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An issue of ‘bad’ participant interviews

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Marianna Latif is working on a PhD on migrant fatherhood and use of symbolic resources. In this week’s social psychology blog, she discusses a methodological issue related to participant interviews.

Interviewing in qualitative research is one of the most common way of gathering data. As a qualitative researcher you think carefully about what it is you want to explore, then try to reflect it in your research questions. You come up with some particularly insightful interview questions that will help you explore your topic area, get Ethics approval and you can finally approach potential research participants. The pilot interviews go well, you might want to tweak a question or two, but that’s what the pilots are for. Subsequent interviews produce interesting data relevant to your research question and you can see your interviewing skills growing.

But then comes the interview that is different – you can tell right from the beginning that your participant is not acting in the way you came to expect. Perhaps they keep talking over you, interrupting you every time you try to ask a question, or they are being dismissive. They may be critical of the topic you are exploring or your approach to it. They may express views that are offensive: racist, sexist or homophobic. It is possible that they are using the interview as an opportunity to air their frustrations which they could not otherwise express. After all, you guaranteed their anonymity and they feel this is their chance to say things that they can normally share with only a very few people and certainly not in public. But what do you do in such situation to protect yourself emotionally (such experience can be very upsetting) and how do you deal with the resulting data?

When this happened to me in a face to face interview, my initial reaction was to walk away and destroy the data. I didn’t do either. Although I felt the participants hijacked my interview to push their own agenda, I was also very aware that my participants are from a very hard to reach migrant community. On reflection, I felt that their data must be included in the study, because these particular points of view are valid to them and, ultimately, may be felt more widely within their group. I did not like it, but it did not mean the data was not important.

For me as a researcher this was a rather uncomfortable position. Not least because I wondered whether I did something that invited this kind of response. I wondered whether I was somewhat complicit in this situation, after all, I decided not to challenge these views in the interview as they were not always directly relevant to my research questions, although that fact alone made the subsequent data analysis more interesting. Or was it because we shared the same cultural background, perhaps they felt I would understand or even share their views? Perhaps there was a gender power play which sometimes comes up when female researcher works with male participants. These are really important points to consider, but care needs to be taken not to over-analyse them.

What I found most helpful was keeping a reflexive diary – a completely private, very loosely structured account of each interview, outlining not so much the content but my impressions, observations and feelings about the encounter. I write my thoughts right after each interview, while the whole experience is fresh in my mind and return to them later, often several times throughout the study. It has become an invaluable tool for me – not only it allows me to consider my own reactions in a critical, yet reflective way, but it also brings some transparency into the research process and subsequent analysis.

All participants come to an interview with an agenda of their own – they agreed to participate in the research because they feel they have something to contribute. They give up their time as well as their opinions and that must be respected. As researchers, we are inextricably a part of the resulting discourse, we help create it by our questions, the way we ask them, how we follow up and what we follow up on, the rapport we develop with the participants, the values that we implicitly bring with us. For me, this has really brought he issue of reflexivity to the forefront of my research work.

Having experienced this with a couple of my participants, I concluded that there really is no such thing as a bad interview, because there is always something to be discovered. However, I am still undecided whether what I learned in those difficult interviews outweighs the discomfort I experienced on personal level as a result of this experience. I suspect I will be continuing this reflective journey long after my theses is submitted.

This week’s blog continues a series from PhD students in the School of Psychology and Counselling. Marianna Latif is studying for a PhD in social psychology. You can read more about the School’s social psychology group, CuSP, here http://fass.open.ac.uk/research/groups/cusp

 You can watch a short video about the Level 3 Social Psychology module DD317 here https://learn2.open.ac.uk/mod/oucontent/view.php?id=1258641

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