Thoughts, writing & snippets

Marguerite Koole, PhD

From Online Interview to Transcription

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

I am in the midst of a brief pilot for my PhD research. I am conducting my first two interviews with the intention of ironing out some kinks before fully engaging in data collection. Here are some recommendations and discoveries for anyone else at this stage.

Do a pilot prior to the pilot. Yes, a pilot of a pilot. Thanks to a colleague who is on a similar course at another university here in Alberta, I was able to test the entire process right from the email script, letter of information and consent, to the participant selection survey, and finally through a mock interview. I was careful not to record the mock interview as I wanted to ensure that this process did not fall outside the research ethics guidelines stipulated by both university research ethics committees. (Yes, my project went through two ethics committees.) From this, I was able to test some questions, adjust letters and scripts, correct problems in the survey, etc. The feedback from my colleague was invaluable.

The pilot itself is invaluable. This is where you also use your recording tools and the data counts. Although, the data collected during this phase will be treated separately, it can be included in the final analysis. All your tools will get tested here. This is what I’ve learned:

Two recording devices at once: essential. Obviously if one fails, the other one can save the day. But, there are other benefits. Your recording devices will often use different file formats. For my first pilot interview, I used both Adobe Connect and my LiveScribe pen. In the end, I found the mp4 file format from the LiveScribe pen was the most versatile. However . . .

You may need to convert file formats. I was unable to import the mp4 format into my transcription program. So, I had to convert it. I downloaded Audacity. However, Audacity could not play the mp4. So, I had to locate an add-on for Audacity: FFmpeg. Once installed, I was able to convert the mp4 into a number of different formats. I converted the mp4 into a WAV file and imported it easily into my transcription software.

So, what kind of transcription software did I find? It’s a bit of a long story. In the past, when conducting interviews with Elluminate, well, it was awful. I had to constantly remove my hands from the keyboard to the mouse play and rewind. It was incredibly slow. So, I have ordered an Infinity foot pedal to increase my transcription speed. I am still awaiting its arrival. Since I did not want to wait any longer to start transcribing, I went searching for alternative tools. Audacity did not seem to have a built in window for transcribing while playing the recording, so it would mean manually shifting between windows—and that means mouse movement. Other tools were necessary.

Logically, I know that I eventually want to use nVivo or Atlas-TI for the actual analysis. I settled upon Atlas-TI because they have an incredible offer for students: $99 USD for a single student license. The documentation suggests that it is possible upload and transcribe audio and video files directly. However, it seemed to require certain file types. Sigh. Reading the documentation further, I found that they recommend using free transcription software from It’s free and works like a charm. Using the hot-keys to play, stop, and rewind, I’m wondering if I even need the foot pedal that I’ve ordered. However, their site still recommends using a foot pedal as it should increase transcription speed up to three times. I will see how true that is when my foot pedal arrives.

Now, how to do the actual transcription? Firstly, one must consider the methodology and the requirements of the study. For example, conversation analysis will likely require very detailed transcriptions of pauses, breaths, intonations, and other indicators of linguistic behaviours. Other studies in discourse analysis, phenomenology, and phenomenography for example, might require less linguistic detail. I have decided to learn Jeffersonian transcription notation. Although my study does not require a high degree of detail, I would like to follow standard conventions. So, Jeffersonian it is.

Back to work. My next task is to now review the first pilot transcript and import it into Atlas-TI. (All the while, I am missing this glorious hot summer day—the nicest day we’ve had all year!)


Wow. I thought I should add a little more information here. I loaded the RTF document produce by the from software. Atlas-TI works with it seamlessly. I can highlight parts of the transcript and Atlas-TI plays it from the externally linked files. Since there is no additional work here to learn how to link the files, I think I will go out for a while and enjoy the day.

Common sense preparation for an online interview

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

Before starting an interview, there are some practical, must-do preparations. The items on this list might appear obvious, but I recommend using it and ticking off each item as you prepare for an interview.

Get a glass of water. Stretch. Get comfortable.

Turn ringer off all phones in the vicinity of the interview.

Turn off browsers, email, and other distractions.

Clear workspace of unnecessary debris, so you have space.

