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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.

References:

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

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

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This image has been produced by software developed by Wolfram/Alpha and is based upon data on my friends and mutual friends it has accessed from my Facebook account .

Far more than a pretty graphic, which bears more than a passing resemblance to a map of a galaxy, this chart provides an example of how researchers can harness the power of new computing technology and social media to shed new light on areas of interest; This particular chart mapping my friends and mutual friends provides a great illustration of my ‘social capital’ – broadly speaking the social connections I have and groups I may belong to.

As a researcher I may be interested in how social capital varies by age, gender, ethnicity and employment status. It may also be possible to take a  longitudinal approach; how does my social capital change over time, what happens when I become a parent, emigrate, get a new job, become unemployed, or retire? charts such as this one can be used to make comparisons, or chart changes over a time period.

One issue however, is that Facebook is not wholly representative. There are, of course many people who do not have a Facebook account, particularly older people – therefore any data is likely to be skewed. Looking at a bar chart of the age range of my contacts, also by Wolfram/Alpha, it is interesting to see that the ages of my friends approximates a normal distribution around my own age, but its positive skew is likely to be a result of this age bias.

Age bias among Facebook users

To illustrate what the chart can show I have added my own annotations:

From the chart I can see that much of my social capital seems to be divided into distinct spheres; education, work, family and friends.

Education:

In terms of education my connections are strongest from middle school and secondary school.Though there is some overlap with middle school, friends from infant school, or even earlier pre-school do not feature on the chart. This is perhaps likely to be because at that young age we do not form the same type of friendships and connections which we begin to do once at middle school; Friendships in these early stages could well be much more fluid and transient.

Similarly my social capital relating to university seems to be rather sparse; my contacts and mutual connections both being particularly weak. This may be because I attended university in my home town and therefore was less part of the university ‘scene’, but perhaps more importantly university drew people from a very wide catchment reducing the number of mutual contacts compared to someone from school who grew up in the same area and went to work in the same area too. As many of my course-mates left the area following their studies the social network became dispersed.

This is even more so the case when it comes to the two years of my masters degree. As the people on this course came from an even wider area, and as the course covered a shorter time period.

Friends:

The biggest group in terms of the area it covers is my ‘friends’ group. This is the largest group, though my contacts are less clustered than elsewhere suggesting a more loosely connected web of ‘acquaintances’

Work: 

In terms of work my latest job is further away from the main clusters; this is as a result of my job being in a different town. Though not far in terms of distance it shows that, in general, peoples networks are closely bounded by geography.  My previous job I had obtained through old friends so it was much closer to my friendship cluster. As my previous jobs have been in very different organisations there is also no over-lap between my work clusters.

Family:

this cluster is as expected, however the previously mentioned age bias of social networking is perhaps undercounting this cluster more so than any others.

Wider implications:

Charts such as this one, using data held by social networking sites such as Facebook can provide an  understanding of how social capital is formed and what factors affect this. The relative strength of social capital from school may go in part to explain the enduring power of networks based on the ‘old school tie’. Similarly the intensity of connections related to work can show the importance of professional networks.