13.3 Issues to consider for all interview types

Learning Objectives

  • Identify the three main issues that interviewers should consider
  • Describe how interviewers can address power imbalances
  • Describe and define rapport
  • Define the term “probe”


Qualitative researchers are attentive to the complexities that arise during the interview process. Interviews are intimate processes. Your participants will share with you how they view the world, how they understand themselves, and how they cope with events that happened to them. Conscientious researchers should keep in mind the following topics to ensure the authenticity and trust necessary for successful interviews.


First and foremost, interviewers must be aware of and attentive to the power differential between themselves and interview participants. The interviewer sets the agenda and leads the conversation. Qualitative interviewers aim to allow participants to have some control over the topics that are discussed and the extent to which they are discussed, but at the end of the day, the researcher is in charge of the interview and how the data are reported to the public. After the interview is completed, the participant loses the ability to shape the narrative because the researcher is the person who tells the story to the world. As the researcher, you are also asking someone to reveal things about themselves they may not typically share with others. Researchers do not reciprocate by revealing much or anything about themselves. All these factors shape the power dynamics of an interview.


a fist striking a table

Numerous excellent pieces have been written on issues of power in research and data collection. Of note, feminist researchers have paved the way in helping researchers think about and address issues of power in their work (Oakley, 1981). [1] To overcome the power imbalance between researcher and respondent, feminist research suggests that the researcher reveal some aspects of their own identity and story so that the interview is a more reciprocal experience; allowing participants to view and edit interview transcripts before the researcher uses them for analysis; and giving participants an opportunity to read and comment on analyses before the researcher shares it with others through publication or presentation (Reinharz, 1992; Hesse-Biber, Nagy, & Leavy, 2007). [2] On the other hand, some researchers note that sharing too much with interview participants can give the false impression there is no power differential, when in reality researchers can analyze and present participants’ stories in whatever way they see fit (Stacey, 1988). [3]

Regardless of how you feel about sharing your background with interview participants, another way to balance the power differential is to make the intent of your research very clear to the subjects. Share with them your rationale for conducting the research and the research question(s) that frame your work. Be sure that you also share with participants how the data you gather will be used and stored. Additionally, you should explain to participants how their confidentiality will be protected including who will have access to your data and what procedures, such as using pseudonyms, you will take to protect their identities. Social workers also must disclose the reasons why confidentiality may be violated to prevent danger to self or others. Many of these details will be covered by your IRB’s informed consent procedures and requirements. However, even if they are not, as researchers we should be attentive to how informed consent can help balance the power differences between ourselves and those who participate in our research.

There are no easy answers when it comes to handling the power differential between the researcher and researched. Even social scientists do not agree on the best approach. Qualitative research involves interpersonal interactions and building a relationship with research participants, so power is a particularly important issue.

Location, location, location

One way to address the power between researcher and respondent is to conduct the interview in a location of the participant’s choosing, where they will feel most comfortable answering your questions. Interviews can take place in any number of locations—in respondents’ homes or offices, researchers’ homes or offices, coffee shops, restaurants, public parks, or hotel lobbies, to name just a few possibilities. Each location comes with its own set of benefits and its own challenges. While I would argue that it is paramount to allow the respondent to choose the most convenient and comfortable location, it is also important to identify a location where there will be few distractions. For example, some coffee shops and restaurants are so loud that recording the interview can be a challenge. Other locations may present different sorts of distractions. For example, if you conduct interviews with parents in their home, they may need to spend more time attending to their children during an interview than responding to your questions (of course, depending on the topic of your research, the opportunity to observe such interactions could be invaluable). As an interviewer, you may want to suggest a few possible locations and note the goal of avoiding distractions when you ask your respondents to choose a location.

Of course, the extent to which a respondent chooses a location should be balanced by the accessibility of the location to you (the interviewer) and by your safety and comfort level with the location. For example, you may not feel comfortable conducting an interview in an area with posters for hate groups on the wall. Not only might you fear for your safety, but you may be too distracted to conduct a quality interview. While it is important to conduct interviews in a location that is comfortable for respondents, doing so should never come at the expense of your safety.

Researcher-respondent relationship

A unique feature of interviews is that they require some social interaction, which means that a relationship is formed between interviewer and interviewee. One essential element in building a productive relationship is respect. Demonstrating respect for the interviewee’s time and story will help them to feel comfortable sharing with you.

There are no big secrets or tricks for how to show respect for research participants. At its core, the interview interaction should not differ from any other social interaction in which you show gratitude for a person’s time and respect for a person’s humanity. As the interviewer, it is crucial that you conduct the interview in a way that is culturally sensitive. In some cases, this might mean educating yourself about your study population and even receiving some training to help you learn to effectively communicate with your research participants. Do not judge your research participants; you are there to listen to them, and they have been kind enough to give you their time and attention. Even if you disagree strongly with what a participant shares in an interview, your job as the researcher is to gather the information being shared with you, not to make personal judgments about it.

Respect provides a solid foundation for rapport. Rapport is the sense of connection you establish with a participant. Some argue that this term is too clinical, and perhaps it implies that a researcher tricks a participant into thinking they are closer than they really are (Esterberg, 2002). [4] The responsibilities of social work clinicians differ significantly from those of a researcher, as clinicians provide services whereas researchers do not. The participant is not your client, and your goals for the interaction are different than those of a clinical relationship.


five people putting their fists together over a table

Developing good rapport requires good listening. In fact, listening during an interview is an active, not a passive, practice. Active listening means that you, the researcher, participate with the respondent by showing you understand and follow whatever it is that they are telling you (Devault, 1990). [5] The questions you pose to respondents should indicate you’ve actively heard what they’ve just said.

Active listening means you will probe the respondent for more information from time to time throughout the interview. A probe is a request for more information. Probes are used because qualitative interviewing techniques are designed to go with the flow and take whatever direction the respondent goes during the interview. It is worth your time to come up with helpful probes in advance of an interview. You certainly do not want to find yourself stumped or speechless after a respondent has just said something about which you’d like to hear more. This is another reason why you should practice your interview in advance with people who are resemble those in your sample.


Key Takeaways

  • All interviewers should consider the power differential between themselves and their respondents.
  • Attend to the location of an interview and the relationship that forms between the interviewer and interviewee.
  • Feminist researchers paved the way for helping interviewers think about how to balance the power differential between themselves and interview participants.
  • Interviewers must always be respectful of interview participants.



Probe- a request for more information in qualitative research


Image attributions

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  1. Oakley, A. (1981). Interviewing women: A contradiction in terms. In H. Roberts (Ed.), Doing feminist research (pp. 30–61). London, UK: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
  2. Reinharz, S. (1992). Feminist methods in social research. New York, NY: Oxford University Press; Hesse-Biber, S. N., & Leavy, P. L. (Eds.). (2007). Feminist research practice: A primer. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
  3. Stacey, J. (1988). Can there be a feminist ethnography? Women’s Studies International Forum, 11, 21–27.
  4. Esterberg, K. G. (2002). Qualitative methods in social research. Boston, MA: McGraw-Hill.
  5. For more on the practice of listening, especially in qualitative interviews, see Devault, M. (1990). Talking and listening from women’s standpoint: Feminist strategies for interviewing and analysis. Social Problems, 37, 96–116.


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Scientific Inquiry in Social Work Copyright © 2018 by Matthew DeCarlo is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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