Sunday, April 3, 2011

Online interviews 4: Temporality and turn taking

In this final installation of the mini series of blog posts on performing qualitative research interviews online, the issue of temporality is emphasized.

A basic distinction can be made between synchronous and asynchronous interviews. Synchronous interviews, typically in variations of an online chat format, seem to have advantages over asynchronous email interviews. First, chat allows for more spontaneity, minimizing socially desirable answers. Second, the interviewer can show attention more easily by sending encouraging comments. Thirdly, chat makes it easier to guide or adapt to respondent behaviour by rephrasing questions along the way.

These advantages all highlight potential threats to the validity of asynchronous email interviews. This  format makes it very hard to simulate face-to-face interaction and the trusting relationship that is needed in a qualitative interview. Furthermore, Walther (1996:33) makes it easier for the interviewee to present herself from carefully selected angles.

A related threat is that a prolonged, time-consuming e-mail conversation might lead to interviewee drop out (Kivits, 2005) This is potentially damaging for purposeful sampling.

On the other hand, the longitudinal qualities of email interviews might increase understanding of the field, since interviewees have the opportunity to comment and reflect at later stages. This includes the chance to validate tentative findings by showing them to respondents, something that shorter synchronous interviews cannot offer.

Interviews can sometimes be a very rewarding experience for the interviewee. But can this strength be replicated online? What happens to the moment of mutual trust after a successful interview, where interviewees confide further in the interviewer (Warren, et al., 2003)? These moments might be lost in synchronous online interviews. But in fact, lengthy email interviews have been found very rewarding by respondents, who sometimes find it hard to let go when the research relationship is over (Kivits, 2005).

Equally, the famous “uncomfortable silences” of conventional interviews (Berg, 2009:141) can take on various meanings online. This threatens to leave out important clues. It also gives the respondent time to construct more “socially desirable” answers. However, early pilot studies showed that respondents in synchronous interviews tend to reply faster online than offline.

On a final note, platform convergence might blur the distinction between synchronous and asynchronous interviews.  Some chat protocols resemble e-mail in allowing users to review before letting go of a statement. Others provide contextualising information such as status updates and pictures, while others again integrate chat and email completely. It is key to be aware of the characteristics of the medium before conducting interviews.


Berg, B. L. (2009). Qualitative Research Methods for the Social Sciences. Boston: Pearson Education.

Kivits, J. (2005). Online Interviewing and the Research Relationship. In C. H. (ed.), Virtual methods: Issues in social research on the Internet (pp. 35-50). Oxford: Berg.

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

Warren, C., Barnes-Brus, T., Burgess, H., Wiebold-Lippisch, L., Hackney, J., Harkness, G., et al. (2003). After the Interview. Qualitative Sociology , 26 (1).