in her low and soft voice.
Our investigation of the transcripts and audiotapes showed considerable variation of practice in transcription. Although some students provided close and detailed transcriptions with keys to conventions used, others missed sections of talk. For example, one participant’s tape stopped midway, a story appears to have passed unrecorded, and the gap in the interview was not acknowledged in the transcript or reflection. Although there is a considerable variety of thought represented in the literature with regard to transcription practice (and students’ journal entries were representative of these views), we urge students to pursue detailed transcriptions. We encourage this practice not as a means of ensuring that students capture the “truth” of what happened during the interview but rather to ensure that the transcript provides a thorough account of the oral record in keeping with the theoretical assumptions underpinning the study. Interview data is generated through a socially constructed investigation of the research topic and as such, is open to multiple meanings. We argue that accurate and detailed transcriptions are particularly important from a pedagogical standpoint because within the context of a course designed to develop students’ interviewing skills, a primary purpose is to examine the transcriptions produced not so much for the content of what was said but how accounts were coproduced by speakers (the process) (Poland, 2002). More important, we believe class discussions concerning the implications of the types of transcriptions undertaken by researchers for ensuing analyses is an important component of any interviewing course.
Through such discussions, students might gain a deeper appreciation of the theoretical and empirical implications of any particular transcription practice and what analyses are made available.
658 QUALITATIVE INQUIRY / August 2003
Reflections on Learning and Teaching Interviewing
In this section we discuss in some detail the content of what students reflected on in their self-critiques of their in-depth interviews. What did students learn from the process? What features of the interview process did they interrogate? Were there any features of their process of which they appeared to be unaware?
First, students reflected on what they had learned about themselves. This included their strengths and weaknesses as interviewers, their need to develop more effective interview skills, their personal preferences in interview style (conversational or more structured), and how their subjectivities impacted the direction of the interview through what probes they chose to
use. For example, Heather wrote in her reflection:
Having time to reflect upon the process has been most helpful. The readings and examples in class helped me to see more clearly what a good interview should be. The actual interview helped me to see my strengths and weaknesses and how I need to improve. Overall, it was a great learning opportunity. I plan for the next interview to be very different. I am so thankful for this experience now instead of waiting until I begin the interviews with the participants of my study.
I can see how the interviews and questions asked can make a great impact on the study. I think I need to practice my interviewing skills throughout the year so that I will be ready to conduct interviews that will be meaningful to my participants and inform my study. Interviewing is truly a complicated process, but one that I do enjoy and have fun conducting.
Second, students looked closely at the questions they formulated and what kinds of responses they elicited from interview participants. In instances where interview questions were treated by respondents as problematic, the novice interviewers reflected on alternative phrasings of questions, how to build rapport with respondents with regard to sensitive topics, and the implications for future research design (e.g., the conduct of multiple rather than single interviews so that sensitive questions could be asked later
in the research sequence). One example comes from Claire’s reflection:
The question addressed a fascinating subject I really wanted to explore, concerning cultural difference; but the way I phrased the question, I do not think the answer enlightened us any more to the experience of anger. I should have said, “Your method of handling anger seems to be different than that of your motherin-law. Can you talk to me about that?” This phrasing of the question might have gotten into her process of dealing with anger, and it could have picked up some interesting cultural information along the way.