Mode effects in qualitative interviews

Project: Research project (funded)Research

Project Details


The study is using the method of Conversation Analysis to examine and compare the interactional patterns and techniques that are evident in telephone and face-to-face qualitative research interviews. Conversation Analysis (CA) concerns itself with identifying the strategies that individuals use to accomplish ‘social actions’ through talk and the interactional consequences of choosing one strategy or format over another. This is pursued through the close examination of collections of audio and transcribed data, to identify recurring patterns and structures in interaction. Transcripts are prepared to a sophisticated level of detail, using symbols to represent features such as rising or falling intonation, changes in volume, speaker overlap, intake and exhalation of breath, pauses and their duration, laughter or crying.
Drawing on established concepts in the CA literature, including turn construction, turn taking/turn yielding, receipt, overlap, repair and alignment, this study is exploring the nature and content of the interaction between researcher and participant during the qualitative research interview, with a focus on whether and how these interactional details differ across interview mode. The study will consider the methodological implications of a finding of mode-related difference or lack thereof.

Layman's description

Contemporary social research makes extensive use of interviews to gather the views and experiences of individuals on a range of themes. The data which is gathered from such research contributes to real-world policy decisions. The two principal options for conducting research interviews are face-to-face or by telephone. It is therefore important to know more about the extent and nature of differences in the communication that occurs in either face-to-face or telephone interviews, and to consider the potential implications of any such differences on your resulting data.
The study’s overall aim was to increase knowledge about how interview mode (telephone or face-to-face) influences the structure and content of interview interactions and to consider the implications of any differences for the data that is thereby generated.

Key findings

In this comparison of five face-to-face and six telephone interviews, it was found that:
● Face-to-face interviews tended to be longer than telephone interviews. In this data set, face-to-face interviews were, on average, 21 minutes longer than telephone interviews.
● This additional duration in face-to-face interviews was due to more talk from the participants. The researcher spoke for less time in face-to-face interviews than she did in telephone interviews. This meant that participants ‘held the floor’ for a greater proportion of the interview in face-to-face interviews, while the researcher was relatively more dominant in the interaction in telephone interviews.
● As well as talking for longer overall, participants in face-to-face interviews tended to speak for longer stretches at a time, before the researcher stepped in with another question or comment.
● Sometimes the researcher’s questions were ‘unfinished’ or not fully grammatically formed. These types of incomplete questions were more common in face-to-face interviews.
● The researcher frequently offered short words or sounds to show that she was following what the participant was saying, for example, “yeah” or “mm hm”. These sorts of vocalised ‘response tokens’ were given less frequently in telephone interviews.
● There were times when the researcher began to say something but then stopped, because she realised that the participant had not yet finished what they were saying, or that they wanted to begin saying something else. This happened much more often in telephone interviews.
● Sometimes the researcher completed a participant’s sentence for them, helped them to find a word they were struggling with, or ‘reformulated’ their words to show understanding. This happened more often in face-to-face interviews.
● Participants sometimes asked for clarification or reiteration of a question. This happened slightly more in telephone interviews. However, there was no evidence to suggest that misinterpretations occurred more in either mode.
● Sometimes the researcher expressed to a participant that she understood a certain topic area was delicate or sensitive.
This happened more often in telephone interviews.
● Sometimes the participant checked with the researcher that what they were saying was ‘along the right lines’ or that what they had said was sufficient for the researcher’s needs. This happened more often in telephone interviews.
Effective start/end date1/07/0930/06/10