Qualitative Research: The Interview

If you are caught up on my latest posts, you will remember that I have had some ups and downs in my research process for my Junior Paper. I think it is safe to assume that most students experience difficulties with their JPs. However, the difficulties differ from student to student.

Interviewing experts is a great source of information, but sometimes it can be challenging!

In the Woodrow Wilson School, you choose–or, sometimes, it is chosen for you if you are enrolled in a seminar that specifically focuses on quantitative or qualitative research–whether you would like to do a quantitative or qualitative analysis of your JP topic. While most of the quantitative students are focusing on coding and analyzing existing datasets, the qualitative researchers analyze literature, conduct interviews, and gather information on their own. My biggest challenge so far has been the interviews.

To refresh your memory: I am writing my Junior Paper on the practice of shackling pregnant inmates in New York state prisons. Specifically, I am focusing on whether or not shackling still exists, despite a 2009 ban on the practice, and what accounts for the difference in prevalence among the three women’s prisons in New York (see two of my previous posts here and here). This is a qualitative research approach, which allows for a more personal kind of data collection, which I will explain later. In order to gather as much information as possible, I ambitiously decided on interviewing medical personnel, corrections officers, a New York Times contributor, and leaders of various prison reform organizations.

Now, this list may seem pretty conclusive, but the reality is that the list is only a dream. Something I have realized is that you cannot just snap your fingers and instantly have an interviewee appear before you. There is a much more drawn-out process.

Once you decide on who to contact, you must then find contact information, such as an email address or a phone number. Seems easy enough, right? Wrong. Out of the three prison reform organization leaders that I emailed, zero of them responded. I sent a follow-up email, and then another, and after again receiving no response, I finally decided to look for a phone number, instead. Again, this was not as easy as I expected. Out of the three organizations, only one of them had an official website. The second one had a Facebook page, and the third did not have anything. The website was relatively easy to navigate, but it took a few minutes of stalking the Facebook page before finally finding a phone number to call.

Something else to worry about is not having schedules that match up. For example, when I contacted the New York Times contributor, she told me that she had recently given birth and that she wanted to take the next month to spend time with the child and not have to worry about work. Obviously, I was not going to tell her not to spend time with her infant, but I did have to adjust my own timeline for my JP in order to accommodate her needs. Because of this, it is important to remember to be flexible when interviewing people for your research. Relying on others for information means that much of the process is entirely out of your control. So, I pushed the interview back a month and recently, at long last, I was able to speak with her. This breakthrough gives me a temporary sense of peace, but I know I have to start finding more people to interview so I can finish my JP.

This is not the only way to find contacts for your interviews. There is something called the snowball effect, which essentially means that the first person you interview will give you the name of someone else they think could help, and you go from there. This is extremely helpful, although if someone recommends a person to you solely because they have similar opinions, it is also an obstacle, because it may bias your results.

However, qualitative research is not the only method that presents limitations. If you focus your analysis on a quantitative approach, you must find an existing dataset with all of the variables you want in it. A lot of times, it is extremely difficult to find a dataset with all of your desired variables included, which is a limitation in and of itself. However, once you have found your dataset, it’s pretty much smooth sailing from there. You run a few regressions, form your analysis, and you’re done. On the other hand, the qualitative approach means you have to find your own data or create your own; you don’t use any existing sets.

What I’ve just described are some of the things I have experienced during my interview process for my Junior Paper, but this is by no means a complete list! Interviewing people is difficult, but if you go about it the correct way, you will find yourself with a great resource of information!

Andrea Reino, Social Sciences Correspondent