Sharing Interview Data: Profiles and Themes

One goal of the researcher in marking what is of interest in the inter­view transcripts is to reduce and then shape the material into a form in which it can be shared or displayed (Miles & Huberman, 1984). Reducing the data is a first step in allowing the researchers to present their inter­view material and then to analyze and interpret it (Wolcott, 1994). It is one of the most difficult steps in the process because, inevitably, it means letting interview material go.

I have used two basic ways to share interview data. First, I have devel­oped profiles of individual participants and grouped them in categories that made sense. Second, I have marked individual passages, grouped these in categories, and then studied the categories for thematic connec­tions within and among them.

1. Rationale for Crafting Profiles

Although there is no right way to share interview data, and some researchers argue for less reliance on words and more on graphs, charts, and matrices (Miles & Huberman, 1984), I have found that crafting a pro­file or a vignette of a participant’s experience is an effective way of shar­ing interview data and opening up one’s interview material to analysis and interpretation. The idea comes from Studs Terkel’s Working (1972).

Not all interviews will sustain display in the form of a profile. My experience is that only about one out of three interviews is complete and compelling enough to be shaped into a profile that has a beginning, a middle, and an end, as well as some sense of conflict and resolution. Other interviews may sustain what I call a vignette, which is a shorter narrative that usually covers a more limited aspect of a participant’s ex­perience.

A profile in the words of the participant is the research product that I think is most consistent with the process of interviewing. It allows us to present the participant in context, to clarify his or her intentions, and to convey a sense of process and time, all central components of qualitative analysis. (See Dey, 1993, pp. 30-39, for an excellent discussion of the question, “What is qualitative analysis?”) We interview in order to come to know the experience of the participants through their stories. We learn from hearing and studying what the participants say. Although the inter­viewer can never be absent from the process, by crafting a profile in the participant’s own words, the interviewer allows those words to reflect the person’s consciousness.

Profiles are one way to solve the problem the interviewer has of how to share what he or she has learned from the interviews. The narrative form of a profile allows the interviewer to transform this learning into tell­ing a story (Mishler, 1986). Telling stories, Mishler argues, is one major way that human beings have devised to make sense of themselves and their social world. I would add that telling stories is a compelling way to make sense of interview data. The story is both the participant’s and the interviewer’s. It is in the participant’s words, but it is crafted by the inter­viewer from what the participant has said. Mishler provides an extended discussion of interviewing and its relationship to narratives as a way of knowing, and I strongly recommend it both for his own insights and the further reading that he suggests. (Also see Bruner, 1996, chaps. 6 & 7, for an important discussion of the role of narrative in constructing reality in the field of education.)

What others can learn from reading a profile of a participant is as di­verse as the participants we interview, the profiles we craft and organize, and the readers who read them. I have found crafting profiles, however, to be a way to find and display coherence in the constitutive events of a participant’s experience, to share the coherence the participant has ex­pressed, and to link the individual’s experience to the social and organi­zational context within which he or she operates.

If a researcher thinks that his or her interview material can sustain a profile that would bring a participant alive, offer insights into the com­plexities of what the researcher is studying, and is compelling and believ­able, taking the steps to craft a profile can be a rewarding way to share interview data. (See Locke, Silverman, & Spirduso, 2004, pp. 219-220.) Crafting a profile can bring an aesthetic component into reporting our research that makes both the researchers’ and readers’ work enriching, pleasurable, and at times touching to the spirit (Garman, 1994).

2. Steps in Crafting a Profile

Crafting profiles is a sequential process. Once you have read the transcript, marked passages of interest, and labeled those passages, make two copies of the marked and labeled transcript. (The labeling process is explained later in this chapter.) Using either the capabilities of a word­processing program, a dedicated qualitative analysis program, or even a pair of scissors, cut and file the marked passages on one copy of the transcripts into folders or computer files that correspond to the labels you devised for each passage. These excerpts will be used in the second, the­matic way of sharing material. It is important never to cut up the original transcript because it serves throughout the study as a reference to which the researcher may turn for placing in context passages that have been excerpted.

