This blog is hosted on Ideas on EuropeIdeas on Europe Avatar


Considering practical aspects in qualitative interviews

In European studies and political science more broadly qualitative elite interviews are a well established method. For any PhD student (or indeed any researcher) conducting your first qualitative interviews with elites (those in a privileged position over the activity or area of policy in question) can be a daunting prospect. I was equally daunted, although a number of factors were working to my advantage:

  • In my local government practitioner role, I was a researcher. This meant I was familiar with interview approaches, although my participants had always been local residents, not officials and politicians.
  • I have previous experience in local government, so I already had a network of contacts and I was familiar with the way things work.
  • Local officials and politicians are much more ‘open’ than their national or European counterparts. This meant I had little problem with participants agreeing to be interviewed and the data I gained from them was incredibly rich.

Nonetheless, this was still the first time I’d conduct a serious piece of academic research. Like many PhD students I was enrolled onto a postgraduate social research methods degree to provide research training. This, along with several methods texts, all confirmed that my research aims and questions necessitated qualitative interviews with the actors involved. I needed to access the perspectives of participants and interviewing was the way to do it.

However, while I was sure I was going to employ the correct method I was less sure about how I should employ it. I was left with several (seemingly trivial) questions, including:

  • How should I invite participants (by telephone / email / letter)?
  • What information should I include in an interview invite?
  • What should I do if no one wants to be interviewed?
  • How should I prepare for an interview?
  • How should I dress?

While I could of course rely on the excellent and experienced advice of my supervisors and colleagues, many uncertainties remained for me and I was afraid this would have a detrimental impact on my thesis as a whole.

There is sometimes a tendency to overlook these practical questions in research. Methods chapters in theses tend to dedicate their attention to justifying the methodological approach (I’m not saying they shouldn’t) as this is likely to come up in the viva. But detailed information on the practical application of the method is often regarded as superfluous. As an example in more established academic research, journal articles rarely contain this information. This overlooks the basic fact that interviews depend as much on their practical application as they do on their methodological suitability. The consequences can be significant. Problems with the practical aspects of interviews can compromise data and affect the validity of the research overall. It follows that if we are to assess a piece of research we need to know how it was conducted in the field. Phrases such as “standard interviewing techniques”, although ubiquitous, unfortunately don’t tell us anything.

I learnt four key practical lessons from my experience. To summarize:

  • Maintain your credibility as a researcher. Reassure your participants that you’re a bona fide researcher by sending letters on university-branded headed paper. Use your university contact details, not your personal ones. Ensure your research is ethically sound and that participants are fully aware of all the implications of their involvement. Show you know your subject; don’t arrange an interview with someone who isn’t relevant to your study as it’s a waste of their and your time. Likewise do some background research; don’t waste interview time with basic fact finding you could have done online.
  • Maintain professional interaction with participants. Know how your participants prefer to be contacted; is email or a formal letter the norm? Be cordial and polite, and dress appropriately. Send a formal thank you letter after the interview. Keep participants engaged in the research process; it’s polite and you’ll probably need to get back to them later on to clarify things.
  • Prepare. Know the specific person you’re going to contact in advance; letters or emails addressed to an anonymous “manager” are likely to be regarded as spam. Arrange a suitable interview location; cafes with background noise and distractions should be avoided. Ensure you know where you’re going on the day of the interview and don’t be late. Ensure you know how your recording equipment works. Come armed with additional information about your project in case your participants ask for it. It goes without saying that you should pilot your interviews.
  • Be flexible. Participants are taking time out of their day to meet with you, so it is fair to expect you will have to work around their diary. However, make you sure you can commit to interview times. If you’re travelling to an interview location then build in contingency; public transport delays and traffic jams are inevitable and will make you late when they happen. Contingency also helps in case a participant pulls out last minute or wants to reschedule; if you’re travelling somewhere for a couple of days leave an afternoon free so you can rearrange if necessary.

So, spend some time going over how you will execute your chosen method in the field, as well as the more fundamental question of whether your chosen method is suitable for your research aims. The practical application has a direct impact on your data and thus a direct impacty on the validity of your research This is especially the case with qualitative interviews which require significant preparation and skill in engaging participants.

A more detailed discussion of the practical considerations of arrangign and conducting elite interview, as well as my experiences, can be found in:

Huggins, C. (2014). Arranging and Conducting Elite Interviews: Practical Considerations. SAGE Research Methods Cases. doi: 10.4135/978144627305013514687


Recent Articles

EU Open Days 2013

Published on by | 1 Comment

For the second year running I attended the EU Open Days in Brussels. This event, organised by the European Commission and the Committee of the Regions, and now in its tenth year, brings together local and regional actors from across Europe, along with representatives from the European Commission and Committee of the Regions. Over 6,000 […]

The LEPs may be able to set priorities for EU funding, but the government’s still in control

Published on by | Comments Off

Today I attended the Southern England Local Partners annual European Congress in Poole. This was an important event for the delegates in the room, mostly representatives of local government and the new Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs). The highlight of the programme for many was the keynote speech, a presentation from the UK government on how the range of […]

Bilateral links in the Channel/Manche area

Published on by | 2 Comments

Since the late 1980s local and regional authorities in southern England and northern France have co-operated on a bilateral basis. These links differed from the traditional post-war twinning links between cities, towns and other smaller communities. Rather than a narrow focus on civic or cultural exchange each council entered into a co-operation agreement or accord, […]

Is EU regional policy becoming more centralised?

Published on by | 1 Comment

One of the panels at the Council for European Studies conference in Amsterdam a couple of weeks ago focused on local and regional authority engagement with EU cohesion policy, and what the impact of the current financial crisis  and austerity has been.   It was noted that the European Commission often prides itself on the […]

Wales and the EU

Published on by | Comments Off

The Wales, the United Kingdom and Europe: Europeanising Devolution conference (Cardiff, 24 May 2013) presented a paradox for Wales’s engagement with the EU; while Europe is extremely important for Wales engagement seems to be lacking. On the one hand it was recognised that the EU has the potential to offer Wales several benefits. On top […]

147 UKIP councillors doesn’t mean much in local politics … yet

Published on by | Comments Off

Last week, local elections were held across England. This election has been characterized by the media as the national ‘breakthrough moment’ for the Euro-sceptic UK Independence Party (UKIP). 147 UKIP councillors were elected, a gain of 139 seats. UKIP’s share of the vote was largely taken from the Conservatives and most UKIP gains were in the Conservative heartland of south-east England. This may […]

Going abroad to promote local economic development

Published on by | Comments Off

Earlier this week Hackney council defended its decision to send a delegation to the SXSW festival in Texas – “the Davos equivalent for innovation and tech”. Granted we are talking about a trip to the USA here and not Europe, but councils regularly send delegations to such events in Europe and beyond. With each trip comes the inevitable criticism from […]


Published on by | Comments Off

When looking at Europe we tend to focus in the role of member states, European policy making processes or European institutions. Although issues such as ‘regionalism’, ‘localism’ and ‘subsidiarity’ are important issues in European integration, there is usually a tendency to look at these in a wider context. It is not often that the activities […]

Subscribe to a fortnightly email featuring posts from Ideas on Europe hosted blogs

UACES and Ideas on Europe do not take responsibility for opinions expressed in articles on blogs hosted on Ideas on Europe. All opinions are those of the contributing authors.