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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

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