The practical, methodological and ethical dimensions of interviewing at a distance: responding to questions raised at the Covid Realities Webinar

Nov 19, 2020

Anna Tarrant
Laura Way
Linzi Ladlow

On Tuesday 3rd November 2020, the Following Young Fathers Further (FYFF) team gave an invited keynote presentation for the Covid Realities research study webinar called ‘Interviewing at a distance: reflections on navigating practical, emotional, and methodological challenges. The webinar was chaired by Prof. Jane Millar and included talks by Dr. David Robertshaw of the Welfare at a (Social) Distance project and Aimi King who is conducting a PhD about parent and toddler groups hosted by churches.  

We were delighted to participate and to present some of our emerging reflections on researching at a distance during the COVID-19 pandemic. The presentation was an opportunity for us to share our experiences of planning for, and conducting, telephone interviews with young dads and online interviews with professionals who provide support to them, in the context of our qualitative longitudinal (QL) study.

The webinar, which was accessed by 379 attendees on the day alone, prompted some interesting questions, some of which we were not able to answer at the time. We therefore committed to responding to them via a blog, both as a resource concerning the practical, methodological, and ethical issues engendered by conducting social research in a crisis and to ensure ongoing productive discussions among the research community. We recognise the overlapping nature of many of these questions, but we group them below into these three key areas. Some similar questions were differently expressed so we have chosen just one or two of them to illustrate our points.  

Practical Issues 

a) How did you provide people with vouchers? We have had issues with posting but online vouchers are also not useful for a lot of people.  

The dads who participated in telephone interviews received digital One4All shopping vouchers as a thank you. This is not an endorsement but was one of the companies that enabled us to purchase online and in bulk. The electronic vouchers were sent either to their phone or to an e-mail address they provided. The dads were given the choice about which method of delivery they preferred. We were able to keep track of when these vouchers had been activated/used and checked in to ensure there were no issues in receiving/using them. To date, none have raised concerns about them. 

b) Did you offer participants data/ phone credit as a 'thank you' for taking part? If so, how did this work?  

Because we used vouchers, we did not offer the young dad’s data or phone credit. While data exclusion was raised as a key issue by the service professionals we interviewed, the young dads did not have to use phone credit to participate in the research because the team made calls. We were however prepared to consider this if required. 

c)      Any strategies in place for when connection is lost in online focus groups/interviews? Do you have a telephone option lined up?   

This is an example of a more reactive fieldwork strategy i.e. one that we could anticipate but only really work out in the field when it happened. In two of the online focus groups/interviews with professional practitioners Laura encountered some connection issues. This resulted in moving interviews over to telephone. At the time this seemed relatively straightforward, but in these cases we were working predominantly with professionals who were confident about switching technologies. 

There are points in the transcripts, with both sets of participants, where connectivity issues were apparent, including the one used as the title for our talk; “Are you still there? Oh sorry I’ve muted you!”. While these punctuate our transcripts at times, as we note later, we didn’t feel this compromised the quality of the data and findings. Instead, it was an opportunity to laugh and build rapport. 

Methodological Issues 

a) What are some of the challenges of starting a qualitative longitudinal (QL) study with telephone interviews (e.g. rather than face to face), and how might these be countered?   

Do you have any advice on starting/ building relationships with participants via telephone contact while establishing and maintaining boundaries?   

Traditionally, qualitative research literature has positioned telephone, and other digitally mediated forms of interviewing, as inferior to face-to-face, although there is a burgeoning literature that questions this distinction (e.g. Deakin and Wakefield 2014; Holt 2010; Novick 2008; Vogl 2013). While we had originally prioritized face-to-face interviewing, the use of telephone and online interviewing became a necessity in the context of the pandemic and the requirements for social distancing. Using digitally mediated forms to connect with participants was therefore, what Lamont and Swidler (2014) define, a form of ‘methodological pragmatism’.  

As a QL study, our main concerns were around establishing, maintaining, and sustaining connections with our participants. Indeed, attrition and questions of rapport and trust are major methodological concerns for all qualitative research. Neither are they unique to questions of interviewing at a distance; such issues are raised too when interviewing face-to-face.  We tried to build rapport and trust by giving our participants options about how they participated, being as responsive as possible within the constraints of the project, and also by asking them how they felt about being interviewed online.

We built a question into our wave 1 interview schedules asking participants to reflect on their views on the telephone and online interviews. Based on our questions to young dads, we discovered that they universally preferred telephone interviews. They were considered safer due to the pandemic, they offered flexibility around participating (time and space), and for those who were isolated there was a sense of enjoying the conversation.  

Strand 1 of the research involved re-accessing young dads, some of whom Linzi, had already interviewed face-to-face for the baseline study Following Young Fathers. This involved a switch from face-to-face to digitally mediated interviews. At the end of the telephone interviews, we asked these participants to compare the approaches. These participants were very positive about the change. It was thought to be the most appropriate for the pandemic context, but there were also comments around the ease of telephone interviews in relation to having greater autonomy over the time and space of participating.   

Our first wave of interviews also involved accessing and creating a boosted sample in a new locality. We approached access to a new cohort of young fathers in the same way that we have done in the past when our interviews were face-to-face. We engaged (online) with professionals known to the team, who provide support to young fathers and were therefore well placed to help us to identify and access young dads.  In comparison to the re-access methods, accessing dads for the first time was much more challenging for Laura than for Linzi, who already had established connections to participants.   

