February 5, 2021

Research note 7. Collecting data online is fast, but do we lose too much context?

Research note

The ‘feel’ for a person that comes from encountering them in their home is difficult to replicate in depth online. The pandemic has forced many changes in the way we work, although the implications will take time to become fully apparent. The most prominent change, of course, is the acceleration of the move to online working.

As a researcher needing to press ahead with collecting data, I found unalloyed positivity in my project funders’ rapid approval of the request to switch to online interviewing. Not only was there relief that the project could continue, there was also pleasure at the thought of being freed from travel and all the frustrations that come with it.

Suddenly, research did not have to be done at the expense of home comforts, and the need to kill time when arriving early for an appointment became a thing of the past. Indeed, liberated from the so-called tyranny of distance, I could interview more people in a given time, not only because interviews could be scheduled closer together but also because the working day could be extended to fit participants’ availability and preferences.

This euphoria did not survive first contact with the realities of online interviewing. Although initially spared the technical challenges of poor-quality and lost connections (which became all too familiar as time went on), I immediately discovered that a lot of contextual information about interviewees is lost when people are not interviewed face to face in their homes or offices.

For a start, obviously, a Zoom or Skype call screens out all the things beyond the immediate frame. I was interviewing academics and retired academics, who were most often positioned against a backdrop of bookshelves (as indeed was I). However, I’m used to interviewees in their homes apologising for the mess (quite often only in their imagination), engaging in casual conversation about photographs of family members on a mantelpiece or offering to show me their garden when I mention a particular plant.

Other rituals of the face-to-face interview that do not figure in the virtual encounter are offers of refreshments and enquiries about the journey. The “feel” for a person simply has less depth to it when the encounter is conducted online than when you meet them in their home setting. This relative shallowness works both ways, of course. The interviewer’s presentation of self is also more superficial when all that is seen by the interviewee is an image on a screen, and opportunities to convey things about oneself are more limited. The scope to employ body language is reduced when only head and shoulders are on view, and the props that reinforce the researcher’s identity, such as the recording device and notebook, are less obtrusive.

Although I was aware of these variations between modes of interviewing as my data collection progressed, my consciousness of them has been heightened now that the phase of data analysis has arrived. Immersion in the data always brings with it the thought that elements of interview conversations could have been pursued further or taken in other directions, but the medium of the virtual interview does seem to have left me with an intensified sense of these paths not taken.

Might it have been possible to elicit fuller accounts of interviewees’ perceptions had the photographs of representations of retirement (my research topic) been handed to them as laminated objects rather than presented as images on a screen? Might memories of a career have been conveyed more fully if I had been able to hold and read the inscription on the celebratory tankard awarded for four decades of loyal service by appreciative colleagues?

If there is a balance sheet to be drawn up of the pros and cons of virtual interviewing, the loss of the immediacy of face-to-face interviews will inevitably feature in that assessment, but not everything will be placed on the debit side.

As already noted, it does allow more people to be interviewed for a project than is possible if travel has to be factored in, with savings of money as well as time. It may also be the case that research participants prefer the greater control over the extent of intrusion into their lives that virtual interviewing affords. Once telephone and email interviewing are added into the mix, it may well be that Skype and Zoom emerge as a new happy medium that endures long after the pandemic has eased.

Graham Crow is professor of sociology and methodology at the University of Edinburgh.

This research note appeared in The Times Higher Education Supplement on 5 February 2021.

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