Interview Rapport

That balancing act is central to developing an appropriate rapport with the participant. I have never been completely comfortable with the common assumption that the more rapport the interviewer can establish with the participant, the better. Rapport implies getting along with each other, a harmony with, a conformity to, an affinity for one another. The problem is that, carried to an extreme, the desire to build rapport with the participant can transform the interviewing relationship into a full “We” relationship in which the question of whose experience is being related and whose meaning is being made is critically confounded.

In our community college study, one participant invited my wife and me to his house for dinner after the second interview and before the third. I had never had such an invitation from a participant in the study, and I did not quite know what to do. I did not want to appear ungracious, so we accepted. My wife and I went to dinner at his home. We had a wonderful California backyard cookout, and it was a pleasure to spend time with the participant and his family. But a few days later, when I met him at his faculty office for the third interview, he was so warm and familiar toward me that I could not retain the distance I needed to explore his responses. I felt tentative as an interviewer because I did not want to risk violating the spirit of hospitality that he had created by inviting us to his home.

The rapport an interviewer must build in an interviewing relation­ship needs to be controlled. Too much or too little rapport can lead to distortion of what the participant reconstructs in the interview (Hyman et al., 1954). For the sake of establishing rapport, for example, interview­ers sometimes share their own experience when they think it is relevant to the participant’s. Although such sharing may contribute to building rapport, it can also affect and even distort what the participant might have said had the interviewer not shared his or her experience. The interviewing relationship must be marked by respect, interest, attention, and good manners on the part of the interviewer. The interviewer must be constantly alert to what is appropriate to the situation. As in teach­ing, the interviewing relationship can be friendly but not a friendship. On this subject, Judy Stacey (1988, p. 24) is especially compelling. She warns that the greater the intimacy and the apparent mutuality of the relationship between the researcher and the researched, the greater is the danger of the exploitation of the participant.

At the beginning of an interviewing relationship, I recommend err­ing on the side of formality rather than familiarity. (See also Hyman et al., 1954.) For example, an early step in an interviewing relationship is to ask if the participant minds being called by his or her first name. To do so without asking presumes familiarity, which can be off-putting, especially to older people. Common courtesies such as holding a door, not sitting until the person is seated, and introducing yourself again so that you make sure the participant knows to whom he or she is talking are small steps. But they all add up to expressing respect for the participant, which is central to the interview process.

Once the interview is under way, and as the participant begins to share his or her life history and details of present experience, it is crucial for the interviewer to maintain a delicate balance between respecting what the participant is saying and taking advantage of opportunities to ask difficult questions, to go more deeply into controversial subjects. In our seminar on In-Depth Interviewing and Issues in Qualitative Research, for example, one interviewer said that a participant had made remarks that reflected what the interviewer thought to be racist attitudes. At the time, which was early in her pilot project, the interviewer did not feel comfort­able in following up on that aspect of what the participant had said. She hadn’t yet developed a technique for exploring such a difficult subject without appearing judgmental. However, by not following up, she later realized that she was left with material which, if used, might be unfair to the participant. She decided that she could not use the material. (See de Laine, 2000, pp. 197-203; Lee, 1993, pp. 187-194, for discussions of self­censorship that researchers sometimes impose on themselves.) In future interviews she would find a tactful way to encourage her participants to explore their own words further when she perceived ambiguity in their narrative.

Another reason to control the rapport an interviewer builds in an in­terviewing relationship is that when the interviews are concluded, the in­terviewing relationship shifts dramatically. It becomes more distant, less intimate, focusing on what happens to the material generated by the in­terview. Issues of ownership of the material can easily arise. Interviewers should agree to give a copy of the transcripts or audiotapes to the partici­pant, who has a basic right to these. The participant may want to review the transcripts to see if there is any part with which he or she might not be comfortable and wish to have excluded from the study. This stage of the relationship is likely to be conducted by phone, letter, or e-mail. The rap­port an interviewer builds during the interview must be consistent with the relationship the interviewer expects to have with the participant after the interviews are concluded. (See Griffin, 1989, for a model of an active, ongoing relationship between interviewers and participants.)

Once the interviewer writes a report on the interviews, he or she may share the report with the participants. Lincoln and Guba (1985) refer to such sharing as member-checking, and they indicate that it contributes to the trustworthiness and credibility of the report. But difficult issues can arise at this point. Some interviewers give a right of review to the par­ticipant that can amount almost to a veto on how the interviewer works with, analyzes, and writes up the results of the interviewing project. Some researchers go further and suggest that the participant in the interview should also become a participant in working with the material (Griffin, 1989). The stances researchers take on this issue are wide ranging (Patai, 1987). At one end of the continuum are those who argue for a type of co-ownership. At the other are those who suggest that the relationship ends with the interview, and the only obligations that the writer has are to make sure the participants knew why they were being interviewed and the interviewer has not distorted the spirit of what the participant said.

My practice has been to offer to share with participants any material that concerns them. I especially want to know if in working with the inter­view data I have done anything that makes them vulnerable, or if I have presented anything that is not accurate. Except with regard to issues of vulnerability or inaccuracy, however, I retain the right to write the final report as I see it. At the same time, I would hold myself to the principle de Laine (2000, p. 191) articulates: not saying anything in print that I would not say directly to my participants. (In her study of high schools, Lightfoot, 1983, tells of the awkward situation she encountered when par­ticipants in her study disagreed with her interpretations.)

The type of relationship the interviewer anticipates after the inter­view is concluded affects the nature of the relationship the interviewer nurtures during it. If the interviewer has created a full “We” relationship in the process of the interviewing, then he or she must be prepared to deal with the consequences when the time comes to work with the mate­rial generated in an interview and report on it. To establish such a deeply sharing, mutually intimate interviewing relationship and then claim one­sided ownership of the material at the conclusion of the interview may cause problems. On the other hand, an interviewer who is explicit about the rights of the participant before the interview begins, and who controls the distance he or she keeps with the participant, establishes the condi­tion for an equitable relationship when working with the material.

Source: Seidman Irving (2006), Interviewing As Qualitative Research: A Guide for Researchers in Education And the Social Sciences, Teachers College Press; 3rd edition.

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