Doing online interviews: insights from the field

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Online methods are not new, but due to the current pandemic circumstances they have received greater attention. Suddenly a slow disaster came into the picture, and everyone had to reconfigure their plans and projects—research ones included. But even if you consider yourself a savvy internet user, doing online interviews is more sophisticated than your usual conversation on Zoom. It requires at least a careful choice of platform, an ethical evaluation considering the chosen application and, of course, a target group orientation.

Interviewing young people, such as higher education students or even prospective higher education students, is not an easy task. Like ourselves, they run busy schedules and juggle academy, family, leisure and sometimes paid work commitments. So, as you do your recruitment, you may consider doing online interviews. They come with certain advantages, such as flexibility and convenience regarding finding the “right time”. Since I do research on young people that live in low-density, inland Portuguese territories, I started doing online interviews, as it was the easiest way to reach an otherwise far population. Below are some of the challenges which come with doing online interviews and how you can approach them.

1. Privacy issues

First, from an ethical perspective, doing interviews online entails using a platform, such as Google Hangouts or WhatsApp, which have their own rules and user agreements that may collide with confidentiality and privacy duties that researchers usually grant to our participants. For instance, I am doing interviews using WhatsApp, one of the most used applications among young users. Despite having end-to-end encryption, WhatsApp is still collecting metadata such as login time, phone numbers or location. As Shoshana Zuboff elucidates, online services are not for free: they come with the price of giving away data that can be used for ends we know little about. These concerns are also valid for those teaching online, as data from both teachers and students are at stake.

2. Trust and data quality

Naturally, the risks of online surfing are not new for young students, which takes me to my second point—trust and data quality. In a face-to-face interview, trust can be negotiated more easily than in an online space, as there is a shared physical context. Online, you never know if you will be presented with the intimacy of a bedroom or the loudness of a café. And if you are starting your fieldwork now, you will show up as a stranger, which may lead some to refuse video interviewing, leaving you with sound or written texts alone. Due to this difficulty in establishing a reliable rapport, online interviews are generally more suited to follow-up work, once you have met the participants previously.

3. Personal matters

Finally, as a disaster researcher, I couldn’t help to point out the necessary care required to do fieldwork with subjects in the midst of the Covid-19 emergency. I interviewed Portuguese students in the context of the 2011 economic crisis and I am now interviewing survivors from major wildfires that occurred in 2017. These interactions are sometimes emotionally heavy and require researcher awareness for both others and one’s own vulnerability.

If it is true that all of us are affected by this pandemic, it is not the same as being infected, or knowing someone who is, or was, and may no longer be here. Just because people are confined, that does not mean that they are available for interviewing. Uncertainty regarding the future may also trigger mental health issues. Therefore, empathy and patience, rather than assuming an extractive attitude, can be key to making your subjects’ willing to participate in your study.

4. Other possible challenges

Technical issues may also get in the way of your field work. One of my interviewees has no internet connection at home; another person’s mobile has the microphone broken.

As in other field decisions, it is worth considering the inclusiveness and representativeness of your sample, and how you will overcome barriers posed by inequalities of access and income.

Online methods also invite some performativity, and you may have a hard time seeing through the fog of the perfect presentation of the self. This usually fades when you have more than one interaction with your interviewee, since you have the chance to compare and gain proximity.

If you are doing online interviewing of young people, especially if they are digital natives and there is some age difference between the researcher and them, bear in mind that young people today are generally very good users of online apps, so there can be a power imbalance due to this. This can work to the researcher’s advantage, especially if the goal is to have the interviewee feel empowered, but it can also be a challenge to handle. Either way, it is important to keep it in mind.

Sociologist Deborah Lupton recently developed a collaborative document entitled “Doing fieldwork in a Pandemic”, filled with creative solutions for dealing with our current challenges. The Association of Internet Researchers also has updated ethics guidelines that are worth the read.

Doing online fieldwork during a pandemic, however, will not make you a disaster researcher, but it may grant you a better story. It’s your turn to tell it.

Once upon a time Ana Sofia Ribeiro was a higher education researcher. Now she does research on young people recovery from wildfire disasters at the Institute of Social Sciences, University of Lisbon. Her current interests are related to catastrophes, youth, art-based methodologies and low-density territories.

Photo by Julia M Cameron from Pexels

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