Have a page ready and open to start typing if you wish to take notes during the interview.

Have note paper and pens available (low-tech can be helpful).

Turn on your spare computer. You may even wish to navigate to the communications software you are using (Elluminate, Adobe Connect, or other software).

Use two recording devices, if possible. I am using Adobe Connect, but I also use a LiveScribe pen as a secondary device. Make sure all your software is up-to-date. You don’t want updates going on during or after your interview (potentially causing you to lose data).

Test your computers and your recording devices. (You may even wish to do some tests the night before with a friend or family member.)

Print your interview schedule, so you can jot quick notes on it as the interview proceeds. Use the interview schedule wisely. Your methodology and goals should dictate the extent to which it structures your interview.

Relax and think about your approach before you start. Review any information that you might have about your participant(s). Review your goals.

Additional suggestions or advice for ensuring smooth-running interviews is welcome.

Considerations for conducting phenomenographic interviews

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

I am finally ready to start recruiting participants for my doctoral thesis on Identity Positioning of Doctoral Students in Networked Learning Environments. The seemingly endless wait for ethics permission and institutional permission (sometimes known as site permission) was actually a very useful time. I used the time for further reading and reflection on phenomenography in light of the recent methodology workshops and my readings on methods.

PhenomenographyBowden, J. A., & Walsh, E. (2000). Phenomenography (p. 154). Melbourne, Australia: RMIT Publishing. Retrieved from


Learning & AwarenessMarton, F., & Booth, S. (1997). Learning and awareness. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.



Why study interviewing methods so intensively right now?

I feel strongly that one must understand one’s methodology before collecting data. And, it is important to be mindful of all the choices that one must make while employing data collection methods. Some researchers utilize data collected previously by other researchers for other research purposes. This might be suitable avenue for researchers who have difficulty accessing some participants or whose projects are on tight time constraints. It might also be done simply for convenience. In some cases, seemingly perfect data sets can be procured from national databases such as the UK Data Archive. As I read more deeply about phenomenography, I sense that it is in the best interests of my own study to collect data carefully with sensitivity to phenomenographic theory and procedures of analysis. This is also the position taken by Bowden (2000):

Whatever research method is used, researchers need to articulate the purposes of their project and to keep those purposes in mind at all stages of the research—in the design of the investigation, in the development of the data collection processes, in the collection of data and in the analysis and interpretation. (p. 7)


What is a phenomenographic interview?

Interviewing is the most common method for collecting data in phenomenography (Walsh, 2000, p. 19, Marton, 1986, p. 42). Trigwell (2000) and Dunkin (2000) suggest that the ideal number of interviews rests around 15 to 20. In phenomenological studies, the number of suggested interviews might be less as phenomenology seeks to explore the essence of an individual’s experience in some depth. Phenomenography, on the other hand, focuses on the limited possible ways of experiencing a given phenomenon across a group of individuals. The outcome space (results) is a compilation of categories of description which expresses the variation. As such, it is necessary to reach a balance between depth of description and breadth of experience among a group of individuals.

Interviews are typically semi-structured (or “guided” if you choose Olson’s terminology) and last roughly 40 to 60 minutes or until the “the interviewer feels the experience has been described, and the meaning of relevant words has been revealed (Trigwell, 2000, p. 67). Most phenomenographers seem to agree that the participants should have sufficient flexibility to describe the experiences as they wish in their own way. Hence, most questioning and probing is open-ended. Bowden (Chapter 1) and Prosser (Chapter 3), in working with children, prefer to offer “problem questions” that the participants are asked to resolve. By asking participants to work through problems or tasks “interviewees are encouraged to reveal, through discussion, their ways of understanding a phenomenon, that is, to disclose their relationship to the phenomenon under consideration” (p. 9). Most of the questions in a phenomenographic interview follow from comments of the participant (Trigwell, 2000). Some sample questions that Bowden supplies (p. 10):


Prosser offers some interesting observations on eliciting information from the participants:

While it is relatively easy to get interviewees to describe their strategies, it is much more difficult to get them to discuss their intentions underlying their strategies and their conceptions of phenomena. (Prosser, 2000, p. 44).

