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Quite often we use interviewing as a method to find answers to our research questions. This is a method successfully tested by time. The author of the book “Qualitative Interviewing: The Art of Hearing Data” Irene Rubin gives advice on how to prepare for and conduct qualitative interviews.


Quite often we use interviewing as a method to find answers to our research questions. This is a method successfully tested by time. The author of the book “Qualitative Interviewing: The Art of Hearing Data” Irene Rubin gives advice on how to prepare for and conduct qualitative interviews.

Interviewee: Irene Rubin, author of Qualitative Interviewing: The Art of Hearing Data

Interviewer: Maria Prosviryakova, RIAC

How to prepare for an interview?

The preparation for an interview varies with the choice of topic and the kind of information that is sought. With the kind of interviewing I do, I am often looking for rather specific information. So, I base my questions around that information I need. It is important to prepare by finding out everything you can about the situation: what has already been done; what public information is available; what information can be found out from someone else. I ask only those things that the person I am talking to knows about, and is often the only source of that information. I waste none of the interviewee's time, I do my "homework", I come prepared.

The more work you do beforehand, the easier it is to do the interview. It includes knowing what questions to ask, what questions to avoid, and when to follow up with an additional question.

How to choose interviewee?

Photo: Irene Rubin, author
of Qualitative Interviewing:
The Art of Hearing

First of all, it is critical in choosing interviewees to know in advance who knows, or who is likely to know the answer, or part of the answer to the information that is needed.

Secondly, it is critical to know in advance who will be willing to talk and share this information. Much of the work in qualitative interviewing is in finding out who to talk to and making the connections that will help gain cooperation: finding people the interviewee knows and trusts to recommend me; or making new connections.

As well, it is important in choosing interviewees to make sure you have multiple perspectives on a subject you are studying. There is not a single truth, from one interviewee, but multiple truths, from each interviewee, which must be synthesized at the end by the researcher, weighing the information gained, putting it in order, coming up with a narrative that the interviewees should recognize as their lives, their work, their decisions.

How to make sure the received information is reliable?

Many people fear they will be handed misinformation, or biased information. But this is really much less of a problem in qualitative then in quantitative work, because you have context in qualitative interviewing, and know the perspective and interests of the interviewee, and so can find and discount for bias. You also know which questions to avoid, such as those that are likely to evoke a party line, or official version of events. You ask less sensitive questions first, and only the more difficult ones after you have gained the trust of the interviewee.

In sensitive areas you may need to interview multiple times, making a relationship of trust. Most people are willing to share with your their experiences, their accomplishments, even their life struggles and frustrations, because they are glad to know that someone is interested in them, in what has happened to them or what they have done, and pleased that their experiences may be used to help others, it gives meaning to their suffering, when that is the issue being explored.

Even lies are interesting bits of information to be worked with. For example: why did someone lie to you? what were they trying to divert attention to? Sometimes that tells you more than a simple true statement would, because it contains motivation, and often points to issues you may not have thought about.

I find it useful to start interviewing with those who have a marked, but predictable point of view, such as union members, and then use their stories as triggers, stimulating answers from their bosses. The truth may lie somewhere in between, but at least I will know not only the issues, but the dynamic over time, what each party was arguing for and about, and how that worked out over time.

Qualitative interviewing accommodates to a conflict oriented view of the world, where many more quantitative models do not, as they are not process oriented, and are often looking for one truth, not a set of interactive truths over time by different people.

How can you test the validity of the received information?

Checking your conclusions with your interviewees provides another layer of checking the quality of information you have received, not that every objection is necessarily true, but you have another set of information to check out, and one respondent can check on the veracity of other bits of information you have incorporated in your summary of results. (Of course you often keep the actual names of interviewees confidential.)

In the end it is important to realize that there is not one truth, but many, and you report what you hear, you weigh those answers which have more evidence behind them more heavily than those that seem pulled out of the air or merely self-serving. I have found over the years of interviewing, that the credibility of qualitative interviews is much stronger than other, less self-aware forms of information gathering, where truth is taken for granted, no matter how unrealistic that assumption is, and where there is no way of checking the truth value.

How are the results of qualitative interviewing used in a practical sense?

First, are the results practical? Absolutely yes, more so in many cases than quantitative measures, because they are better able to get at causal issues, such as: how people feel, what they are likely to do, how they have behaved in the past, and uncover issues the researcher may not know about when he or she starts the research.

In my own work, I found that years after I had done a study of a city that ran into fiscal stress, officials in that city bought copies of the book so they could understand what had happened to them, and presumably to prevent a repeat of those events and that political dynamic. They could learn who was responsible for what decisions, at what points in time, who had been blamed who should not have been blamed, and how one decision impacted decisions later. The ability to unravel chains of events over time gives the possibility of not only understanding causation, but to some extent being able to predict what is likely to happen over time in the future, because these qualitative methods are so rich, so accurate in getting at the underlying dynamics that remain in place.

Is this approach viable as a research methodology?

Absolutely. What will be critical in its adoption, though for academics, will be the willingness of journals to publish and believe qualitative studies. It may be necessary to create your own outlets, if the standard ones will not go along. These days that is a much easier and less expensive option than in the past, with the advent of online publishing.

Thank you so much for your answers.

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