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Epistolary interviews

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Introduction to epistolary interviewing - an asynchronous one-to-one form of interview, mediated by technology.

Introduction to epistolary interviewing - an asynchronous one-to-one form of interview, mediated by technology.

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  • This Powerpoint presentation is designed to tell you about a method of online interviewing described as the epistolary interview.
  • There’s a tendency to talk about online interviews as if they are all the same. There’s also a tendency to disparage them because they are mediated. We’re used to mediated interviews in the form of telephone interviews. Some computer-mediated interviews are very like phone interviews - using Skype. Others are text-based but remain synchronous. They can be one-to-one or one-to-many. Others are text-based and asynchronous. These could, theoretically, be one-to-many but in practice they all appear to be one-to-one.
  • So a variety of interview techniques are mediated by the computer. Terms you commonly see used are the e-interview, which is usually understood to be synchronous. You also hear of email interviews. These are defined by their medium, which is straightforward if you are explaining what you are doing in a short form. I’m focusing today on the epistolary interview. This is an asynchronous, one-to-one form of interviewing. It is usually carried out via email but could, for example, be carried out via a FirstClass conference. It is not characterised by its medium, but by the relationship which is built up between interviewer and respondent.
  • First used in a social sciences context by Margaret Debenham in 2001 in a thesis written here in IET. Where does this unpronounceable name come from? Epistle means letter - you get epistles in the New Testament. Literary form of the epistolary novel had a vogue in the 18th century. Lots of enormously long and unfathomably popular novels such as Pamela - the best of which you may have seen filmed as Dangerous Liaisons. As you’d expect, an influential literary form is extensively theorised, and some of this theory helps us to understand what the epistolary interview can offer to a researcher, and how the interviewer and respondent work together to construct the interview. Briefly, though. This epistolary relationship is extensive - it is carried out over days, more usually weeks, and sometimes months or even a year. During this time a relationship develops between interviewer and respondent, trust can be built. Interviews can be framed by an interviewer’s genuine interest, which may be shown by follow-up questions or by disclosure. It is possible, though not yet proven, that self disclosure on the part of the interviewer may provoke self disclosure from the respondent.
  • Epistolary interviews offer significant advantages to interviewers. Some of these are common to other text-based interview styles - for example the removal of geographical or time restraints, the lack of need for transcription and the consequent saving on expenses. Others draw on the epistolary nature of the interview. The data is rich because both participants can seek clarification at any point. The exchange can be thoughtful. Can be - although some respondents send off very brief answers. There is time for reflection. Some respondents take this, some don’t - but there is opportunity to revisit questions. This interview style also supports a grounded theory approach to analysis - where the data analysis informs the data collection. An interview can be analysed while still in progress, and the findings of the analysis used to inform both that interview and other ongoing interviews.
  • Some of those advantages also apply to respondents. They have more power, because they are interviewed at a place and time of their choosing and they, as much as the interviewer, control the pace of the interview. As with other methods of interviewing, they may welcome the opportunity to explore thoughts and experiences. They may be happy to have an interested and responsive reader. They have the opportunity to craft their responses, to return to them over time and to build on them. And they have an accurate record of the exchange. If they do look at your write-up, and some respondents do express an interest in this, they will know if you have misrepresented or misquoted them. Again, they have more power.
  • As with any data collection method, there are disadvantages. Probably foremost is the potential to produce a skewed sample. To take part in an epistolary interview, respondents need access to and familiarity with the appropriate hardware and software. They need to be able to type with a certain degree of speed and accuracy which rules out, for example, the very young and many elderly people. There are also reduced social cues. No facial gestures, no smiles or frowns, or shuffles, or hesitations. People who frequently communicate via text may put these in by the use of punctuation and emoticons and fonts, but this isn’t something that everyone does, and many people are uncomfortable with these ways of inserting emotion. Several interviewers have reported that they had problems ending the interviews. Joelle Kivits, for example, had interviews which ran for around a year. They also find they have built up relationships which are hard to break off. This needs to be taken into account in the planning stage This is a developing form, so it’s not always clear what style to adopt. Is it chatty, is it formal, is it like a letter, is it like a text message? It is probably worth outlining what sort of response you would like. Finally, as with all distance research, there is the typist problem. Is the person sending the responses the person they claim to be?
  • I’ll just touch on some of the ethical issues. Data protection is a big one. We can think of emails as being like postcards. They therefore need to be protected. Social scientists will be familiar with the way they can be repositioned as an expert, as a representative of the Open University, as a confidante. That can happen here, especially if you don’t give much information about yourself. This is an unfamiliar situation for the interviewee. They almost certainly know some of the conventions of the face-to-face interview, but they don’t know the conventions here. It’s important to make it clear throughout that this is an interview, not a social interchange. And the dilemma I’ve had most recently - how exactly do you quote from this data? Do you retain the idiosyncratic spelling, the pauses, the inaccurate punctuation which make your respondents appear virtually illiterate or do you, as with a transcribed interview, tidy up your quotations?
  • A brief data sample from some interviews I’m carrying out at the moment. This is a small section of a 500-word response and shows how carefully crafted a response can be. The respondent has answered the question in different ways, has had time to think about its meaning, and about their response, has picked out problematic areas within those response and tried to deal with those.
  • If you would like to know more, you can email me or visit my website.

