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The Power Asymmetry In Qualitative Research Interviews English Language Essay

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Wordcount: 5391 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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The books in The Sage Qualitative Research Kit have been written with the needs of many different types of readers in mind. As such, the Kit and the individual books will be of use to a wide variety of users: Practitioners of various research, University teachers and Undergraduate and graduate students. Each book of the Kit has been written by a distinguished author with extensive experience in their field and in the practice with methods they write about. Doing interviews addresses the theoretical, epistemological, ethical and practical issues of interviewing people about specific issues or their life story. There are two other books about interviewing, they approach the subject in a much more detailed and focuses way for the specific method.

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Interviews are one of the major approaches in collecting data in qualitative research. There are variety ways of how to do interviews and what to do after the interview has been done. Doing interviews comes with specific needs of increasing the interview quality in general and its validity in particular and finally of reporting what was said and how it was analyzed.

1. Introduction to interview research

Three interview sequences

Conversation is a basic mode of human interaction. Through conversations we get to know other people, get to learn about their experiences, feelings and hopes and the world they live in. In an interview it is the same, except the researcher asks and listens to the people. The research interview is an interview where knowledge is constructed in the interaction between in the interviewer and the interviewee.

Trough various sequences the writer is explaining that there are three forms of interviewing. A rather simple form of straightforward questioning contrast with the reciprocity of everyday conversations. The interviewer is in a power position and sets the stage by determining the topic of the interchange; it is the interviewer who asks and the interviewee who answers. The qualitative interview is a key venue for exploring the ways in which subjects experience and understand their world.

Interview research in history and in the social sciences

The term interview is of recent origin; it came into use in the seventeenth century. An interview is literally an inter-view. An interchange of views between two persons conversing about a theme of common interest. Systematic literature on research interviewing is a new phenomenon of the last few decades.

Qualitative interviews have, previously been extensively employed in the social sciences. With education and health sciences, the interview has become a common research method in the last few decades. Quality methods, ranging form participant observation over interview to discourse analysis, have since the 1980s become key methods of social research. Technical, epistemological and cultural reasons may be suggested for the growing use of qualitative research interviews. The availability of small portable tape records in the 1950s made the exact recording of interviews easy. In the 1980s, computer programs facilitated the qualitative analyses of transcribed interviews. Interviews have also become part of the common culture.

Methodological and ethical issues

The interview is a conversation that has a structure and a purpose determined by the one part, the interviewer. The qualitative research interview is a construction site for knowledge. A semi-structures life-world interview will be in focus of the book. It is defined as an interview with the purpose of obtaining descriptions of the life world of the interviewee with respect to interpreting the meaning of the describes phenomena. To have an interview a good preparation will be needed. The interview is a powerful method of producing knowledge of the human situation.

2. Epistemological issues of interviewing

Mode of understanding in a qualitative research interview

A semi -structured life-world interview attempts to understand themes of the lived daily world for the subjects own perspectives. It comes close to an everyday conversation but as a professional interview it has a purpose and it involves a specific approach and technique.

The interview is a uniquely sensitive and powerful method for capturing the experiences and lived meanings of the subjects’ everyday world and it allow the subject tot convoy their situation from their own perspective and in their own words. An interview seeks to understand the meaning of central themes of the subjects’ lived world. It is necessary to listen to the explicit description and to the meaning expressed, as well as to what is ‘said between the lines’. In qualitative interviews, precision in description and stringency in meaning interpretation correspond to exactness in quantitative. The qualitative interviewer encourage the subject tot describe as precisely as possible what they experience and feel. The qualitative interview attempts to obtain descriptions that are as comprehensive and presupposition less as possible of important themes of the interviewee’s life world. The interviewer should be curious, sensitive to what is said, as well as to what is not said, and critical.

The focus of the interview is on particular themes: it is neither strictly structures with standard questions, nor entirely ‘non-directive’. The task of the interviewer is to clarify, as far as possible, whether the ambiguities and contradictory statements are due to a failure of communication in the interview situation.

Power asymmetry in qualitative research interviews

The research interview is a specific professional conversation with a clear power asymmetry between the researcher and the subject:

The interview entails an asymmetrical power relation;

The interview is a one-way dialogue;

The interview is an instrumental dialogue;

The interview may be a manipulative dialogue;

The interviewer had a monopoly of interpretation;

Counter-control, subjects may hold information;


Research interviews between a philosophical dialogue and a therapeutic interview

The qualitative research interview has affinities to philosophical dialogues as well as to therapeutic interviews, but follows neither the relentless intellectual reasoning of the former nor the close personal interaction of the latter. Professional interviews, such as a therapeutic interview, a job interview or a legal interrogation, are characterized by a focus on the dynamics of interaction between interviewer and interviewee, a methodological awareness of question forms and a critical attention to what is said.