To approach the participant’s conceptions, the researcher must consider the interview/discussion as a whole. According to Marton & Booth (1997) interviews take place on two levels: the interpersonal contact between the interviewer and the participant and at a metacognitive level in which the participant relates his/her awareness of an experience (Marton & Booth, 1997, p. 87). So, whilst the researcher attempts to maintain focus on the target conception(s), he/she must also provide room for the participant fully express related nuances and details. In some cases, it might be helpful within the context of the co-constructed interaction (see previous blog postings on interviews), for the researcher to share her own experiences. However, Bowden (Chapter 4) warns against “leading too much” to avoid influencing the participants. As per my previous blog postings on interviewing, anything that the researcher discloses during the interview should be as carefully transcribed and reported as the participant’s dialogue.

In some cases, a phenomenographic interview might seem to revolve tediously around the same question over and over again. This is partially true. A phenomenographic interviewer will ask similar questions in different ways so as to elicit a number of different views on the phenomenon. “Typically, a range of questions is used to provide views of each conception from several angles in order to make the description of the conception as rich as possible” (Dall’Alba, 2000, p. 94).


References – refer to

A primer on phenomenography . . . a lead-in to interviewing

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

In a metaphorical sense the group of readers can be thought of as a prism through which the text passed, to be refracted and to exit in distinctly different meanings (Marton & Booth, 1997, p. 150).


The following definitions are in no particular order except that I hope that one flows to the next. Also, they contain direct quotes from the books below with more specific referencing at the bottom of this page.

PhenomenographyBowden, J. A., & Walsh, E. (2000). Phenomenography (p. 154). Melbourne, Australia: RMIT Publishing. Retrieved from


Marton, F., & Booth, S. (1997). Learning and awareness. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.












Category of description (CoD)


Outcome space




Structural aspect (how)

  • How the explanation is given (Trigwell, 2000).
  • Indirect object.
  • “The structural aspect of a way of experiencing something is thus twofold: discernment of the whole from the context on the one hand and discernment of the parts and their relationships within the whole on the other” (Marton & Booth, 1997, p. 87).
        • Internal horizon of the structural aspect: “The parts and their relationships, together with the contours of the phenomenon” experienced (Marton & Booth, 1997, p. 87).
        • External horizon (context) of the structural aspect: “That which surrounds the phenomenon experienced, including its contours” (Marton & Booth, 1997, p. 87).
Referential aspect (what)

  • Meaning
  • What is focused on; the content (Trigwell, 2000).
  • Direct object.
  • Also has a structural and referential aspect with internal and external horizons. (Yes, this is a bit confusing; Marton & Booth’s (1997) diagrams help greatly).



Figure & Field / Focal & Figural






But, what has this to do with interviewing? That is the topic of my next blog posting.



Bowden, J. (2000). Chapter 1: The nature of phenomenographic research. In J. A. Bowden & E. Walsh (Eds.), Phenomenography (pp. 19-33). Melbourne, Australia: RMIT Publishing.

Bowden, J. (2000). Chapter 4: The experience of phenomenographic research. In J. A. Bowden & E. Walsh (Eds.), Phenomenography (pp. 19-33). Melbourne, Australia: RMIT Publishing.

Dall’Alba, G. (2000). Chapter 6: Reflections on some faces of phenomenography. In J. A. Bowden & E. Walsh (Eds.), Phenomenography (pp. 19-33). Melbourne, Australia: RMIT Publishing.

Marton, F. (1986). Phenomenography: A research approach to investigating different understandings of reality. Journal of Thought, 21(3), 28-49.

Marton, F. (2000). Chapter 7: The structure of awareness. In J. A. Bowden & E. Walsh (Eds.), Phenomenography (pp. 19-33). Melbourne, Australia: RMIT Publishing.

Marton, F., & Booth, S. (1997). Learning and awareness. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Patrick, K. (2000). Chapter 8: Exploring conceptions: Phenomenography and the object of study. In J. A. Bowden & E. Walsh (Eds.), Phenomenography (pp. 19-33). Melbourne, Australia: RMIT Publishing.