We also sought to engender trust and rapport prior to entering the field by enabling all of our participants to ‘see’ and get to know us before the interviews (see also Deakin and Wakefield 2014). We produced a short video of our participant information sheets featuring each of the team members. This responded to project partners’ insights concerning overburdening participants with information, as well as literacy/language barriers. Additionally, we each posted an introduction to ourselves on our study Facebook page with non-work photographs. By sharing a snippet of something biographical about ourselves before the interviews, we aimed to develop trust via transparency (Willis, 2011).  In the interviews with young dads, it was also not uncommon to share something about ourselves (often concerning our own children).  

b)      Telephone interviews typically don't last as long as face-to-face interviews. Was it difficult to sustain interviews using video-conferencing platforms, or was there no discernible difference with face-to-face?  
  We did not observe any discernible difference in the length of interviews. There is a huge variety in length of interviews across the first wave of our sample, although none were less than an hour. For us, length of interview was not dictated by the technology used to conduct the interview.

Data from telephone interviewing has been described as lacking quality due to the loss of contextual and non-verbal data (Novick 2008), yet we have still produced rich, in-depth insights and transcripts of comparable quality to those produced via face-to-face interviews.   

c)      Did you have any issues with a lack of technology? I know you mentioned about data exclusion, but I'd be interested to know about any digital exclusion.   
The potential of digital exclusion was raised by several of the professionals and practitioners. We were pragmatic in this sense with regards to how we interviewed the young dads. We gave the dads the choice of using an online method (e.g. Zoom) or telephone. The young dads chose interviews by telephone. This helped both them and us to navigate the issue of digital exclusion because we didn’t insist on interviewing via other online apps. 

Ethical Issues 

a)      What exactly were the ethical adjustments?    

There were many! But as noted in our presentation, the first ethical question we faced was whether we should conduct research in a pandemic context. The pandemic raised issues of research burden, which we sought to avoid. However, as similarly noted by our project partners, and other organisations that we have been engaging with, we quickly acknowledged the vital importance of evidencing and capturing the impacts and effects of the crisis on an otherwise ‘unheard’ population in this rapidly evolving context (also see Tarrant and Hughes, 2020). 

We submitted an ethical amendment to the University of Lincoln Ethics Committee before conducting our interviews at a distance. Drawing on relevant scholarship, we made the case that the move to digitally mediated methods would engender very similar issues to face-to-face ones, issues that we had already accounted for during the original ethics approval process. In relation to questions of trust and rapport, we referred to the work of Susie Weller (2017) who, via reflections on using Skype with young people, argues that it is still possible to establish and maintain rapport with participants in the long term, despite ‘remoteness’ and the physical separation between researcher and participant when conducting interviews distantly. 

We emphasised our ongoing commitment to the principles of participation and reciprocity, which guided our decision to determine the most appropriate applications and methods to use. This was determined in conversation with our partner organisations and young fathers. Our ongoing conversations were essential for a responsive and proactive approach to researching with our participants. 

Finally, we also committed to gaining informed consent electronically. Posting forms would have been burdensome to participants and take too much time. There were also privacy issues. Some young dads live with parents or other family members so we couldn’t easily ask for consents privately except via a Qualtrics questionnaire sent to the participants directly. 

b)      Why did the telephone interviews help with balance of power? I like the concept of remote interviews being democratising. However, do you think this is universally experienced?    

As above, our questions about using digitally mediated forms of technology suggested participants felt comfortable being interviewed that way. They explained to us, that the opportunity for telephone interviews gave them more flexibility, they could choose when the interviews took place, and they could fit the interviews around their family and work lives. Digital technologies are now a feature of everyday interaction and play an important role in the lives of young people (McDermott and Roen 2012; Weller 2017). The internet has also been described as a ‘comfortable and familiar site’ for young people and one where power differentials between the researcher and researched can be democratised (Gibson 2020). 

In line with findings by other researchers, telephone interviews offered the young dads a greater degree of control over where, when and how the interview took place.  They were afforded greater autonomy over the interview environment (Pearce et al 2014) and greater control over privacy (Holt 2010). We were however mindful that this might have been limited because of lockdown, so we were careful to ask questions about where the participant was and what was happening around them.     

c)      How did you obtain virtual consent? How did you take consent for a group on MS teams or zoom?  
  We adapted our information sheets and archiving consent forms by developing a short survey on Qualtrics. We also built on our demographic profile questions to capture the dads’ demographic information. For the interviews with professionals/practitioners (which took place on MS Teams and Zoom), we emailed links to our electronic consent form prior to them taking part. 

We took an individualised approach to gaining consent from the young dads. Some gave verbal consent after watching the information video and having the opportunity to discuss the research with the interviewer. Some young dads filled out the Qualtrics consent form themselves prior to the interview. This was emailed or texted to them.    

d)      Question about confidentiality and video. If you make use of transcription services, how do you negotiate working with video rather than audio files? Can you isolate audio only having used video for the event?   
The interviews with professionals/practitioners were recorded with permission, producing videos. We also used Dictaphones. This not only provided a ‘back up’ but meant we had a high-quality audio file suitable for sharing for transcription purposes. We use a trusted transcription service who signed a confidentiality agreement and sent them audio only.

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