From the other copy of the transcripts, select all the passages that you marked as important and put them together as a single transcript. Your resulting version may be one third to one half the length of the original three-interview transcript.

The next step is to read the new version, this time with a more de­manding eye. It is very difficult to give up interview material. As you read, ask yourself which passages are the most compelling, those that you are just not willing to put aside. Underline them. Now you are ready to craft a narrative based on them.

One key to the power of the profile is that it is presented in the words of the participant. I cannot stress too much how important it is to use the first person, the voice of the participant, rather than a third-person transformation of that voice. To illustrate the point for yourself, take per­haps 30 seconds from one of your pilot interviews. First present the sec­tion verbatim. Then craft it into a mini-narrative using the first-person voice of the participant. Next try using your voice and describing the participant in the third person. It should become apparent that using the third-person voice distances the reader from the participant and allows the researcher to intrude more easily than when he or she is limited to selecting compelling material and weaving it together into a first-person narrative. Kvale (1996, p. 227) points out the temptation for researchers to expropriate and to use inappropriately their participants’ experience for their own purposes. Using the first-person voice can help researchers guard against falling into this trap.

In creating profiles it is important to be faithful to the words of the participants and to identify in the narrative when the words are those of someone else. Sometimes, to make transitions between passages, you may wish to add your own words. Elsewhere you may want to clarify a passage. Each researcher can work out a system of notation to let the reader know when language not in the interview itself has been inserted. I place such language in brackets. I use ellipses when omitting mate­rial from a paragraph or when skipping paragraphs or even pages in the transcripts. In addition, I delete from the profile certain characteristics of oral speech that a participant would not use in writing-for example, repetitious “uhms,” “ahs,” “you knows,” and other such idiosyncrasies that do not do the participant justice in a written version of what he or she has said.

Some might argue that researchers should make no changes in the oral speech of their participants when presenting it to an audience as a written document. I think, however, that unless the researcher is plan­ning a semantic analysis or the subject of the interview itself is the lan­guage development of the participant, the claims for the realism of the oral speech are balanced by the researcher’s obligation to maintain the dignity of the participant in presenting his or her oral speech in writing. (For further discussion of this issue see Blauner, 1987; Devault, 1990, pp. 106-107; Weiss, 1994, pp. 192-197.)

Normally, I try to present material in a profile in the order in which it came in the interviews. Material that means something in one context should not be transposed to another context that changes its meaning. However, if material in interview three, for example, fits with a part of the narrative based on interview two, I may decide to transpose that ma­terial, if doing so does not wrench it out of context and distort its mean­ing. In making all these decisions, I ask myself whether each is fair to the larger interview.

An important consideration in crafting a profile is to protect the iden­tity of the participant if the written consent form calls for doing so. Even when transcribing the interview, use initials for all names that might iden­tify the participant in case a casual reader comes across the transcript. In creating the profile itself, select a pseudonym that does justice to the participant. This is not an easy or a mechanical process. When choosing a pseudonym, take into consideration issues of ethnicity, age, and the con­text of the participant’s life. Err on the side of understatement rather than overstatement. If a participant would be made vulnerable were his or her identity widely known, take additional steps to conceal it. For example, change the participant’s geographical location, the details of his or her work-a physics teacher can become a science teacher-and other iden­tifying facets of the person’s experience. The extent to which an inter­viewer needs to resort to disguise is in direct relation to how vulnerable the person might be if identified. But the disguise must not distort what the participant has said in the interview. (See Lee, 1993, pp. 185-187, for further discussion of the issue of disguising participants’ identity.)

The researcher must also be alert to whether he or she has made the participant vulnerable by the narrative itself. For example, Woods (1990) had to exercise extreme caution because, if her participants were identi­fied, they might be fired from their teaching positions. Finally, the par­ticipant’s dignity must always be a consideration. Participants volunteer to be interviewed but not to be maligned or incriminated by their own words. A function of the interviewing process and its products should be to reveal the participant’s sense of self and worth.

