Thoughts, writing & snippets

Marguerite Koole, PhD

Explorations into qualitative interviewing techniques & issues

mkoole, · Categories: PhD Studies, Research · Tags: , ,

Essentials of Qualitative InterviewingOlson, K. (2011). Essentials of Qualitative Interviewing (Qualitative Essentials) (p. 112). Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press. Retrieved June 29, 2011, from

I recently attended an excellent week of workshops at the University of Alberta: Thinking Qualitatively Workshop Series offered through the International Institute for Qualitative Methodology. I took three workshops on various aspects of qualitative interviewing for a total of 9 hours.

One of the facilitators was Karen Olson whose book is the subject of this blog. I’m not going to quote too much from her book. But, I will say that it is a concise and easy-to-read book. I will only highlight out some of the ideas that are most important to me in my work.

The first chapter cautions the researcher to understand his/her perspective, particularly as it pertains to the field of research and its history and traditions. At the simplest level, one’s choice of interview format, selection of questions, delivery of questions, and analysis will be very tightly bound alongside the given perspective.

A clear idea of the research question is necessary to select participants. Olson suggests that the best participants are those with sufficient, current, and extensive knowledge/experience of the phenomena or concepts being investigated (pp. 26-27). This, of course raises a concern about how a researcher can judge whether or not certain participants have that level of experience. The answer to that will depend on the context, the question, etc.

This book (and presentation) introduced me to the concept of shadowed data: “data obtained by interviewing someone who knows the participant well” (p. 32). It is easy to pooh-pooh this idea straight off decrying the potential validity issues from gathering second-hand information. However, there are times when it is not possible to interview someone directly. If in that situation, I would recommend that the researcher openly discuss it in the final report.

The most common phrase that I hear amongst my fellow students is semi-structured interviews. However, I now wonder if they really mean guided interviews (p. 41-41). Guided interviews allow the interviewer to start an interview by asking a set of open questions as a starting point. The interview slowly takes shape as the conversation is co-constructed. Semi-structured interviews, according to Olson, are more common as follow-up interviews. Questions are drafted in accordance with data already uncovered in previous interviews. Whilst an interviewer conducting a semi-structured interview might open by prompting a participant if they wish to add to what they have previously offered, the rest of the questions are designed to clarify or probe further into some issues.

I won’t say too much about focus groups except for one general comment. Focus groups are often used when the researcher wishes to elicit answers to a set of questions, AND also wishes to observe reactions and interactions amongst a group of people discussing the questions (p. 41).

The interesting stuff:

When beginning the early interviews, the researcher should remember that although he or she may have developed some “guiding” questions, the objective is not to “guide” an interview. Indeed, the interviewer should avoid all subtle indications that this is intended, since this would be a major threat to the validity of the data. Rather one wishes to open a conversation with the participant. (p. 45)

This is one of the reasons I chose to take the 9 hours of workshops on interviewing. How does one conduct oneself in such as way so as to elicit information about a particular topic? How does one not contaminate the conversation by prompting and directing the participant too much? Olson’s book provides some examples of opening the conversation in a neutral, but directed way. Basically, the task is to create a comfortable space (p. 49) for communication in which the participants should have an opportunity to tell their stories rather than just answering a series of questions (p. 46).

Do not be afraid of silence. A lull in the conversation can allow the participant to reflect. And, in some cultures, patiently awaiting a response is respectful.

Something that I hadn’t thought of before (but sometimes do by accident) is ending the interview with a re-grounding question(s). In Olson’s work in healthcare, re-grounding is highly recommended. Some interviews can be very emotional experiences. The participants need some time to wrap up their thoughts and re-enter the world. I don’t think it is all that much different with less sensitive topics nor is it much different with online (distance) interviews.

Olson’s book touches upon interview modes. She discusses briefly some of the findings of researchers who contend that there are/are no differences in the results from face-to-face and mediated interviews. As with many other studies of the effects of modes on human activity (see the Clark and Kozma debate in distance education as an example), the opinions span the range of possibilities. In any case, all modes will allow data collection. But, I would suggest that researchers are transparent about which mode they used and that they openly discuss the limits and possibilities of these modes.

Finally, this short monologue is most useful because of its list of references . . . I am now off to locate some of Olson’s references in the databases . . . .

2 Responses to “Explorations into qualitative interviewing techniques & issues”

  1. lizit says:

    It sounds as though the workshop was very useful. I like that idea of guiding questions – it resonates with me. My interviews have generally been open-ended and conversational, but I have had a list of areas which I was looking to ensure were covered, while basically inviting people to tell their stories. I assume the point about not-guiding the interview is a warning about leading questions, or putting words in participants’ mouths? Although each interview has a life of its own, it is also guided to some extent by having an agenda of some sort, unless one is following a completely open-ended methodology (something like BNIM – I think that’s the acronym). there seem to be so many terms for describing the same – or similar – activities!

    • em says:


      Yes, I think there it is a bit daunting selecting the right type of interviews. And, one of the problems is that different authors in different fields use the terminology differently. I guess we just have to make sure that we define the terms that we use in our own writing. I wonder to what extent researchers miss out on grants because the review boards hold a different understanding of the submitted proposals.

      Thanks for your comments,

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