The therapeutic sequence indicates the possibilities for research interviewers to learn from the techniques developed within the therapeutic profession, while also demonstrating differences between therapeutic and research interviews.

The interviewer as a miner or as a traveler

Two contrasting metaphors of the interviewer, as a ‘miner’ or as a ‘traveler’, may illustrate the different epistemological conceptions of interviewing as a process of knowledge collection or as a process of knowledge construction, respectively. In a miner metaphor, knowledge is understood as buried metal and the interviewer is a miner who unearths the valuable metal. The knowledge is waiting in the subject’s interior to be uncovered, uncontaminated by the miner. An alternative traveler metaphor understands the interviewer as a traveler on a journey to a distant country that leads to a table to be told upon returning home. The interview traveler walks along with the local inhabitants, asks questions and encourages them tot tell their own stories of their lived world.

Epistemological conceptions of interview knowledge

The elimination of the hum factor in research, key aspects of the mode of understanding in qualitative research interviews appear as methodological sources of error, to a philosophy of sciences. In a postmodern approach the qualitative research interview appears as a construction site of knowledge. The knowledge generated by interviews is in line with key features of a postmodern conception of knowledge, such as the conversational, the narrative, the linguistic, the contextual and interrelational nature of knowledge. With a decline of modern universal system of knowledge, the local, manifold and changing language contexts come into prominence. In a postmodern epistemology the certainty of our knowledge is less a matter of interaction with a non-human reality than a matter of conversation between persons.

3. Ethical issues of interviewing

Interviewing as a moral inquiry

An interview inquiry is a moral enterprise. Moral issues concern the means as well as the ends of interviews. The human interaction in the interview affects the interviewees and the knowledge produces by an interview inquiry affects our understanding of the human condition. Consequently, interview research is saturated with moral and ethical issues.

Ethical issues throughout an interview inquiry

Ethical issues go through the entire process of an interview investigation, and potential ethical concerns should be taken into consideration form the very start of an investigation and up to the final report.

Ethical guidelines

Professional ethical codes serve as contexts for reflection on the specific ethical decisions throughout an interview inquiry. Figure 1 outlines issues raised by these ethical guidelines in the form of questions, which interviewers may ask them before embarking on an interview journey.

Figure 1.

Informed consent entails informing the research about the overall purpose of the investigation and the main feature of the design, as well as of possible risks and benefits from participation in the research project. This raises the issue of how informed consent can be handled in exploratory interview studies, where the investigators themselves will have little advance knowledge of how the interview will proceed. The interviewees should always be informed about the purpose and the procedure of the interview. Confidentiality in research implies that private data identifying the subject will not be reported, otherwise the subject need to agree on the release of identifiable information. In extreme cases, protecting confidentiality can raise serious legal problems.

The consequences of an interview study need to be addressed with respect to possible harm to the subjects as well as to the expected benefits of participating in the study. The ethical principle of beneficence means that the risk of harm to a subject should be the least possible. The researcher as a person is critical for the quality of the scientific knowledge and for the soundness of ethical decisions in an interview inquiry. Moral research behavior involves more than ethical knowledge and cognitive choices. The integrity of the researcher, his or her knowledge, experience, honesty and fairness, is the decisive factor.

4. Planning an interview study

Seven stages of an interview inquiry

No standard procedures or rules exits for conducting a research interview or an entire interview investigation. There are standard choices of methods at the different stages of an interview investigation. The quality of an interview study to a large extent rests on the craftsmanship of the researcher. The term ‘unstandardized’ pertains to the interview situation, but an entire interview investigation had often tended to be a rather standardized affair, going through five emotional phases of hardships.

Anti-positivist enthusiasm phase;

The interview-quoting phase;

The working phase of silence;

The aggressive phase of silence;

The final phase of exhaustion.

These descriptions are based upon observation of colleagues and students undertaking interview projects.

The seven stage of an interview inquiry are:








Through these stages an interview study will be developed and ends with the reporting. The emotional dynamics of an interview study are related tot these seven stages.

