Making Contact in Interview Research

1. MAKING CONTACT

Do it yourself. Try not to rely on third parties to make contact with your potential participants. No matter how expedient it seems to have someone else who knows potential participants explain your project to them, try to avoid doing so. Building the interviewing relationship begins the moment the potential participant hears of the study. Third parties may be very familiar with potential participants, but they can seldom do justice to the nature of someone else’s project. They have not internal­ized it the way the researcher has; they do not have the investment in it that the researcher does. Once having introduced the subject, they can seldom respond to questions that naturally might arise. Third parties may be necessary for gaining access to potential participants but should be used as little as possible to make actual contact with them.

A contact visit before the actual interview aids in selecting partici­pants and helps build a foundation for the interview relationship. A con­tact visit can also convince an interviewer that a good interviewing rela­tionship with a particular potential participant is not likely to develop. The more care and thoroughness interviewers put into making contact, the better foundation they establish for the interviewing relationship.

2. MAKE A CONTACT VISIT IN PERSON

Telephoning is often a necessary first step in making contact, but if possible it should consist of only a brief introduction, an explanation of how the interviewer gained access to the person’s name, and a decision on when to meet. Avoid asking the potential participant for a yes or no answer about participating. An easy “yes” from someone who has not met the interviewer or heard enough about the interviews can backfire later. A “no” that is a defense against too much initial pressure gets the interviewer nowhere (see Richardson et al., 1965, p. 97). The major pur­pose of the telephone contact is to set up a time when the interviewer and the potential participant can meet in person to discuss the study.

It takes time, money, and effort to arrange a separate contact visit with individual potential participants or even a group, but they are al­most always well spent. The purpose of the contact visit is at least three­fold. The most important is to lay the groundwork for the mutual respect necessary to the interview process. By taking the time to make a separate contact visit to introduce him- or herself and the study, an interviewer is saying implicitly to the potential participants, “You are important. I take you seriously. I respect my work and you enough to want to make a sepa­rate trip to meet with you to explain the project.”

Although individual contact visits tend to be more effective, it is pos­sible also to meet with a group of potential participants. Group contact visits save time and wear on the interviewer by allowing one explanation of the study to several people at once. On the downside, one potential participant’s skepticism about participating can affect the attitude of oth­ers in the group.

Clearly, interviewers will not always be able to make in-person con­tact and will have to rely on other means, such as the telephone or e­mail. E-mail has become a prominent component of the contact process. Doctoral candidates with whom I work, however, have reported ambigu­ous results in making initial contact with potential participants by e-mail. With the skepticism that abounds about receiving e-mail from unknown contacts, it is quite easy for a potential participant to disregard an initial contact by e-mail. However, once the contact has been made by an in­person visit, by telephone, or via regular mail, e-mail becomes especially useful in confirming interview appointments, follow-up arrangements, and maintaining contact through the research process.

Whether in person, on the telephone, or in an e-mail message, it is important at this point to present the nature of the study in as broad a context as possible and to be explicit about what will be expected of the participant. Seriousness but friendliness of tone, purposefulness but flexibility in approach, and openness but conciseness in presentation are characteristics that can enhance a contact visit whether conducted in person or on the phone. (For discussions of the importance of the first contact, see Dexter, 1970, p. 34; Hyman et al., 1954, p. 201; Marshall & Rossman, 1989, p. 65.)

The contact visit allows the interviewer to become familiar with the setting in which potential participants live or work before the interview starts. It also allows interviewers to find their way to potential participants so that they are better able to keep their interviewing appointments. In addition to building mutual respect and explaining the nature of the in­terview study, a second important purpose of the contact visit is to deter­mine whether potential participants are interested. In-depth interviewing asks a great deal of both participants and interviewers. It is no trivial mat­ter to arrange three 90-minute interviews spaced as much as a week apart. It is important that likely participants understand the nature of the study, how they fit into it, and the purpose of the three-interview sequence.

The contact visit also initiates the process of informed consent, which is necessary in most and desirable in almost all interviewing research. (See Chapter 5.) Although I seldom show the informed consent form in the contact visit, I orally go over all aspects of the study and what the consent form covers, so participants will not be surprised by anything in­cluded on the form. I usually present the actual form and ask the partici­pant to sign it at the time of the first interview. That is an important time, immediately before I actually start the first interview, to confirm that the participants understand what is involved in their accepting the invitation to be interviewed (Corbin & Morse, 2003, p. 341).

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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