While quantitative interviews resemble survey research in their question/answer formats, they share with qualitative interviews the characteristic that the researcher actually interacts with her or his subjects. The fact that the researcher interacts with his or her subjects creates a few complexities that deserve attention. We’ll examine those here.
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. While qualitative interviewers aim to allow participants to have some control over which or to what extent various topics are discussed, at the end of the day it is the researcher who is in charge (at least that is how most respondents will perceive it to be). As the researcher, you are asking someone to reveal things about themselves they may not typically share with others. Also, you are generally not reciprocating by revealing much or anything about yourself. 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).Oakley, A. (1981). Interviewing women: A contradiction in terms. In H. Roberts (Ed.), Doing feminist research (pp. 30–61). London, UK: Routledge & Kegan Paul. 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).Reinharz, S. (1992). Feminist methods in social research. New York, NY: Oxford University Press; Hesse-Biber, S. N., & Leavy, P. L. (Eds.). (2007). Feminist research practice: A primer. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage. On the other hand, some researchers note that sharing too much with interview participants can give the false impression that there is no power differential, when in reality researchers retain the ability to analyze and present participants’ stories in whatever way they see fit (Stacey, 1988).Stacey, J. (1988). Can there be a feminist ethnography? Women’s Studies International Forum, 11, 21–27.
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 subjects how the data you gather will be used and stored. Also, be sure that participants understand how their privacy 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. Many of these details will be covered by your institutional review board’s informed consent procedures and requirements, but even if they are not, as researchers we should be attentive to how sharing information with participants 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, and even social scientists do not agree on the best approach for doing so. It is nevertheless an issue to be attentive to when conducting any form of research, particularly those that involve interpersonal interactions and relationships with research participants.
One way to balance the power between researcher and respondent is to conduct the interview in a location of the participants’ choosing, where he or she 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. I have conducted interviews in all these locations, and each comes with its own set of benefits and its own challenges. While I would argue that allowing the respondent to choose the location that is most convenient and most comfortable for her or him is of utmost importance, identifying a location where there will be few distractions is also important. 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, I have conducted several interviews with parents who, out of necessity, spent more time attending to their children during an interview than responding to my 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.
Of course, the extent to which a respondent should be given complete control over choosing a location must also be balanced by accessibility of the location to you, the interviewer, and by your safety and comfort level with the location. I once agreed to conduct an interview in a respondent’s home only to discover on arriving that the living room where we conducted the interview was decorated wall to wall with posters representing various white power organizations displaying a variety of violently racist messages. Though the topic of the interview had nothing to do with the topic of the respondent’s home décor, the discomfort, anger, and fear I felt during the entire interview consumed me and certainly distracted from my ability to carry on the interview. In retrospect, I wish I had thought to come up with some excuse for needing to reschedule the interview and then arranged for it to happen in a more neutral location. 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.
Finally, a unique feature of interviews is that they require some social interaction, which means that to at least some extent, a relationship is formed between interviewer and interviewee. While there may be some differences in how the researcher-respondent relationship works depending on whether your interviews are qualitative or quantitative, one essential relationship element is the same: R-E-S-P-E-C-T.You should know by now that I can’t help myself. If you, too, now have Aretha Franklin on the brain, feel free to excuse yourself for a moment to enjoy a song and dance: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z0XAI-PFQcA. A good rapport between you and the person you interview is crucial to successful interviewing. RapportThe sense of connection a researcher establishes with a participant. is the sense of connection you establish with a participant. Some argue that this term is too clinical, and perhaps it implies that a researcher tricks a participant into thinking they are closer than they really are (Esterberg, 2002).Esterberg, K. G. (2002). Qualitative methods in social research. Boston, MA: McGraw-Hill. While it is unfortunately true that some researchers might adopt this misguided approach to rapport, that is not the sense in which I use the term here nor is that the sort of rapport I advocate researchers attempt to establish with their subjects. Instead, as already mentioned, it is respect that is key.
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. In case you still feel uncertain about how to establish rapport and show your participants respect, I will leave you with a few additional bits of advice.
Developing good rapport requires good listening. In fact, listening during an interview is an active, not a passive, practice. Active listeningOccurs when an interviewer demonstrates that he or she understands what an interview participant has said; requires probes or follow-up questions that indicate such understanding. means that you, the researcher, participate with the respondent by showing that you understand and follow whatever it is that he or she is telling you (Devault, 1990).For more on the practice of listening, especially in qualitative interviews, see Devault, M. (1990). Talking and listening from women’s standpoint: Feminist strategies for interviewing and analysis. Social Problems, 37, 96–116. The questions you ask respondents should indicate that you’ve actually heard what they’ve just said. Active listening probably means that you will probe the respondent for more information from time to time throughout the interview. A probeA request, on the part of an interviewer, for more information from an interview participant. is a request for more information. Both qualitative and quantitative interviewers probe respondents, though the way they probe usually differs. In quantitative interviews, probing should be uniform. Often quantitative interviewers will predetermine what sorts of probes they will use. As an employee at the research firm I’ve mentioned before, our supervisors used to randomly listen in on quantitative telephone interviews we conducted. We were explicitly instructed not to use probes that might make us appear to agree or disagree with what respondents said. So “yes” or “I agree” or a questioning “hmmmm” were discouraged. Instead, we could respond with “thank you” to indicate that we’d heard a respondent. We could use “yes” or “no” if, and only if, a respondent had specifically asked us if we’d heard or understood what they had just said.
In some ways qualitative interviews better lend themselves to following up with respondents and asking them to explain, describe, or otherwise provide more information. This is because qualitative interviewing techniques are designed to go with the flow and take whatever direction the respondent goes during the interview. Nevertheless, it is worth your time to come up with helpful probes in advance of an interview even in the case of a qualitative 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 that practicing your interview in advance with people who are similar to those in your sample is a good idea.