Prosser, M. (2000). Chapter 3: Using phenomenographic research methodology in the context of research in teaching and learning. In J. A. Bowden & E. Walsh (Eds.), Phenomenography (pp. 19-33). Melbourne, Australia: RMIT Publishing.

Walsh, E. (2000). Chapter 2: Phenomenographic analysis of interview transcripts. In J. A. Bowden & E. Walsh (Eds.), Phenomenography (pp. 19-33). Melbourne, Australia: RMIT Publishing.

Trigwell, K. (2000). Chapter 5: A phenomenographic interview on phenomenography. In J. A. Bowden & E. Walsh (Eds.), Phenomenography (pp. 19-33). Melbourne, Australia: RMIT Publishing.

More on Two-Person Interviews (TPIs)

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

For a description (Part 1) of Dr. David Morgan’s TPIs, please refer to my previous blog post.

The effects of structure on the TPI

The degree of structure you use in your interviews will affect the data you glean. Highly structured TPIs suggest greater interaction with the participants and the interviewer. The greater the structure the more the interviewers controls the questions and answers. Highly structured interviews allow a researcher to dig into issues in depth and in great detail. In a case in which the interviewer questions each TPI participant individually, the participants may build upon each other’s responses, but still answer the questions separately. This is sometimes referred to as a serial interview.

High-structure TPIs Low-structure TPIs

High Structure


Low Structure



On the other end of the continuum, a low-structured or unstructured TPI (which, I believe, is the intent of Morgan’s TPI method) will permit greater interaction between the participants themselves. In a low-structure TPI, the interviewer stimulates conversation through the asking of questions or by setting up tasks. Less structured interviews are more exploratory in nature. And, a researcher using an unstructured TPI approach will have more opportunity to observe interactions between the two participants.

Homogeneity vs. heterogeneity

This refers to the similarities and/or familiarity of the participants to each other. For example, are they students in the same program? Are they from the same country?

According to Morgan, focus groups usually involve homogenous groups. But, it is possible to do either with TPIs. In one-person interviews (OPIs), the rapport between the interviewer and the participant is very important. In focus groups and TPIs, the rapport between the participants is important. As this technique is yet still very un-researched, the impact upon the quality and kind of observational data derived from homogenous vs. heterogeneous participants is yet unknown. I suspect that the quality of such data is also very much related to the kind of study and the kind of data sought by the researcher.

The TPI setting

Since the goal of a TPI is to encourage conversation, the interviewers will place the participants into a comfortable arrangement in which they can face each other just as they would in a normal conversation. In a face-to-face TPI, this might mean that the participants are sitting somewhat adjacent to each other. The interviewer will place herself somewhat apart from the conversants. Of course, this will be dictated by cultural patterns of appropriate proximity.

But, how can one achieve this online? Using video-conferencing technology, I would recommend that the interviewer ask the participants to use their video cameras and any of the other tools available (instant messaging, etc.). Once the main questions have been asked or the activity is introduced, the interviewer can turn off her camera. In some cases, she can make her camera less prominent. In a case in which the activity might be to use a whiteboard or brainstorming software, the interviewer can allow the participants to take control.

Conversation starters

In many face-to-face situations such as classrooms or workshops, facilitators use various ice-breaker techniques. How can this be done online? Well, whenever I chat with someone in a different province or country, I am curious about their weather, time zone, seasons, etc. Morgan recommends that conversation starters are 1) easy to answer, 2) interesting to both parties, and 3) something on which they want to hear someone else’s opinion/experience. If the conversation starter is somewhat removed, then the interviewer must find a way to bring the conversation back to the topic of the interview.

For a description of Dr. David Morgan’s TPIs, please refer to my previous blog post.

David Morgan’s Two-Person Interviews (TPIs)

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Presentation at Thinking Qualitatively Workshop Series offered through the International Institute for Qualitative Methodology. (June 22, 2011)

At first glance, this idea does not seem altogether that new. Yet, to my knowledge, no one other than Dr. David Morgan, a sociologist at Portland State University [oops! I thought he was from the U of A!] has conceptualized and named this form of interview format. Dr. Morgan acknowledged that other authors have mentioned “micro groups” and “mini-groups”, but there is not much in the literature. Please post a comment if you have seen any literature about this kind of interview.

