Qualitative Research Series: Debating the Question Question

Courtesy of Flickr user: alexanderdrachmann

As part of our ongoing series on qualitative research, we wanted to delve into a topic that has been a point of contention during our qualitative research explorations.  Last spring, SES and AMF worked together on an independent study on advanced qualitative research methods.  The idea to work together grew out of our mutual concern that none of the Social Sciences departments were offering such a course, at least not anytime soon.  Anxious to learn more as we both launched into qualifying projects and dissertations, we decided to propose an independent study, based very much on our research interests and need to learn how to “do” interviewing and focus groups.  Like many things in life, self-paced learning is at once exhilarating and rife with self-doubt.  Over the course of several months, we read copiously; taught each other; shared quotes, articles, books, and coffee; interviewed five professors; tried (in vain) to bring our focus group together; compiled online resources and populated an e-portfolio (through Mahara); and completed a proposed syllabus as our final project.  Along the way, we learned more than we thought we would: about interviewing, people, student life, and each other.

Sometimes, however, it’s the lingering questions that teach us more than the answers we construct.  In conducting interviews with our professors on the topic  of interviewing, we encountered a great many similarities and a few differences of opinion.  One difference that stood out was whether or not to provide participants with the interview questions ahead of time. Some of our professors requested the questions beforehand and some declined to receive them in advance of the interview.  That got us thinking, “Where do we stand on this issue?” and, furthermore, “is there a right answer to this question?”

Framing this in terms of a proper debate: BE IT RESOLVED, qualitative interview questions should be given to participants in advance of the formal interview.  AMF will take the positive.  SES will take the negative.

AMF:  One of our professors, a qualitative researcher whose research interests included women in leadership, strongly advocated for receiving questions in advance of the interview.  She argued, and I agree, that having the questions beforehand allows one to mull over the questions, pull out pertinent references, and in general, prepare much more well-rounded answers.

SES: While I can see the benefit to having preparation time for an interview, I also see this as an avenue where a genuine response can be compromised.  On one hand, the preparation process allows for the participant to go back through their notes or collect their memories to give a more detailed response.  Negatively, however, it also allows for rehearsal and the ability to polish one’s answer to become one that is less authentic than if asked on the spot.

AMF:  Another advantage of the interviewee having questions before the interview is that it decreases anxiety.  One doesn’t have to worry about stammering, or drawing a blank, or giving an incomplete answer.

SES: Anxiety is sometimes a good device for gathering information, if done without causing harm to the participant.  Journalists will often pause for an extra few beats or hold eye contact in order to keep an interviewee talking to fill the space.  It’s that tension that allows for information to flow freely from the participant.

AMF:  Finally, having the questions in advance gives the participant plenty of time to decide whether or not he or she would like to answer a question or even has an opinion about the question or finds the question intrusive.

SES: Usually the gut reaction to a question is more telling than the scripted pick-and-choose of an interview.  By choosing what questions they will and will not answer prior to an interview, it compromises the interview and allows for missed opportunities to get the true information the researcher needs to answer their research questions.  As a cognizant interviewer, you always give the opportunity for a research participant the opportunity to refuse to answer a question, but picking beforehand guarantees the interviewee will skip important information.  You also never know if the interviewee will feel more comfortable after you establish a rapport.  That question they could have denied answering prior could be fair game once the interviewee trusts you in person.

Conclusion: While there is no right answer to this question, the best advice is to know the standards of your field as well as the population you are interviewing.  If the questions-in-advance question is going to be the difference between getting answers and not having an interview, make the decision that will get you the data in the most honest and complete format you can.  Also, a final consideration is the IRB process.  When you are documenting your process to apply for IRB, make sure that you detail how you are going to be asking your questions and what kind of interview (structured, semi-structured, or open) it will be.  If you are going to give the answers in advance, have that in your application.  The goal is to make sure you get as much perspective on your topic as possible, and sometimes that means doing what makes your participant and your subject most comfortable and free to share.


2 Comments on “Qualitative Research Series: Debating the Question Question”

  1. Pat says:

    Hi Guys, I am a novice in qualitative methods and I am trying to find some literature on this topic. I am conducting semi-structured interviews and 2 of my participants asked if they could see the questions beforehand and I believe that this element should be discussed in my methodology but I am obviously not good at finding appropriate references. Could you help?

    • SES says:

      Hi Pat,
      Sorry for the delay in answering, but I wanted to provide some feedback if it was still helpful. We have found that for interviewing texts, both Irving Seidman and James Spradley have given excellent insight into the interviewer-interviewee relationship and how to create an environment for the sharing of experiences and ideas.

      – Seidman, Irving. (2006). Interviewing as qualitative research : a guide for researchers in education and the social sciences. New York : Teachers College Press
      – Spradley, J. (1979). The ethnographic interview. Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich College Publishers

      There really is no definitive answer for this question, and it is up to the researcher to decide if that element of surprise or authenticity will be helpful or hurtful to their methodology. Part of the test is reading the situation and being able to make the interviewee feel they are in a space where they can share. Part of that involves gaining trust, and if giving the questions in advance helps that relationship, so be it.

      I would also say to make sure you are consistent. If you give the questions in advance, do so across the board for all of your participants so that they all are starting from the same framework. That way, your research will avoid that biases of one being more prepared than the other, etc.

      Good luck!
      – SES

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