Transcribing Interview Tapes

Transcribing interview tapes is time-consuming and potentially costly work. It can be facilitated by using a transcribing machine that has a foot pedal and earphones. Nonetheless it will normally take from 4 to 6 hours to transcribe a 90-minute tape. If possible, the initial transcrip­tions should be made using a computer-based word-processing program. Later, when researchers sort and refile material, having the interviews in computer files will prove highly efficient and labor saving. Interviewers who transcribe their own tapes come to know their interviews better, but the work is so demanding that they can easily tire and lose enthusiasm for interviewing as a research process.

Doctoral students ask me if there is a substitute for transcribing the entire interview tape. My response is yes, but not a good one. It is pos­sible to listen to the tapes a number of times, pick out sections that seem important, and then transcribe just those. Although that approach is la­bor-saving, it is not desirable because it imposes the researcher’s frame of reference on the interview data one step too early in the winnowing pro­cess. In working with the material, it is important that the researcher start with the whole (Briggs, 1986). Preselecting parts of the tapes to transcribe and omitting others tends to lead to premature judgments about what is important and what is not. Once the decision is made not to transcribe a portion of the tape, that portion of the interview is usually lost to the researcher. So although labor is saved in this alternative approach, the cost may be high.

The ideal solution is for the researcher to hire a transcriber. That, however, is expensive, and the job must be done well to be worth the effort. If interviewers can hire transcribers, or even if they do the tran­scriptions themselves, it is essential for them to develop explicit writ­ten instructions concerning the transcribing (Kvale, 1996). Writing out the instructions will improve the consistency of the process, encourage the researchers to think through all that is involved, and allow them to share their decision making with their readers at a later point. Although a transcript can be only a partial representation of the interview (Mishler, 1986), it can reflect the interview as fully as possible by being verbatim. In addition, the transcriber should make note of all the nonverbal signals, such as coughs, laughs, sighs, pauses, outside noises, telephone rings, and interruptions, that are recorded on the tape.

Both the interviewer and the transcriber must realize that decisions about where to punctuate the transcripts are significant. Participants do not speak in paragraphs or always clearly indicate the end of a sentence by voice inflection. Punctuating is one of the beginning points of the pro­cess of analyzing and interpreting the material (Kvale, 1996) and must be done thoughtfully. (For further discussion of transcription, see Alldred & Gillies, 2002, pp. 159-161; Mishler, 1991)

A detailed and careful transcript that re-creates the verbal and non­verbal material of the interview can be of great benefit to a researcher who may be studying the transcript months after the interview occurred. Note the care and precision with which the following section of an inter­view audiotape was transcribed. The interviewer is studying what it is like to be a communications major in a large university. Here she is asking the participant about financing her college education:

Interviewer: Uhm, what does that experience mean to you?

Participant: The fact that I spent so much money or that my parents like kind of rejected me?

Interviewer: Both.

Participant: Uhm, the fact that I spent so much money blows my mind because now I’m so poor and I’m. I can’t believe I had so much, I mean I look back [slight pause] to the summer and the fall and [slight pause] I know where my money went. I mean, I was always down the cape and I’d just spend at least $50 or $60 a night, you know, 3 or 4 nights a week. And then when I did an internship in town I was always driving in town, parking, saying “who cares” and I waitressed three shifts a week so I always had money in my pocket. So it was just, I always had money so, I never really cared and I never prepared for the future or never even considered that my parents wouldn’t be there to foot the bill like they’d always been. And I wasn’t really aware that they [pause] that they [slight pause and voice lowers] were becoming insulted. (Reproduced from Burke, 1990).

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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