Thematizing an interview study

Thematizing refers to the formulation of research questions and a theoretical clarification of the theme investigated. The key questions when planning an interview investigation concern the why, what and how of the interview. Thematizing an interview study involves clarifying the purpose of the study, the why question. Interviews can have explorative or hypothesis-testing purposes. An exploratory interview is usually open with little pre-planned structure. Interviews that test hypotheses tend to be more structured. Interviews can also being used to inductively develop an empirically grounded theory, or as background material for further practical and theoretical studies.

The thematic understanding of the topic if the study, the ‘what’, will further provides a ground for the ‘how’ of the study: the many decisions on method that must be made on the way. The thematic focus of a project influences what aspects of subject matter the questions centre upon, and which aspects remain in the background. Familiarly with the local situation may also sensitize tot local ethic-political issues of the community, which need to be taken into account when interviewing and reporting the interviews.

Designing an interview study

Designing an interview study involves planning the procedures and techniques, the ‘how’ of the study. The temporal dimension of an interview investigation should be kept in mind from the first thematizing to the final reporting stage, taking into account the interdependence of the seven stages.

Overview, interdependence, push forward, spiraling backwards, keep the end point in sight, getting wiser and work-journal are all key factors of an interview inquiry. The number of subjects to interview necessary depends on the purpose of a study. In common interviews, the amount of interviews trends to be around 15. This number may be due to a combination of the time and resources available for the investigation and a law of diminishing returns.

The method may be understood in a broad sense, like the way to the goal. A method is a set of rules, which can be used in a mechanical way to realize a given aim. Within such a formal rule conception of method, the qualitative research interview, where knowledge is produced trough the personal interaction between interviewer and interviewee, is clearly not a scientific method. Interviewing may be regarded less as a method following explicit rules than pragmatically as a craft, where the quality of knowledge produced by the interview rests upon the subject matter knowledge and the craftsmanship of the interviewer. Learning to interview is to arrive at a transparency of the techniques and tools.

5. Conducting an interview

Setting the interview stage

The setting of the interview stage should encourage the interviewees to describe their points of view on the topic. The first minutes of an interview are decisive. The interview should be introduced by a briefing in which the interviewer is defines the situation for the subject, briefly tells about the purpose of the interview, the use of a tape recorder and ask if the subjects has any questions before starting the interview. The initial briefing should be followed up by a debriefing after the interview.

Scripting the interview

An interview guide is a script that structures the course of the interview more or less tightly. The guide may merely contain some topics to be covered or it can be a detailed sequence of carefully worded questions. Interviews differ in their openness of purpose; the interviewer can explain the purpose and pose direct questions from the start, or can adopt a roundabout approach, with indirect questions, and reveal the purpose only when the interview is over.

Thematically the questions relate to the ‘what’ of an interview, to the theoretical conceptions of the research topic, and to the subsequent analysis of the interview.

Dynamically the questions pertain tot the ‘how’ of an interview; they should promote a positive interaction, keep the flow of the conversation going, and stimulate the subjects to talk about their experiences and feelings.

The interviewer should also try to keep in mind the later analysis, verification and reporting to the interviews. Interviewers who know what they are asking about and why they are asking, will attempt to clarify the meanings relevant to the project during the interview. Active listing, the interview’s ability to listen actively to what the interviewee says, is as important as the specific mastery of questioning techniques. That is why researcher questions need to translated to interviewer questions, figure 2

Figure 2

6. Interview variations

Interview subjects

Different issues will raise by different populations when the focus is on cross-cultural interviews, interviews with men, women and with children. In a cross-cultural interview it is difficult to become aware of the multitude of cultural factors that affect the relationship between interviewer and interviewee. In a foreign culture an interviewers needs time to establish a familiarity with the new culture and learn some of the many verbal and non-verbal factors where interviewer in a foreign culture may go amiss. Also with children the approach for an interview needs to be different.

Interview forms

A variety of research forms, useful for different purpose, exist. With the broad variety of interview forms and subjects it becomes understandable that there are no general standard procedures and rules for research interview. There is no correct or ideal interview form.

Qualitative interviews do not only focus on the interviewees’ own perspectives and meanings. Obtaining valid factual information may be crucial in many interviews. In other situates, when interviewing for the oral history of a community, the focus will be less on the storyteller’s own perspective upon the events recounted, than on his or her stories as venues to reliable information about a collective past. Some experiments may serve interviewers as a reminder to be extremely careful in wording their questions when interviewing for factual information.

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Confrontational interviews

‘though we did not seek to impose our ideas on those with whom we talked, …we did attempt to uncover assumptions, to make explicit what the person we were talking to might have left implicit’ (Bellah et al., 1985, p 304) In addition to a prevalent empathetic and consensual interview form, the more active confrontational and agonistic styles of interviewing may also produce valuable knowledge.