Transcript

  • 1. Epistolary interviews Rebecca Ferguson, 28 February 2007
  • 2. Interviews
    • We use interviews to encourage respondents to talk about themselves and their experiences
    • Increasingly, we use mediated interviews:
    • Telephone interviews
    • Voice based – Skype
    • Synchronous – chat rooms, MSN, SecondLife
    • Asynchronous – conferencing software, email
    Epistolary interviews - Rebecca Ferguson
  • 3. Online interview methods
    • E-interview
    • Usually taken to be synchronous
    • Email interview
    • Defined by its medium
    • Epistolary interview
    • Characterised by the relationship between interviewer and respondent.
    Epistolary interviews - Rebecca Ferguson
  • 4. Epistolary interviews
    • Introduced by Margaret Debenham
    • Investigating students’ experiences of tuition
    • Origins of term
    • Theories of identity work & positioning
    • Carried out over days / weeks / months
    • Relationship develops / trust can be built
    • Interviews framed by interviewer’s genuine interest
    Epistolary interviews - Rebecca Ferguson
  • 5. Advantages: interviewers
    • Limits geographical / time restraints
    • No need for transcription
    • Rich data. Clarification of meaning
    • Thoughtful exchange
    • Time for reflection
    • Saves money
    • Supports grounded approach
    Epistolary interviews - Rebecca Ferguson
  • 6. Advantages: interviewees
    • Opportunity to explore thoughts / experiences
    • Researcher is positioned as interested and responsive reader
    • Chance to edit and re-edit, to expand and clarify
    • Accurate record of exchange
    Epistolary interviews - Rebecca Ferguson
  • 7. Disadvantages
    • Skewed sample: access, literacy
    • Reduced social cues
    • Interview length; ending interview
    • Need to establish style
    • Typist problem
    Epistolary interviews - Rebecca Ferguson
  • 8. Ethics
    • Data protection
    • Interviewer may be repositioned as counsellor or confidante
    • Interviewee is in an unfamiliar situation. Clarify that this is an interview, not social.
    • How best to quote from these interviews.
    Epistolary interviews - Rebecca Ferguson
  • 9.
    • To answer the question slightly differently, I personally had absolutely no notion of how other people were feeling about the whole thing or how they were working, except for whenever they explicitly stated "I am excited about the Project starting". I think the whole disembodiment of people, the reduction of their presence into lines of text, made me forget sometimes that a human being was behind the output! (I realise this contradicts the last answer which talks about how sensitive everyone was, but the distinction is between not wishing to cause offence and genuine empathy.)
    Epistolary interviews - Rebecca Ferguson
  • 10.
    • http://iet.open.ac.uk/pp/r.m.ferguson