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Online interviews 3: Being there through text

This third instalment in my mini series on performing research interviews online deals with the issue of communicating via text such as emails and chat, rather than speech.

Communicating through text is not trivial since it leaves out the use of facial expressions and intonations that support offline interaction. In general, online communication implies a loss of social cues. For example, the lack of body language means that the interviewer cannot take signs of discomfort or confusion into account as easily. In terms of reactions, the 'interviewer’s repertoire' of tools with which to encourage the respondent includes nonverbal responses. Limiting this repertoire might make it difficult to build rapport effectively.

Seen from the perspective of face-to-face standards of qualitative data validity, there is a risk that the interviewee will find it offensive or unserious that the interviewer is not physically present and listening actively. For the same reasons, one might fear that interviewees will find it easier to lie in an online interaction.

Indeed, Walther (1996) argues that a main feature of computer-mediated communication is that it allows us to manipulate how we come across. This might seem an obvious threat to the credibility of the research. In the case of sensitive topics, however, online interviews might actually make it easier for interviewees to participate. On the other hand, this could lead to an ‘Internet experience bias’, with adept Internet users being extraordinarily direct online, while inexperienced users hold back because they are in an unfamiliar environment.

Avoiding the relatively intimate setting of a face-to-face interview might also have an equalising effect and lower the impact of prejudice. But the loss of conventional characteristics, such as age, gender, race, and dress style, may remove important contextualising information. One way to compensate for this is to establish a bit of context before the actual interview. The researcher can start by posting a picture or bits of personal information online so that the interviewee has an idea of who s/he is interacting with. A short email exchange might help set the scene for a chat interview, maybe even encouraging interviewees to disclose a bit of information about themselves beforehand.

While these measures could compensate for the lack of physical presence, it might be problematic to compare speech and writing in the first place: Spoken language is highly context-sensitive, while a writer is more distanced from both the context and the text that is produced (Slaughter 1985). Using Benjamin’s (1970) terms, Slaughter (1985:117) notes how speech “experience” becomes written “information”. While one might instinctively see face-to-face interviews as the gold standard, the two modes of interviewing might simply not be comparable.

Assessing the overall value of online interviews for research validity, they seem to threaten context-sensitivity and thus credibility from the perspective of qualitative research standards. In a ‘detached information’-oriented paradigm, on the other side, text-based interviewing might actually be cast as an advantage.

In the final post the dimension of time is introduced, drawing up some of the primary differences between synchronous and asynchronous interviewing.

Benjamin, W. (1970). The Story Teller. In W. Benjamin, Illuminations (pp. 84-91). London: Jonathan Cape.

Slaughter, M. M. (1985). Literacy and Society. International Journal of the Sociology of Language , 56, 113-139.

Walther, J. B. (1996). Computer-Mediated Communication : Impersonal, Interpersonal, and Hyperpersonal Interaction. Communication Research , 23 (1), 3-43.