To understand it, I will first outline the similarities and differences with regular one-person interviews and focus groups. This will be grossly simplified, but it allows a point of departure for an examination of TPIs.

One-person interviews

Diagram: one-person interview

In a conventional one-to-one interview, the interviewer communicates with a participant.

Focus group

Diagram: focus group

In a focus group, the interviewer facilitates a conversation. But, the participants then carry on, sometimes forgetting about the presence of the interviewer. Focus groups allow a researcher to accomplish at least two things: 1) ask questions, and 2) observe interactions among focus group members.

Two-person interviews (TPIs)

Diagram: Two-person interview

TPIs represent a hybrid of the focus group configuration. Naturally, the number of participants is more limited which reduces the logistics problems of gathering four to six people (or more) together for a meeting. TPIs also allow the interviewer to observe the interactions between the two participants. As such, one of the main goals is to encourage a conversation between the two participants.

According to his presentation, each time you add another person to the interview setting, you add additional complexity. In a dyadic situation, the participants exchange views bi-directionally. If a researcher adds an additional conversant (triad), there is a possibility for three separate conversations. The conversation can split.

Dr. Morgan illustrated how time is (possibly) shared within the three configurations above:

Interview time Configuration Time Data
1 hour session One-person 1 hour for the participant Questions answered; one perspectiveObservation of individual only
1 hour session TPI 30 minutes each Questions answered; two possible perspectivesObservation of interaction
1 hour session Focus group (6 people) 10 minutes each Questions answered; six possible perspectivesObservation of interaction


Next, I will write about some of the interesting issues that Dr. Morgan mentioned including: heterogeneous groups, homogeneous groups, under- and over-disclosure, interview structure, relationships and rapport, and backchannels. And, I will discuss how this might help my phenomenographic study.

See more on TPIs:

Conducting interviews with the not-so-disembodied

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

Online Interviewing
James, N., & Busher, H. (2009). Online interviewing. See:

I finished this book yesterday at my favourite coffee shop. Lo and behold, I had neither computer nor paper to jot down my notes. So, I pulled out my HTC TYTN II and hand-wrote some notes [I have not yet succumbed to the i-Revolution of the evil geniuses at Apple]. I sometimes carry a little fold-out Bluetooth keyboard and type notes in mobile Word, but alas I was completely unprepared.

James and Busher’s (J&B’s) book did not treat interviews in the same ways as Olson and Fontanas & Prokos did. There were some similar themes regarding ethics and the balance of power between the interviewer and the participants. And, J&B discussed the importance of the researcher understanding his/her ontological and epistemological stance. But, the main focus of this book, in my opinion, on the nature of the online environment and how it affects the construction and understanding of discourse in online interviewing. As such, the book is ideal for those of us who are studying online identity formation and maintenance. Including this book amongst my readings of interview methods was a good way to round out my investigation.

The authors regularly use the word disembodied in referring to the human experience online. The word crept into much of their text in each chapter possibly indicating their own private orientation towards online interaction. For example, J&B write:

This chapter [four] therefore discusses how knowledge is constructed in a disembodied, anonymous and textual environment . . . (p. 43)

Further, the body itself is discussed:

The centrality of the body plays a critical part in developing and maintaining social encounters. It influences the ways in which researchers and participants construct their identities and those of the other (Giddens, 1991) and how they assert their agency to make sense of the ‘territory’ (social space) of the social interaction in the face-to-face encounter. (p. 32)

I do not disagree with the importance of the body as we are all physical beings “thrown” into a physical world. Interaction within the physical world shapes how we understand life. However, I grow concerned when social scientists suggest that the ways humans interact online is fundamentally different from how they interact in other environments. Interaction in any environment is mediated—in a face-to-face milieu, this might be through light and sound waves. Mediation will affect the cues people perceive and their sense of time and space (p. 10). Sense of time and space will alter how they interact: what people say, how they say it, and why they say it—when, where . . . The meanings of interaction will shift for the actors as they send and receive cues through different times and spaces. These factors are of much interest to qualitative researchers (p. 23).