7. Interview quality

Interview qualifications

The interviewer is the key research instrument of an interview inquiry. A good interviewer knows the topic of the interview, masters conversational skills and is proficient in language, with an ear for his or her subjects’ linguistic style. The interviewer must continually make on-the-spot decisions about what to ask and how; which aspects of subject’s answer to follow up, and which not, which answers to comment and interpret, and which not. The interviewer should have a sense for good stories and be able to assist the subjects in the unfolding of their narratives.

Leading questions

It is a well-documented finding that a slight rewording of a question in a questionnaire or in the interrogation of eyewitness may influence the answer. Politicians are well experienced in warding off leading questions form reporters; but if leading questions are inadvertently posed to subjects who are easily suggestible, such as small children, the validity of their answers may be jeopardized.

In contrast to common opinion, the qualitative research interview is particularly well suited for employing leading questions to repeatedly check the reliability of the interviewees’ answers, as well as to verify the interviewer’s interpretations. The task in an interview is not to avoid leading research questions, but to recognize the primacy of the question and attempt to make the orienting questions explicit, thereby providing the reader with the possibility of evaluating their influence on the research findings and of assessing the validity of the findings.

There are no unequivocal quality criteria for research interviews. A good interview rests upon the craftsmanship of the researcher, which goes beyond a mastery of questioning techniques to encompass knowledge of the research topic, sensitivity to the social relation of interviewer ad subject, and an awareness of epistemological and ethical aspects of research interviewing.

8. Transcribing interviews

Oral and written language

Transcription is an interpretative process, where the differences between oral speech and written texts give rise to a series of practical and principal issues. A transcript is a translation from one narrative mode, oral discourse, into another narrative mode, written discourse. The quality of interview transcriptions had always been a neglected issue.

Transcribing interviews

Transcribing the interviews from an oral to a written mode structures the interview conversations in a form amenable to closer analysis, and is in itself an initial analysis. The reliability and validity of transcriptions are generally neglected. If these two issues are addressed, the interpretative and constructive nature of transcription will appear.

Computer tools for interview analysis

Once the interviews have been transcribed, they become available for structuring and analysis by a variety of computer programs. The computer programs allow for such operations as writing memo, writing reflections on the interviews for late analysis, coding, searching for key words, doing words counts, and making graphic displays. No valid transcription of an oral account exists, but a variety of forms of transcribing, which will be valid for different uses of the transcripts.

9. Analyzing interviews

Integrating interview analysis in an interview inquiry

The question ‘How shall I find a method to analyze the 1000 pages of interview transcripts I have collected?’ is a question which is too late en the work will be too much. The method of analysis should not only be given thought in advance of the interviewing, but may also, to varying degrees, be built into the interview situation itself.

Modes of analysis

No standard method exists, to arrive at essential meanings and deeper implications of what is said in an interview. The techniques of analysis are tools, useful for some purpose, relevant for some types of interviews, and suited for some researchers. But it depends on each interview itself.

Interview analyses focusing on meaning

Meaning and language are interwoven; in the practice of interview analysis the focus on meaning versus linguistic form does imply rather different techniques. Coding and categorizing were early approaches to the analysis of texts in the social sciences, which make it easy to transcribe the interview. Coding involves attaching one or more keywords to a text segment in order to permit later identification of a statement, whereas categorization entails a more systematic conceptualization of a statement, opening for quantification.

Interpretation of texts is established by a hermeneutical circle, where the meaning of a text is established through a process in which the meanings of the separate passages are determined by the global meaning of the text as it is anticipated. Re-reading of the single passages may again change the first anticipated global meaning of the text, which again alters the meaning of the single passages.

Interview analyses focusing on language

The medium, or the material, with which interviewers work is language. The interview process occurs through speech, and the interview products are presented in words. During the last few decades social science researchers have started to use linguistic tools. Linguistic analysis, narrative analysis, conversation analysis, discourse analysis and deconstruction.

Interview analysis as bricolage

Many analyses of interviews are conducted without following any specific analytic method. The researchers may then freely change between different techniques and approaches. Bricolage refers to mixed technical discourses where the interpreter moves freely between different analytic techniques. In contrast to systematic analytic modes such as categorization and conversation analysis, bricolage implies a free interplay of techniques during the analysis.

10. Validation and generalization of interview knowledge

Objectivity of interview knowledge.

