Sophie Wilkinson is a PhD researcher within the department of Criminology at the University of Southampton. Her research investigates whether the UK welfare state contributes to people committing modern slavery offences.
These 12 tips are for anyone who is thinking of, or about to undertake qualitative interviews and wants a few little tips! This article is using my own PhD research as an example. In my research, I am investigating whether the UK welfare state contributes to people committing modern slavery offences. Therefore, the following tips are written in the context of my research where I recruited anti-slavery professionals and conducted qualitative in-depth interviews.
However, most of them can easily be adapted to other contexts. There are great books out there which take you through the stages and processes of data collection and interviewing methods/techniques (e.g. Bryman, 2016; Gibbs, 2018; Rubin and Rubin, 2012; Seidman, 2006). In contrast to those, this article offers some simple, practical tips I learned from my recent experience.
- The long game of recruiting and use of social media. Social media can be challenging and difficult at times, but for research it can be really beneficial. You can see what people in your field are talking about and who is debating with whom, which may help identify your potential participants. Connect with these people as early as possible so your ‘follow’ does not look agenda focused and, importantly, so you keep up with what is currently being discussed in your field (although don’t let this sway your interview questions or style).
- Do not be scared to try to recruit that person who (slightly) intimidates you. Challenge yourself, your assumptions and stereotypes. In my experience, when you do, you allow yourself and your research to be opened up to new ideas and areas to consider which can only be a good thing. Remember you do not have to agree with the person you are interviewing! I recruited someone I found quite intimidating, but I knew they would be valuable to my research by bringing a different perspective and I wanted the research to be as generalisable as possible. They were not scary in any way! Yes, they had strong views but that was great because it gave depth and exploration to the interview and research.
- Make it easy for potential participants to say yes! Do the thinking for them. Summarise your research into a paragraph if sending out recruitment emails, clearly state how much time you would like of theirs and when you are looking to interview. Attach the consent form and participant information sheets so they know what to expect early on. Be accommodating to them as much as you can be and if necessary be clear on things that you cannot budge on.
- Apologise if you are chasing someone. There is a limit to how much you can chase someone, assess each case separately. Do not try more than twice to recruit someone. However, if they have agreed to be interviewed and then go quiet, for example, after dates/times are proposed contact them again to ‘check in’ with them to see if they still want to do it. This may result in long lengths of time between your communication and it is up to you to keep that communication going. If you then finally get to interview them, apologise for badgering them! This acknowledgment shows you are respectful of their time and are being transparent by letting them know you recognise that you were badgering them a little bit.
- Keep communication as easy and as unproblematic as you can for your participants. You undoubtedly are very busy, but so are the people you want to recruit. If they say they are busy for the next few weeks offer to contact them again at a more convenient time and propose a date for you to be back in touch and get them to confirm that date. Remember to put a reminder in your calendar to email them on that confirmed date! This way, they can rely on you to be in touch, so you are proactive. Plus, you are not waiting to know when they will be back in touch, making it possibly less likely for them to disappear.
- Do your background work! Do they have a book? Read it. What are they currently working on? What achievements have they gained? Have they developed a new programme? What is it? Invest, as much as time permits, into those that you want to recruit. You are asking for their time show you have put time in too by finding out more about them. This has helped me secure interviews.
- Use personal history to help build a connection. Be careful with this one, please look after yourself first and do not share anything you are uncomfortable with. For example, practitioners can sometimes have a distrust of academics (different goals/agendas). I made sure I mentioned that I used to be a practitioner to help build rapport and trust. Remember to be reflexive and query normative language use in your field though. Don’t worry if you don’t have practitioner experience this is just my example, you may have something else that you think might help build rapport.
- Keep timetables to keep on track. I had three. One for recruiting (including name, date sent out first and second recruitment material, response, and why they declined if so). One for participants (including anonymised code, date, time, and where/how interview will be conducted, and whether the consent form had been signed). And one for transcribing (including anonymised code and date for when transcription needs to be completed).
- Keep in touch. Send the participant an interview reminder email the day before or on the Friday if the interview is on the Monday. Unless otherwise specified, do not email on a weekend, it can be seen as rude and unprofessional which may result in a no-show or a disengaged participant. Email after the interview to say thank you and if necessary/appropriate include support information if needed.
- Take notes during an interview. Jotting down a word or a few words to help you remember to come back to a point without interrupting the participant’s flow. This can either be your participant’s words or your own just as long as they remind you of the point! Be sure to tell the participant that you may jot some words/notes down as it could unnerve people so just be clear it is to help you to remember to come back to a point of interest.
- Analyse whilst transcribing. Analysis doesn’t start at the analysis stage, it starts as soon as you’ve read your first paper. Analysis and thoughts may play in the back of your mind (do not worry if this isn’t happening to you). It is good to start writing down analysis/thoughts when they enter your mind and if that is when you are transcribing, then that is when you do it. If you are anything like me, if I do not write it down, I will forget! As least if it is written down and you do not use it, you have the choice to not include it in your work but if you don’t have it written down you aren’t giving yourself that choice. Initial analysis is also interesting to then compare with your final analysis.
- They are only people! If you get nervous before an interview, remember they are only people. Remember why you came into this in the first place, why you are interested and, importantly, what the aim of the interview is. Learn from each interview. How you could have done it better? What worked well? Was that question received correctly or do I need to rephrase it so it’s clearer for the next participant?
And finally, good luck and have fun! You’ve got this!