So, normally, I would take the repetition of the word disembodiment as a warning sign. Gladly, I found that the authors also offer different perspectives of the online experience:

. . . if researchers are to understand life online, they have to understand that participants’ experiences are connected and shaped by cultural and social elements that are both real and virtual, public and private and online and offline. (p. 11)

Some online researchers have argued that to understand life online you need to understand the broader context because ‘being online and being offline are intersecting and interweaving experiences’ that are influenced and shaped by cultural and social elements (Rybas and Gajjala, 2007 cited in J&B, 2009, p. 34). Identity is fluid and potentially multiple on the Internet, but people similarly engage in these practices in other areas of their lives and did so prior to the existence of the Internet. In other words there is a ‘connected space’ in which individuals exist online and offline simultaneously (Kendall, 1999, p. 6 cited in J&B, 2009, p. 34).

Why is it important to avoid (or acknowledge) the online-interaction-is-disembodied-bandwagon? Because it has significant underlying implications for the way researchers and practitioners shape their online research and online learning environments. By recognizing that the humans-behind-the-screen are actual beings with continuous identities rooted in physical, cultural, and social environments, we can begin to understand why they might react to given situations the way they do. (Note: I do not suggest that we can ever fully understand the intentionality of others.) J&B warn researchers about the “false notion of sameness”, the idea that because people share time and space online they also share values and understanding (p. 47).

. . . participants are likely to assign different valences (strengths) of power to each other, possibly incorrectly. This is because the valence they assign will depend on the cultures from which they come, not the culture in which the others are located. (p. 45)

Further, (and I love the terminology):


But, one should not forget that the lived reality of a person is also supplemented by ‘there and then’. Everyone carries with him/her a physical, cultural, and social history.

A related, but equally important and oft-abused word is fragmented. The disembodied folks often also suggest that people interacting online have fragmented identities:

The identities that emerge from these interactions—fragmented, complex, diffracted through the lenses of technology, culture and new technocultural formations—seem to be . . . more visible as the critters we ourselves are in the process of becoming, here at the close of the mechanical age. (Stone, 1996, p. 36 cited in J&B, 2009, p.72)

Fragmentation is a notion that I would also flag as problematic. The fragmentation is really only from the perspective of an audience for a given performance—not that of the actual individual typing on his/her keyboard. As I write this, I assure you, I have a very integrated sense of identity; my whole history is at my disposal. Just because I don’t share all of my history does not mean I am in any way fragmented. But, I do acknowledge that your computer monitor might show me as somehow diffracted.

Thankfully, J&B offer alternative views from that of Stone (1996, above). In referring to Kendall (1999), they indicate that identity is “stable and unified” and that “This stability is constructed through the ongoing dialogues and discourses emerging online” (p. 73). And, that whilst people can create different online personas, they can and do integrate these personas into their unified selves. In my view, this suggests support for a constructionist perspective of how online and offline presentations of self integrate and influence each other in a constant movement towards becoming.

How is this relevant to interviewing methodologies?

It is relevant because it suggests that there is authenticity in data collected through online interviews (synchronous and asynchronous). The concern we have with demonstrating the validity/authenticity/truthfulness of this form of data collection is similar to the validity of interview data collected in face-to-face interviews”

Individuals do not leave the body, and all its material inequalities behind when they enter cyberspace (O’Connor and Madge, 2003 referred to in J&B, 2009, p. 78).

Oh, and this is an interesting comment (great quotes in this book):

. . . we may underestimate the presence of the body in electronic communication, and over estimate the power of the body to facilitate the fact-to-face situation (Seymore, 2001, p. 162, cited in J&B, 2009, p 108).

So what have I learned?

Similar rules-of-thumb apply to both online and offline interviewing:

So, why am I still grinding on about interview methods?

These were my main concerns prompting my investigation about interview methods:

To what extend would I contaminate the interviews by expressing opinions?

Do I want pre-reflective responses?
(See p. 26)


More on the qualitative interview: “One might have to disrobe and casually stroll in the nude . . .”

