Constructing and selecting interview material

It is worth remembering that work done before the actual conduct of the interview is usually amply repaid in terms of its success and ease of analysis. First, you will have arrived at a topic to research, but you should clarify the rationale for doing this. Second, you should specify who would best exemplify the perspectives or range of perspectives relevant to your research question. Third, you should generate an interview schedule. At early stages in the planning of the research this may simply be a list of headings which you can elaborate in more detail once you have sorted out who your participants are, but it is worth doing this" work now so that you have a clearer focus for when you approach your participants. Fourth, now that you have decided what kinds of people you want to interview, you need to contact them. It is very important to consider the impact of the route by which you contacted your participants in terms of how this structures the ways they see you, so that, for example, if you are interested in experiences of social or health services delivery it may be difficult to dispel the image of being associated with evaluation or treatment if you initially approach them via a medical or legal agency. It may, however, be impossible to avoid such constraints, but you should at least theorize how this may limit the form and content of the accounts you elicit.

What your prospective interviewees see the study as being about will also be central to their decision about whether to participate, and, in line with codes of practice about 'informed consent', you should be as open as possible about your aims. This may include outlining the kinds of areas or questions you want to discuss with them, and this information can do much to allay participants' anxieties or reservations. You should also at this point discuss what records you want to make of the interview, as in seeking permission to audiotape, for example; it might be helpful to explain why this is useful and how you will use it. Fifth, at this point you should negotiate a research contract with your participant, which includes guarantees of anonymity, a promise to terminate the interview at any point if the interviewee feels uncomfortable, the exclusion from the transcript or other records of anything the interviewee does not wish to be seen by others and a copy of the final report if desired.

While all this may gain you your participants (and if people refuse, you should consider why this may be), you now need to plan the interview itself. First, you will need to elaborate your interview schedule. In qualitative interviews it may not be appropriate to ask your interviewees similar questions; indeed, the 'same' question may have a far from equivalent meaning depending on the interview context, the interviewee's position and the research relationship. Since what you are interested in here is divergence and variety, rather than convergence and replicability, you may be better able to address your general aims by orienting the question to the particular positions of your participants.

Some people like to prepare a detailed interview schedule, with questions addressing all the key issues they want to cover. While this can be reassuring for the researcher, it needs to be treated flexibly in the interview itself since too rigid adherence can intimidate the participant or can fail to follow the participant's train of associations and perspectives. It can therefore be more helpful to have a list of topic areas, with lists of issues you want to cover, arranged so that it is easy for you to check them out in the course of the interview. But in this case the danger is that, while responding to the particular context and moment to ask your question, you either betray too much of your own perspective in the formulation you use or, in the heat of the moment, are lost for words. This is why it is useful to pose topic headings in the form of questions so that you do not have to do so much thinking on your feet. In general you should ask open questions, not only in the sense of avoiding questions that can be answered with a simple yes or no (unless you follow this up with a 'Can you say a bit more about that?*), but also avoiding formulations that could be interpreted as prescriptions for, or prohibitions on, what can be talked about - unless you consider that the situation or topic merits you positioning yourself more clearly.

Second, while these recommendations may seem daunting, all becomes much clearer and easier when you do a practice interview, perhaps with a friend with whom you feel at ease and who can give you frank feedback on the content and process of the interview. This helps to identify and iron out problems with the interview schedule and with the recording equipment (so that you remember to switch it on, you know where to position the microphone, you know not to have the machine on autoreverse so that it records over the first side again, etc.). Not least, you will gain a lot of confidence from the experience, even if you are also made acutely aware of the demands made on you as interviewer. These include the capacities to focus in parallel on listening intently to what your interviewee says, reflecting on how this relates to your interests, preconceptions and schedule, and working out what to say and when to say it.

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