In-depth Interview Data: Achieving Quality From Cooperation

The following is a modified excerpt from Applied Qualitative Research Design: A Total Quality Framework Approach (Roller & Lavrakas, 2015, pp. 75-77)

cooperationAn important aspect related to Scope within the Credibility component of the Total Quality Framework (TQF) for qualitative research design is the extent to which the researcher is successful in gaining cooperation from the participants. In an in-depth interview (IDI) study, the researcher is concerned with the impact that the proportion of selected interviewees not interviewed or only partially interviewed has on the integrity of the data. This is the domain of research that is often termed “nonresponse.” If this proportion is large and/or if the group that is selected but not interviewed differs in meaningful ways from those who are interviewed, bias can infiltrate the final data of an IDI study and compromise the credibility of the research.

To avoid this, qualitative researchers need to give serious a priori thought to how they will gain high and representative levels of cooperation from the persons they have selected to interview, and how individuals who do not cooperate may differ in past experiences, attitudes, behaviors, and knowledge compared to interviewees. The researcher must keep in mind that bias may enter into the outcomes, and the credibility of the study’s findings and interpretations thereby weakened, if the characteristics of those in the sample who do not cooperate with an IDI study are correlated with the key topics the study is investigating. Likewise, qualitative researchers using the IDI method should also constantly monitor the representativeness of the group of selected participants that does cooperate and watch whether the characteristics of that group deviate from the characteristics of the target population. This may be difficult in the case of the email IDI (or other asynchronous text-based mode) where the interviewer must stay alert to the consistency of participants’ responses and recognize when the identity of the interviewee may have changed (i.e., someone other than the recruited research participant is the one now responding). For instance, in an email IDI study among unemployed men, the interviewer may become suspicious when a participant who frequently misspells words and has stated that a chronic health problem prevents him from looking for a job writes in a later email, with no spelling errors, that he spends most of the day outdoors exercising or socializing with friends.

In trying to reduce or eliminate nonresponse as a potentially biasing influence on the final outcomes of an IDI study, the researcher should attempt to identify ameliorative approaches that would bring representativeness back into balance. There are several factors that researchers should consider when thinking about how to gain cooperation from a representative set of IDI interviewees, or when attempting to “fix” a lack of representation that is emerging during the field period. These include:

  • How the purpose of the study will be explained to an interviewee, without biasing what is learned during the interview (e.g., explaining the purpose of a study concerning television viewership as a study to learn about at-home activities).


  • The nonmaterial motivations that will be used to achieve cooperation from the selected interviewees (e.g., emphasizing that the study’s ultimate goal is to improve some aspect of people’s lives).


  • Whether any material incentives (e.g., cash, a gift card, prized tickets to a sporting event, donation to a favorite charity) will be provided, including their nature and value, and whether they are given in advance of the IDI (i.e., a noncontingent incentive) and/or after the IDI is completed (i.e., a contingent incentive).


  • The positive or negative effect that knowing the identity of the study’s sponsor may have on a participant’s willingness to participate (e.g., corporate financial decision makers may be reluctant to participate in an IDI study if the sponsoring bank has recently received bad press due to questionable banking practices, or they harbor an assumption that the research is actually an attempt to sell products and services).


  • The nature of any advance notice—both its substance (e.g., amount of detail) and form (e.g., a personalized letter in the U.S. mail or via FedEx on the research sponsor’s letterhead vs. a generic email message)—that will be provided to interviewees before the interviewer directly makes contact.


  • What the recruiter/interviewer will do to tailor (i.e., target, modify, adjust) the recruitment effort to the specific interview participant, as opposed to using a “one-size-fits-all” approach (e.g., taking time to reiterate the purpose of the study and personalizing the benefits of participation to someone who initially refuses). The success of tailoring is clearly linked to the quality of the rapport the recruiter/interviewer is able to build with the potential interviewee.


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