The Limitations of Transcripts: It is Time to Talk About the Elephant in the Room

Transcripts of qualitative in-depth interviews and focus group discussions (as well as ethnographers’ field notes and recordings) are typically an important component in the data analysis process. It elephant-in-the-roomis by way of these transcribed accounts of the researcher-participant exchange that analysts hope to re-live each research event and draw meaningful interpretations from the data. Because of the critical role transcripts often play in the analytical process, researchers routinely take steps to ensure the quality of their transcripts. One such step is the selection of a transcriptionist; specifically, employing a transcriptionist whose top priorities are accuracy and thoroughness as well as someone who is knowledgeable about the subject category, sensitive to how people speak in conversation, comfortable with cultural and regional variations in the language, etc.*

Transcripts take a prominent role, of course, in the utilization of any text analytic or computer-assisted qualitative data analysis software (CAQDAS) program. These software solutions revolve around “data as text,” with any number of built-in features to help sort, count, search, diagram, connect, quote, give context to, and collaborate on the data. Analysts are often instructed to begin the analysis process by absorbing the content of each transcript (by way of multiple readings) followed by a line-by-line inspection of the transcript for relevant code-worthy text. From there, the analyst can work with the codes taking advantage of the various program features.

An important yet rarely discussed impediment to deriving meaningful interpretations from this qualitative analysis process is the very thing that is at the center of it all – data transcripts. Although serving a utilitarian purpose, transcripts effectively convert the all-too-human research experience that defines qualitative inquiry to the relatively emotionless drab confines of black-on-white text. Gone is the profound mood swing that descended over the participant when the interviewer asked about his elderly mother. Yes, there is text in the transcript that conveys some aspect of this mood but only to the extent that the participant is able to articulate it. Gone is the tone of voice that fluctuated depending on what aspect of the participant’s hospital visit was being discussed. Yes, the transcriptionist noted a change in voice but it is the significance and predictability of these voice changes that the interviewer grew to know over time that is missing from the transcript. Gone is an understanding of the lopsided interaction in the focus group discussion among teenagers. Yes, the analyst can ascertain from the transcript that a few in the group talked more than others but what is missing is the near-indescribable sounds dominant participants made to stifle other participants and the choked atmosphere that pervaded the discussion along with the entire group environment. And gone of course are all the many mannerisms and physical clues that gave away the insights the researcher was looking for.

Transcripts are simply a device. Yet, even with the addition of ancillary non-converted data from audio and video recordings, transcripts are the typical center of the analysis universe. Unfortunately, they have the effect of distancing the researcher from the reality – so quickly lost – of an in-depth interview or group discussion. It is simply not possible to honestly imitate the participant-researcher relationship and co-constructed nature of qualitative research by way of a textual approach. So, it is curious why discussions on qualitative analysis are replete with how-to’s on working with transcripts but devoid of an equally-active discussion on their limitations as a purveyor of qualitative data.

The deafening silence on the limitations of transcripts has become the elephant in the room. The behemoth void waiting to be filled with smart discussions on the true quality of our transcript data, what we can and cannot learn about our data in transcript form, alternative ways to use transcripts (in piecemeal or in whole), and how to perform an integrative analysis that offers real procedures for incorporating transcribed data with other formats.

* Discussions of the role of transcripts and transcriptionists in the quality of qualitative data (generally and specific to particular methods) can be found in: Roller, M. R., & Lavrakas, P. J. (2015). Applied qualitative research design: A total quality framework approach. New York: Guilford Press.

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  1. Great points! I find that I get a better understanding of a situation when I interview people myself or at least listen to some of the recordings, rather than just working off transcripts alone. And I completely agree about integrating findings from more than one data source whenever possible!


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