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The only way to get a context free interview

The only way to get a context free interview

I’ve been working as a qualitative interviewer for over a year now. Throughout my training and into my ongoing development I am continually meant to be striving for the perfect, methodologically pure interview, but what is a pure interview?  The textbook view, as May (1997) summarises, is that:

The theory behind this method is that each person is asked the same question in the same way so that any differences between answers are held to be real ones and not the result of the interview situation itself

I have however, come to the conclusion that the perfect interview is in fact an impossibility. All interviews are affected by context.

Take the following example, which is something which comes up surprisingly often:

Interviewer: “On which days did you work on the week ending the 19th on April?”

Respondent: “Oh you know everyday”

Interviewer: “You mean Monday to Friday?”

Respondent: “Yes”

This small example highlights an important part in the dynamic between interviewer and respondent, the idea that beyond what is said there are taken-for-granted shared understandings. The respondent is assuming here that the interviewer shares the understanding that by saying they worked everyday they do not mean mean literally everyday, but mean Monday to Friday – what is a typical working pattern in the UK. So what is said and what is meant are in fact two different things.

The interviewer however, cannot assume this as they know that in some instances a person may well work everyday over a seven day period so they are right to intervene and clarify, but this clarification is based on the interviewer actually having an understanding that in this area what is said is not necessarily what is meant. Had the interviewer not understood this – and it may well have been possible that they didn’t – they may well have taken the literal meaning and recorded the respondent as working from Monday to Sunday. The questions which arise here are: what if, for example, the interviewer had had a perfect command of the English language, but had arrived that same morning from outer-space, or what if the conversation had occurred in a place, or time where a six, or even seven day working week was common?

What you have is a situation where it is impossible for the interview to be free of context and for the interviewer to be passive recording instrument. Wherever an interviewer is based on an interaction between an interviewer and respondent the interviewer is required to interpret the meaning to answers and to decode these. Context is everything and therefore methodological purity can only ever be a fallacy – an ideal which much the same as the notion of a ‘pure’ free market can never practically exist in reality.


Just over a month ago I went for a job at a market research agency. Talking over my CV the interviewer noted that I’d been working as a telephone interviewer and asked if the job simply involved reading the words which appeared on screen. If only….

A common conception, even among some interviewers, is that in a CATI system the role of the interviewer is no more than to run, machine like, through a series of questions exactly as they appear on screen. Indeed as May (1997) neatly summarises:

The theory behind this method is that each person is asked the same question in the same way so that any differences between answers are held to be real ones and not the result of the interview situation itself

But this does this necessarily mean that the interviewer is a wholly passive actor? Carrying out my first interview, just over a year ago, I quickly learnt that the role of the interviewer is far more complex than I’d ever imagined, in fact it’s not too much of a stretch to say that it’s really an art form…

1.) The interviewer must persuade:

The first job of the telephone interviewer is to persuade a member of the sample to take-part in the survey. This is something which is becoming more challenging for a whole multitude of factors including household composition and the use of mobile phones with a caller display, but two key factors are survey fatigue – there are now simply far too many surveys competing for peoples attention and secondly a suspicion of telephone surveys resulting from unsolicited sales calls purporting to be a survey.

This is made especially challenging when there is no incentive on offer for participation and the interviewer here must use all their powers of persuasion, assuaging any concerns over details such as confidentiality whilst emphasising the benefits of the survey. The interviewer must strike up an instant connection with whoever it is who happens to have picked up the phone and Listening to experienced interviewers I am often in awe of their skill in this area.

2.) The interviewer must be engaging

Once on the hook it is up the the interviewer to keep the respondent engaged, not necessarily an easy task over 20, 30, or even 40 minutes of interviewing, which may at times be repetitive and tough-going.  An interviewer must interpret and use various cues to judge the mood of the respondent; are they sighing, glazing-over, becoming agitated, or distressed? The interviewer can then make minor adjustments to the tempo of the interview, or to try to re-engage the respondent. Satisficing is a real danger in the telephone interview and whilst online surveys have turned to graphics and more recently ‘gamification’ to keep respondents engaged the telephone interviewer must rely solely on their charisma and mastery of communication.

My experience has also shown me that I get more from a respondent if I offer a little bit of myself. For example a respondent may have a crying baby and apologise for the noise and I’ll respond that it’s not a problem at all and mention that I have a baby too. This must be kept professional of course, and it’s important not to get over-familiar as this can then affect the data, as McNeill (1990) states

Interviewers have to strike a careful balance between establishing the kind of relationship with respondents that will encourage them to be frank and truthful, and avoiding becoming too friendly so that respondents try hard to please.

The skill of the interviewer is to manage the relationship with each respondent to maintain this balance, though I can say that I have turned-round some very difficult interviewers by displaying that I am a human, rather than a robot.

3.) Knowledge of the interview

The telephone interviewer must have a good knowledge of the survey and the various rules governing it for example how to record a , or respondents may ask for clarification and the interviewer needs to provide this without biasing the data. Respondents may also ask about aspects of the survey such as technical questions about sampling, or most commonly the question ‘so what is this all for?’  Giving a good explanation of the purpose of the survey, and emphasising the importance of their contributions  makes respondents feel more valued and more likely to take part in subsequent waves, or even other research. For me this is a basic ethical requirement and one in which interviewers make an essential contribution as the ambassadors of social research.

4.) The interviewer as Louis Theroux

Finally, in many surveys there will be open questions which can call on the interviewer to probe, being careful not to lead the respondent  When probing I often feel like Louis Theroux as, when needed, I use the tactic of pretending to know less than I do in order to elicit a more detailed response.  When probing a persons occupation  for example I’ll say “oh, I’m terrible at finance, my brother works in that field and I still can’t understand what he does after 10 years.” I will then find that even a previously cagey respondent will go out of their way to explain their job in simple terms.

Interviewers – More important than you think

When it comes to data, interviewers are the unsung heroes. They are to statistics what swashbuckling fossil hunters were to the science of natural history – getting out there and collecting the raw material for the scientists to test and interpret. It is primarily the skills of the interviewer determine the quality of data gathered, or indeed if any data are gathered at all! I hope that I have shown through this discussion that there is more to the art of interviewing than simply following a script.


May, T. (1997) Social Research; Issues, Methods and Process (2nd edition); Buckingham; OU Press

McNeill, P. (1990) Research Methods 2nd edition London; Routledge