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

Fontana, A., & Prokos, A. H. (2007). The Interview: From Formal to Postmodern (p. 148). Left Coast Press, Inc.

In referring to the setting of some interviews: “One might have to disrobe and casually stroll in the nude if one is doing a study of nude beaches.” (Douglas and Rasmussen, 1977 cited in Fontana & Prokos, 2007, p. 43)

It was the perfect day to spend reading on the deck. I sat in the shade of my umbrella with my kettle, teapot, silver tea strainer I purchased at the Mittal tea shop in Sunder Nagar Market in New Delhi in 2003, and a fresh book on interviewing. Fontana and Prokos’ (F&P) book is really only 113 pages in length. It’s a pleasant read replete with interesting examples.

I appreciated their quick highlights of the history of interviewing. The historic background can help readers understand some of the philosophical issues behind the selection of interview types and how a given researcher believes she must conduct her interviews and her analysis of them.

As I continue to explore the literature on interviews, I am becoming more and more comfortable with my own style. My concern for contaminating my results by inadvertently “participating” in the interview whilst playing the researcher role is dissipating. The domain of the structured interview seems to rest with those taking a more realist ontology and objectivist epistemology. Locating “pure” responses from participants to pre-formed questions and limiting the interviewer from co-constructing the conversation seem to be of greater concern in structured interviews. (Hmmm . . . The post-modern unstructured polyphonic interview (p. 53) also attempts to minimize the influence of the interviewer, but involves recording multiple participants speaking freely to a topic. According to an example, the participants seem to be recorded separately. The researcher is expected to avoid using her own words and interpretations. The reader must do his/her own interpretations.)

I am more of a relativist and constructionist. As such, I am comfortable with the notion that my very presence is a valid part of the process. The important thing is to recognize it, acknowledge it, and document it. The researcher must be reflexive (p. 63) and transparently so. F&P in referring to the work of Hertz (1997) note that “we (as authors) express and write our stories, which data we include and which data we exclude, whose voices we choose to represent and whose voices we choose not to represent” (p. 63).

Whilst Hertz (1997 referred to in F&P) acknowledges that the researcher brings many selves to the field of research, Behar (1996 referred to in F&P) “made us see that interviewer, writer, respondent, and the interview itself are not clearly distinct entities” (p. 64). (Pardon my poor citations, but I’m a little tired tonight.) The researcher must decide how to present herself knowing that the self she shows will impact upon the relationship and the co-creation of the dialogue. Then, she must reflexively work through sorting out (or accepting) the hopelessly intertwined entities that formed the discourse—and which continue to shape the discourse well after the contact between the interviewer and the participant has ended. These notions suggest a complexity to the qualitative interview that, again, must be reflected in the final report.

F&P do a clean sweep of structured, group, and unstructured interviews. F&P do not make the same distinction between semi-structured and guided interviews as Olson does (see previous entry). They simply refer to them generally as unstructured and list a number of different types. These types are listed within the categories of creative and post-modern. Within the post-modern category of unstructured interviews, one type really caught my eye: interpretive interactionism (p. 54). F&P suggest that interpretive interactionism is related to polyphonic interviews (see paragraph above), but focuses on “epiphanies” derived from transformational experiences: “Thus, the topic of inquiry becomes dramatized by the focus on existential moments in people’s lives, possibly producing richer and more meaningful data” (p. 54). What is of interest to me here is whether or not this form of interviewing would be useful in studies involving threshold concepts and liminality (see Meyer & Land’s work). In my own PhD thesis, I will be exploring identity positioning thresholds (coined this phrase for my study) experienced by doctoral students.

Moving to the online interview

As I near the first of my pilot interviews, I am wondering how the following non-verbal factors will play out online:

Proxemic communication is the use of interpersonal space to communicate attitudes, chronemic communication is the use of pacing of speech and length and of silence in conversation, kinesic communication includes any body movements or postures, and paralinguistic communication includes all the variations in volume, pitch and quality of voice. (Gordon, 1980, p. 335 cited in F&P, 2007, p. 71)

Next blog entry will focus on the online interview . . .

Explorations into qualitative interviewing techniques & issues

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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 . . . .