Issues of reliably and validity go beyond technical or conceptual concerns and raise epistemological questions of objectivity of knowledge and the nature of interview research. Interview analyses can be objective in the sense of intersubjective agreement, such as when a high degree of intersubjective reliability is documented by coding interview in quantifiable categories.

Objective may also mean reflecting the nature of the object researched, letting the object speak, being adequate to the object investigated expressing, the real nature of the studied. Contrary to common opinion, knowledge produced in interviews need not be subjective, but may, be an objective method with respect to key meanings of objectivity.

Reliability and validity of interview knowledge

Reliability pertains to the consistency and trustworthiness of research findings; it is often treated in relation to the issue of whether a finding is reproducible at other times and by other researcher. Validity refers in ordinary language to the truth, the correctness and the strength of a statement. A valid argument is sound, well grounded, justifiable, strong and convincing.

Validity as quality of craftsmanship

Validation rests on the quality of the researcher’s craftsmanship throughout an investigation, continually checking, questioning and theoretically interpreting the findings. Validations do not belong to a separate stage of an investigation, but permeates the entire research process. Validity is ascertained by examining the sources of invalidity. The stronger the falsification attempts a knowledge proposition has survived, the stronger and more valid is the knowledge.

Communicative and pragmatic validity

When a modern belief in knowledge as a mirror of reality recedes to a social construction of social reality, communicative and pragmatic forms of validation come to the foreground. Communicative validity involves testing the validity of knowledge claims in a conversation. A Communicative validation of interview findings raises specific questions about the how, why and who of communication. Pragmatic validation relates to the users’ responses to an interpretation, and in a strong for it concerns the issue of whether interventions based on the researcher’s knowledge may instigate actual changes in behavior. Pragmatic validation is verification in the literal sense, ‘to make true’; justification is replaced by application.

Analytical generalization rests upon rich contextual descriptions. It includes the researcher’s argumentation for the transferability of the interview findings to other subjects and situations, as well as the readers’ generalizations form a report.

11. Reporting interview knowledge

Contrasting audiences for interview reports.

When writing a report for an interview study it may be useful to be aware of different requirements within local social science communities.

In common interview reports the link between the original conversations and the conclusions reported may be thin or missing. The interested reader will not find any, or only come across some vague scattered descriptions of how the interview knowledge was produced. Working towards the final report from the start of an interview study may contribute to a readable report of methodologically well-substantiated, interesting findings. Presenting interview findings with a quote, three guidelines for editing are suggested:

The quotes should be contextualized;

Interview quotes should be rendered in a readable style;

Interview quotes should preferably be loyal to the habitual language of an interviewee.

For communicative validation and analytical generalization, readers need rich contextual information about the interview findings in order to validate and generalize the results.

12. Enhancing interview quality

Learning the craft of interviewing

A book about interviewing involves a paradox of presenting explicit and general guidelines for a craft, which consist of practical skills and personal know-how that often remains tacit and depends on given situation. It can not be predicted which an interview journey goes.

If people research interviewing by themselves, they will discovered the theory about interviewing and transcription themselves and not through a book. Starting to learn interviewing by listening to tapes will sensitize novice interviewers to the oral medium of the interview craft. Learning interviewing by transcribing interviews promotes a discovery learning where , through their own practice, newcomers tot the trade discovery techniques and dilemmas is transferring live conversations to written texts.

There are three options to learn about interviewing:

Learn interviewing by witness others interviewing;

Learn interviewing by practicing interviewing;

Learn interviewing in a community of interview researchers.

The road to mastery of interviewing through a transcribing task, an interview practicum, or ideally a research apprenticeship, may appear as too cumbersome and time-consuming to some students. But it is most important to be well prepared.

The adequate knowledge of the nature of interview conversations is suggested by:

A pragmatic approach involves a move from philosophical legitimation to the practical effects of knowledge.

Rather than seeking universal knowledge, the emphasis is on situated knowledge. What matters is not arriving at context-independent general knowledge, but producing well-described situated knowledge from the interviews.

Interview knowledge is not collected, but produced between interviewer and interviewee, and the meanings constructed in their interaction are again restructured throughout the later stages of an interview inquiry.

In order to reach a professional level comparable to quantitative analysis today, qualitative social research needs to move beyond a linguistic illiteracy towards a professional mastery of the linguistic medium of the interview craft.

We live in a conversational world. The relevance of conversations in social science goes beyond the use of interview conversations as an additional empirical method. It concludes conversations among researchers, and the public, about the truth and value of the knowledge produced in interview conversations about a conversational world.


Doing interviews by Stein Kvale is a book which has two kinds of different input. There is the theoretical background and the practica


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