Pitfalls in the unpacking of an interview

by Mar 16, 2020

Many guides on the art of interviewing focus on the interview itself and the subsequent analysis, but only a few of them pay attention to the crucial step in between: the unpacking of the interview. Usually this means transcription of the interview material, and taking the following issues into consideration before and after the interview improves the accuracy of transcription.

Too many speakers and unidentifiable speakers

Distinguishing between two speakers is usually quite easy, and when there are only two speakers it also makes the transcription simple in terms of notation. When there are two speakers, one is usually the interviewer and the other is the interviewee. The questions and comments posed by the interviewer are as much part of the transcription as the interviewee’s answers, as the former influences the latter. The interviewer is not invisible or absent; the interviewer influences the other party with their words. This is a part of the researcher’s position that must be reflected upon as the research project moves forward.

If the audio contains several speakers of the same sex, identifying them becomes difficult. In these cases one might consider recording a video of the interview. The video helps to identify the speakers but does not remove the problem of people speaking over each other, which often occurs in group interviews.

Background noise

The location of the interview should be as peaceful as possible. Background noise can block out important parts of the interview. A poor microphone or a recorder that is placed too far away also make the work of the transcriber more difficult. By ensuring that your equipment is functioning and the distances are appropriate, you can improve the accuracy of the transcription.

You should also take notes of the interview in case the technology fails or to help you remember the sequence of events.

You fail to assign enough time for transcription

Transcription work is surprisingly time-consuming, and the more accurate you want the transcription to be, the more time it will take. The pressure from schedules and deadlines is mounting and you still have hours of interviews to unpack. You should reserve at least an hour for every 10-15 minutes of audio, even for basic transcription. Exact and precision transcription need even more time.

You should begin the transcription work as soon after the interviews as possible to leave enough time for the other stages of the research project.

The interview fades from memory

The interviews should be unpacked as soon as possible after they have been conducted. The unpacking is easy to overlook and the content of the interviews can be forgotten because of poor identification information, for example. You should always add the necessary identification information to your recordings or files that allows the interviews to be connected to the right context even a couple of years down the road.

To ensure anonymity, the necessary identification information can take the form of, say, “woman 28, teacher” or “Rita 55, housewife”, where the name can either be a real one or a pseudonym, depending on the situation. When you are dealing with your own research material, the identifiers can be more precise than those that end up in the final research paper where highlighting the answers of individual interviewees is usually not permitted.

Quick unpacking also helps the project reach its next phase: the analysis of the material. The analysis will also flow a lot smoother when the interviews are still fresh in one’s mind.

Choosing the wrong transcription type

Basic Clean Verbatim transcription is often enough for many methods of content analysis. However, sometimes the project requires exact, Full Verbatim transcription or other more precise transcription format that includes all filler words and emotive expressions at the desired resolution. For example, a linguist conducting research into the use of dialectal expressions or word stress should not choose summary transcription as the transcription method. In other words, the method of analysis is also a factor in transcription work.