The Interviewee’s Role in the Qualitative Interview: Interpreter or Reporter?

In all sorts of research it is common to ask not only about behavior – When did you first begin smoking cigarettes? How often do you take a multivitamin? Where did you go on your most recent vacation? – but also the “why”* and/or “what” questions – What prompted you to start smoking? Why do you take a multivitamin? Why did you pick that particular spot for your most Just-the-Facts-Maamrecent vacation? It is usual for the researcher to want to know more than just what happened. The researcher’s goal is typically to go beyond behavior, with a keen interest in getting to the thinking that can be linked with the behavior. It is this “probing” that enables the researcher to make associations and otherwise interpret – give meaning to – the data.

This is, after all, what keeps marketing researchers up at night. It is difficult to remember a time when marketing researchers were not obsessed with the reasons people buy certain products/services and not others. Whether rational or irrational, conscious or not conscious, or the result of “slow” or “fast thinking,” marketing researchers have always been gold diggers searching for the psychological nuggets that motivate one (buying) behavior over another.

Researchers – and, especially, qualitative researchers – in all disciplines are interested in what lies beyond behavior. The educational researcher, for example, does more than simply correlate test scores with teaching methods but delves – on a student level – into why some teaching methods work better than others. The qualitative sociologist is not interested in looking at the incidence of domestic violence without also gaining the victims’ personal narratives that ultimately serve to shape the researcher’s analysis. Psychologists may conduct experiments to assess the factors most associated with levels of stress, but it is the underlying emotional connections within each individual that give meaning to experimental outcomes.

It is common, therefore, for the researcher to be interpreting, making sense of, qualitative data that is packed with participants’ own thoughts (own analysis) of their behavior. It is by analyzing participants’ own account – e.g., associated with their purchase behavior, their response to certain teaching methods, or their victimization – that researchers form broader interpretations of the data.

And yet, a case can be made for limiting participants in a qualitative interview to strictly descriptive narrative – this is what happened, this is what happened next, … – and actually stifling their speculation or elaboration on the whys and wherefores of their experiences. Karin Olson, a professor of nursing at the University of Alberta, presented a webinar on February 11, 2015 in which she talks about “Interviewing in the Context of Qualitative Research.” Among other things, Dr. Olson stresses the importance of not allowing interviewees to self-assess or interpret their experiences; prescribing instead that interviewers lead interviewees down a purely descriptive path whereby the focus is on recounting “instances of the experience.” In fact, when “deciding whom to interview,” Dr. Olson identifies five characteristics of the “ideal informant,” one of which is “non-analytic.” A non-analytic participant, according to Dr. Olson, is someone who “is able to focus just on description and not on analysis,” leaving it to the researcher (not the participant) to “answer the ‘why’ question.”

The research objective of any particular qualitative study will dictate what, and how much, is asked of participants. In the case of research with hospital patients, for instance, the objective may be to record the experiences of people who have undergone a form of therapy to treat a specific type of cancer. The researcher here is interested in the consequences of therapy (e.g., level of fatigue), not necessarily the patients’ assessments of what contributed to these “instances of experience” resulting from therapeutic treatment.

So, while the interpretation of qualitative data is often a joint venture, where both participants and researchers have a say on why participants think a particular way or behave as they do, there are times when qualitative researchers want interviewees to act as reporters, describing “just the facts” from which the researcher can draw relevant interpretations.

* For a discussion of the “why” question, see this RDR article.

Image captured from:Image captured from:


  1. Thanks for this blog! The title should be the “interviewer’s” not the “interviewee’s” role, though, yes?


    1. Actually, no. It does look like a typo but the post is about limiting interviewees to descriptive narrative.


      1. Gee, obviously I had not read closely enough. I just reread it. Thanks for the clarification. You so subtly moved from the interviewer to the interviewee that I missed the point!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.