Sunday, 17 August 2014

Stories about the interview process - during the interview

Every participant in your research will differ in terms of their expectation of the interview process and the resources which they bring to the interview.

First, what are some of the expectations which participants have in terms of the process of the interview?

Some participants may expect that you go directly to the "heart of the matter" as soon as the interview starts. They do not want to deal with preliminary matters such as providing background information about themselves or their organisations. If you had, beforehand, indicated to them that you wanted to discuss a particular matter they come to the interview focused on only discussing that matter. If you deviate just a little bit from their expectation they begin to get a tad uncomfortable or worse, irritated.

What do you do when you are confronted with such a situation? Explain to your participant the relevance of the information which you are seeking to your understanding of the main matter under discussion but gently steer the conversation back to the direction in which the participant is comfortable navigating. Seize opportunities in the conversation later to explore issues which you believe are critical to your understanding of the issue of concern. You may realise as the conversation progresses that your participant's state of unease, initially, was because she/he was so invested in the main issue and wanted so badly to expound on it, therefore the participant did not want to be distracted. You may find that the minute you ask the question your  participant was anticipating, the atmosphere of the interview changes and the engagement of the participant  becomes almost palpable. You have now got the full attention of your participant so it is now your responsibility to manage the interview process in order to elicit the information which you are seeking.

Second, participants differ in their ability to coherently articulate their views on the issue with which you, the researcher, are concerned. This, in spite of the fact that all participants may share a common status, for example, classroom teacher or principal of a school. You the researcher may ask your participant to respond to an issue which you are exploring. Some participants may provide you with many minutes of insight while others will provide you with a few seconds.

What do you do in situations like these? You the researcher may want to allow those participants who are verbose to fully articulate their views without interruption, except for seeking clarifications. You may, at the time, think that the participant is not quite answering your question but, later, when you have made your transcript and begun your analysis of the interview, you may find that your verbose participants have provided you with answers to critical questions that you did not think to ask, answers which are pertinent to facilitating your understanding of the issue under consideration.

Or the participants who are of few words, you the researcher will have to help them to articulate the issues to which you are seeking answers. You do this by prodding and probing which will require that you ask many questions, following up on the responses that your participants give.

Third, participants differ in terms of their understanding of the issues as well as the research process. For example, you may interview a participant who is quite learned, had engaged in much research in his/her esteemed career. This participant believes in and is committed to a particular research methodology and may quite subtly try to "sell" you this methodology. You may even get a lecture about the research process, the issue in which you are interested and the "best" way to design your research to elicit the kind of information which will shed light on the issue under consideration. Or, you may have a participant who seems to be only familiar with the survey method of eliciting "legitimate" information to answer research questions and, therefore, discount your methodology which does not involve the distribution of questionnaires replete with close-ended questions. This participant may also reject your research question and suggest other areas of the organisation which she/he believes is more "worthy" of research than the one you had chosen to explore.

What do you do when these situations arise during the interview process? You listen politely to whatever the participant wishes to share. Thank the participant for sharing the information with you and tell him/her that you will consider it as you negotiate your way through the research process. Then, steer the conversation into the area in which you had originally planned. Afterwards, do consider all the contributions from this participant. You may find some pearl of wisdom embedded there, or you may not.

One of the major lessons which you will learn from the research process is that you have to have a good understanding of your research goals, be committed to them but be not wary of having your participants challenge them. It is in their challenging of these goals that you, the researcher, sometimes get insights on how to refine your research goals to capture, in a precise way, the understanding which you crave of the issue which you are exploring.