- Identify the three main issues that interviewers should consider
- Describe how interviewers can address power imbalances
- Describe and define rapport
- Define the term probe
Qualitative researchers are attentive to the complexities that arise during the interview process. Interviews are intimate processes. Your participants will share with you how they view the world, how they understand themselves, and how they cope with events that happened to them. Conscientious researchers should keep in mind the following topics to ensure the authenticity and trust necessary for successful interviews.
First and foremost, interviewers must be aware of and attentive to the power differential between themselves and interview participants. The interviewer sets the agenda and leads the conversation. Qualitative interviewers aim to allow participants to have some control over which or to what extent various topics are discussed, but at the end of the day, it is the researcher who is in charge of the interview and how the data are reported to the public. The participant loses the ability to shape the narrative after the interview is over because it is the researcher who tells the story to the world. As the researcher, you are also asking someone to reveal things about themselves they may not typically share with others. Researchers do not reciprocate by revealing much or anything about themselves. All these factors shape the power dynamics of an interview.
A number of excellent pieces have been written dealing with issues of power in research and data collection. Feminist researchers in particular paved the way in helping researchers think about and address issues of power in their work (Oakley, 1981). Suggestions for overcoming the power imbalance between researcher and respondent include having the researcher reveal some aspects of her own identity and story so that the interview is a more reciprocal experience rather than one-sided, allowing participants to view and edit interview transcripts before the researcher uses them for analysis, and giving participants an opportunity to read and comment on analysis before the researcher shares it with others through publication or presentation (Reinharz, 1992; Hesse-Biber, Nagy, & Leavy, 2007). On the other hand, some researchers suggest that sharing too much with interview participants can give the false impression there is no power differential, when in reality, researchers can analyze and present participants’ stories in whatever way they see fit (Stacey, 1988).
However you feel about sharing details about your background with an interview participant, another way to balance the power differential between yourself and your interview participants is to make the intent of your research very clear to the subjects. Share with them your rationale for conducting the research and the research question(s) that frame your work. Be sure that you also share with participants how the data you gather will be used and stored. Also, explain to participants how their confidentiality will be protected including who will have access to the data you gather from them and what procedures, such as using pseudonyms, you will take to protect their identities. Social workers also must disclose the reasons why confidentiality may be violated to prevent danger to self or others. Many of these details will be covered by your IRB’s informed consent procedures and requirements. However, even if they are not, as researchers we should be attentive to how informed consent can help balance the power differences between ourselves and those who participate in our research.
There are no easy answers when it comes to handling the power differential between the researcher and researched. Even social scientists do not agree on the best approach. Because qualitative research involves interpersonal interactions and building a relationship with research participants, power is a particularly important issue.
Location, location, location
One way to address the power between researcher and respondent is to conduct the interview in a location of the participant’s choosing, where they will feel most comfortable answering your questions. Interviews can take place in any number of locations—in respondents’ homes or offices, researchers’ homes or offices, coffee shops, restaurants, public parks, or hotel lobbies, to name just a few possibilities. Each location comes with its own set of benefits and its own challenges. Allowing the respondent to choose the location that is most convenient and most comfortable for them is important, but identifying a location where there will be few distractions is helpful. For example, some coffee shops and restaurants are so loud that recording the interview can be a challenge. Other locations may present different sorts of distractions. For example, if you conduct interviews with parents in their home, they may out of necessity spend more time attending to their children during an interview than responding to your questions (of course, depending on the topic of your research, the opportunity to observe such interactions could be invaluable). As an interviewer, you may want to suggest a few possible locations, and note the goal of avoiding distractions, when you ask your respondents to choose a location.
The extent to which a respondent has control over choosing a location must also be balanced by accessibility of the location to the interviewer, and by the safety and comfort level with the location. You may not feel comfortable conducting an interview in an area with posters for hate groups on the wall. Not only might you fear for your safety, you may be too distracted to conduct a good interview. While it is important to conduct interviews in a location that is comfortable for respondents, doing so should never come at the expense of your safety.
A unique feature of interviews is that they require some social interaction, which means that a relationship is formed between interviewer and interviewee. One essential element in building a productive relationship is respect. You should respect the person’s time and their story. Demonstrating respect will help interviewees feel comfortable sharing with you.
There are no big secrets or tricks for how to show respect for research participants. At its core, the interview interaction should not differ from any other social interaction in which you show gratitude for a person’s time and respect for a person’s humanity. It is crucial that you, as the interviewer, conduct the interview in a way that is culturally sensitive. In some cases, this might mean educating yourself about your study population and even receiving some training to help you learn to effectively communicate with your research participants. Do not judge your research participants; you are there to listen to them, and they have been kind enough to give you their time and attention. Even if you disagree strongly with what a participant shares in an interview, your job as the researcher is to gather the information being shared with you, not to make personal judgments about it. Respect provides a solid foundation for rapport.
Rapport is the sense of connection you establish with a participant. Developing good rapport requires good listening. In fact, listening during an interview is an active, not a passive, practice. Active listening means that you, the researcher, participate with the respondent by showing you understand and follow whatever it is that they are telling you (Devault, 1990). The questions you ask respondents should indicate you’ve actually heard what they’ve just said.
Active listening means you will probe the respondent for more information from time to time throughout the interview. A probe is a request for more information. Probes are used because qualitative interviewing techniques are designed to go with the flow and take whatever direction the respondent goes during the interview. It is worth your time to come up with helpful probes in advance of an interview. You certainly do not want to find yourself stumped or speechless after a respondent has just said something about which you’d like to hear more. This is another reason why practicing your interview in advance with people who are similar to those in your sample is a good idea.
The responsibilities that a social work clinician has to clients differ significantly from a researcher’s responsibilities. Clinicians provide services whereas researchers do not. A research participant is not your client, and your goals for the interaction are different from those of a clinical relationship.
- Interviewers should take into consideration the power differential between themselves and their respondents.
- Feminist researchers paved the way for helping interviewers think about how to balance the power differential between themselves and interview participants.
- Attend to the location of an interview and the relationship that forms between the interviewer and interviewee.
- Interviewers should always be respectful of interview participants.
- Probe- a request for more information in qualitative research