3. Profiles as a Way of Knowing

I include in the Appendix two examples of profiles. The first is an ed­ited version of a profile developed by Toon Fuderich (1995), who did her doctoral research on the child survivors of the Pol Pot era in Cambodia. She interviewed 17 refugees who had come to the United States to start a new life. The profile presented is of a participant called Nanda who was 28 at the time of her interview and worked part time in a human services agency. In a note to her paper, Fuderich indicated that in order to present the material clearly, she eliminated hesitations and repetitions in Nanda’s speech. She also removed some of the idiosyncrasies of Nanda’s speech and made grammatical corrections while at the same time remaining “respectful of the content and the intended meaning of the participant’s words” (Fuderich, 1995).

I hesitated to include the profile of Nanda because I was afraid read­ers would think in-depth interviewing is only successful when it results in the kind of dramatic and heart-rending material Fuderich shared in Nanda’s profile. I was concerned that potential researchers, especially doctoral candidates, would hesitate to try the process if their research areas seemed to them, in comparison, to be mundane.

As Nanda’s profile reveals, in-depth interviewing is capable of cap­turing momentous, historical experiences. I wanted to both reveal that capability and share Fuderich’s work, which seemed to me so compel­ling. However, in-depth interviewing research is perhaps even more ca­pable of reconstructing and finding the compelling in the experiences of everyday life.

As a second example, therefore, I include in the Appendix an edited version of a profile developed by Marguerite Sheehan (1989). (For other examples of such profiles, see Seidman, 1985.) This profile resulted from a pilot study Sheehan conducted of the experience of day-care providers who have stayed in the field for a long time. (See Chapter 3 for a descrip­tion of her interview structure.)

The profile presented is of a participant, Betty, who is a family day­care provider. She takes care of six children in her home every day. Most of the children are in “protective slots,” that is, their day care is paid for by the state. Their parents are often required to leave them in care because the children either have been or are at risk of being abused or neglected.

Sheehan presented a version of this profile to our seminar on In­Depth Interviewing and Issues in Qualitative Research. In her final com­ments, she wrote:

Betty had many other things to say that I was not able to fit into this report. She talked quite a bit about how her daughter and husband were involved in the Family Day Care whether through their physical presence or their interest in the children. She told me more stories about individual children and families that she worked with. I was impressed with how she identified at different times with both the children and the parents and how she had to let go while still remaining involved with them. Betty was often nervous and worried that she was not saying the “right thing.” She told me that this was the first time that anyone had asked her about the meaning in her work. (Sheehan, 1989)

Betty’s profile tells an important story in her own words. It may not have the life-and-death drama of Nanda’s profile, but it captures compel­lingly, I think, the struggle of a day-care provider from which anyone interested in day care can learn.

As both Fuderich and Sheehan pursued their research, they inter­viewed additional participants. If they had chosen to do so, they could have presented a series of profiles grouped together around organizing topics. In addition to the profiles’ speaking powerfully for themselves, the researchers would have been able to explore and comment on the salient issues within individual profiles and point out connections among profiles. For example, in the profile of Betty, the issues of how people come to the work of day care, the preparation they have, the support they are given, the effect of the low status and genderized nature of the work, the relatively unexplored subject of working with the parents, and the is­sue of child abuse, to name several, are raised. In Nanda’s profile, issues inherent in the traumas of history, being a refugee, learning English as a second language, and the tensions and complexities of acculturation are raised, among others.

Each researcher would be able to make explicit what she has learned about those subjects through the presentation of the profiles and also through connecting those profiles to the experience of others in her sample. By telling Betty’s story of her everyday work in her own words,

Sheehan is setting the stage for her readers to learn about the issues in­volved in providing day care through the experiences of a person deeply involved in that work. By telling Nanda’s story, Fuderich is inviting read­ers to both bear witness and begin to understand the factors influencing resilience among those who, as children, survived the Cambodian geno­cide, which is the subject of her dissertation study.

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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