Chapter 10: Qualitative Data Collection & Analysis Methods
10.3 Conducting Qualitative Interviews
Qualitative interviews might feel more like a conversation than an interview to respondents, however the researcher is usually guiding the conversation with the goal of gathering information from a respondent. A key difference between qualitative and quantitative interviewing is that qualitative interviews contain open-ended questions. Open-ended questions are questions for which a researcher does not provide answer options. Open-ended questions demand more of participants than closed-ended questions, because they require participants to come up with their own words, phrases, or sentences to respond.
In a qualitative interview, the researcher usually develops a guide in advance to which he or she then refers during the interview (or memorizes in advance of the interview). An interview guide is a list of topics or questions that the interviewer hopes to cover during the course of an interview. It is called a guide because it is used to guide the interviewer, but it is not inflexible. Think of an interview guide like your agenda for the day or your to-do list both probably contain all the items you hope to check off or accomplish, however, probably it is not mandatory for you to accomplish everything on the list or accomplish it in the exact order that you have written it down. Perhaps emerging events will influence you to rearrange your schedule, or perhaps you simply will not get to everything on the list.
Interview guides should outline issues that a researcher feels are likely to be important, but because participants are asked to provide answers in their own words, and to raise points that they believe are important, each interview is likely to flow a little differently. While the opening question in an in- depth interview may be the same across all interviews, from that point on what the participant says will shape how the interview proceeds. This is what makes in-depth interviewing so exciting. It is also what makes in-depth interviewing rather challenging to conduct. It takes a skilled interviewer to be able to ask questions and actually listen to respondents; and pick up on cues about when to follow up, when to move on, and when to simply let the participant speak without guidance or interruption.
Interview guides can list topics or questions. The specific format of an interview guide might depend on your style, experience, and comfort level as an interviewer or with your topic, however, interview guides are the result of thoughtful and careful work on the part of a researcher. It is important to ensure that the topics and questions are organized thematically and in the order in which they are likely to proceed (keep in mind, however, that the flow of a qualitative interview is in part determined by what a respondent has to say).
Sometimes researchers may create two versions of the guide for a qualitative interview: one version contains a very brief outline of the interview (perhaps with just topic headings), and another version contains detailed questions underneath each topic heading. In this case, the researcher might use the detailed guide to prepare and practice in advance of actually conducting interviews, and then bring just the brief outline to the interview. Bringing an outline, as opposed to a very long list of detailed questions, to an interview encourages the researcher to actually listen to what a participant is telling her. An overly-detailed interview guide will be difficult to navigate through during an interview and could give respondents the incorrect impression that the interviewer is more interested in her questions than in the participant’s answers.
Begin to construct your interview guide by brainstorming. There are no rules at the brainstorming stage—simply list all the topics and questions that come to mind when you think about your research question. Once you have developed a pretty good list, you can begin to pare it down by cutting questions and topics that seem redundant, and grouping like questions and topics together. If you have not done so yet, you may also want to come up with question and topic headings for your grouped categories. You should also consult the scholarly literature to find out what kinds of questions other interviewers have asked in studies of similar topics. As with quantitative survey research, it is best not to place very sensitive or potentially controversial questions at the very beginning of your qualitative interview guide. You need to give participants the opportunity to warm up to the interview and to feel comfortable talking with you. Finally, get some feedback on your interview guide. Ask your friends, family members, and your professors for some guidance and suggestions once you have come up with what you think is a pretty strong guide. Chances are they will catch a few things you had not noticed.
In terms of the specific questions you include on your guide, there are a few guidelines worth noting. First, try to avoid questions that can be answered with a simple yes or no, or, if you do choose to include such questions, be sure to include follow-up questions. Remember, one of the benefits of qualitative interviews is that you can ask participants for more information; be sure to do so. While it is a good idea to ask follow-up questions, try to avoid asking “why” as your follow-up question, since “why” questions can appear to be confrontational, even if that is not your intention. Often people will not know how to respond to “why.” This may be the case because they do not know why themselves. Instead of “why,” it is recommended that you say something like, “could you tell me a little more about that?” This allows participants to explain themselves further without feeling that they are being doubted or questioned in a hostile way.
Also, try to avoid phrasing your questions in a leading way. For example, rather than asking, “What do you think about people who drink and drive?” you could ask, “How do you feel about drinking and driving?” Finally, as noted earlier in this section, remember to keep most, if not all, of your questions open-ended. The key to a successful qualitative interview is giving participants the opportunity to share information in their own words and in their own way.
Even after the interview guide is constructed, the interviewer is not yet ready to begin conducting interviews. The researcher next has to decide how to collect and maintain the information that is provided by participants. It is probably most common for qualitative interviewers to take audio recordings of the interviews they conduct. Recording interviews allows the researcher to focus on her or his interaction with the interview participant rather than being distracted by trying to take notes. Of course, not all participants will feel comfortable being recorded and sometimes even the interviewer may feel that the subject is so sensitive that recording would be inappropriate. If this is the case, it is up to the researcher to balance excellent note-taking with exceptional question-asking and even better listening. It can be quite challenging to do all three at the same time. Recording is best, if you can do so. Whether you will be recording your interviews or not (and especially if not), it is crucial to practice the interview in advance. Ideally, try to find a friend or two willing to participate in a couple of trial runs with you. Even better, try and find a friend or two who are similar in at least some ways to your sample. They can give you the best feedback on your questions and your interview demeanor.
All interviewers should be aware of, give some thought to, and plan for, several additional factors, such as where to conduct an interview and how to make participants as comfortable as possible during an interview. Because these factors should be considered by both qualitative and quantitative interviewers, we will return to them in Chapter 11 “Issues to Consider for AllInterview Types.”