By Max Wilbers
Author's note: This is mostly a direct copy of my field notes and reflections from the field. My research is centred around following the development of a braille display and how different parties are involved in its design process. This has led me to take-up a multi-sited approach to my research as I need to be in contact with people in East Africa, London, the Netherlands, and other places around the globe.
I tend to be on my computer 30-20mins in advance to prepare for my incoming video call. This preparation involves turning on the kettle to boil some water for tea, with just a bit of milk. This makes me feel more comfortable and settles my nerves. Having a routine and feeling at ease is important for conducting interviews. I have come to realize that if I feel calm my interlocutors are more willing to open up to me. Once my tea is ready, I sit at the table and turn on my laptop. I reach for my notebook and open it to a blank page and title it with the upcoming interviewee’s name and the subject matter up for discussion. Personally, I find writing in my notebook a lot easier than typing up interview notes on my laptop. Pen and paper allow me to express my thoughts better and to summarise interesting talking points.
With my computer up and running I open up the email exchange with my interlocutor. On a separate tab I open up Google Docs and go to my notes (every few weeks I type up my notes so as not to lose all my work). By looking at my notes and the email exchange with my interlocutor I start getting myself in the zone. I start imagining different ways the conversation may go and how I may steer the conversation and what my aims are for the call. As I am creating this conversation in my head and thinking of what will happen, I make notes. These are my pre-interview notes. Once I have the key topics and aims of my conversation down and I am happy with my thoughts I stop. This can take around 20mins and sometimes a few minutes less.
10 - 5 minutes before the meeting I log onto Microsoft Teams. This is so that I am signed into Teams and the call has started before my interviewee joins. My computer can be slow with Teams and I want to be on time for my interviews. Most of my interviewees have been a bit late to online meetings but I find it important to be early. This also allows me to let my interlocutors into the call.
The one annoying aspect about online calls is that sometimes there is a delay or the feed cuts. During the pandemic we have all experienced these technical issues when staying in contact with friends and family and we have come to accept them, somewhat. During interviews this means that I have to either ask for clarification on certain topics or for my interlocutors to repeat themself. This can be frustrating, but it must be done to get all the information required. On the plus side, online interviews allow for ease of recording. Furthermore, there is little to no background noise on online recordings which makes the transcribing process a little bit easier, but tedious nonetheless.
Additionally, the interviews seem to me to be more formal. There is less chit chat and the conversation gets straight to the point. There is still some small talk but not as much as there would be during in person interviews. This can either be a good or bad thing depending on how much work you need to get done and what your relationship is like with your interlocutors. Small talk is still important as not everyone feels comfortable being online. I do and I make my interlocutors feel as safe and free as possible but everyone is different. This can obviously change depending on how your interviewees feel.
Why Online Interviews?
Online interviews have become a part of my research due to its multi-sited nature. I am interviewing people in Kenya, the Netherlands, the UK and Uganda. As it is not possible for me to be everywhere at once, online interviews allow me to keep in touch with multiple people from anywhere in the world. I conduct in-person interviews when possible but I have fully adopted a hybrid approach to my research. This also allows my interlocutors to be flexible when it comes to interview planning. They can suggest a time that suits them and I plan my schedule around my interlocutors. At the end of the day it is about getting others to tell you their thoughts.
Strangely, I do not find online interviews weird. I find them less awkward than in person interviews and speaking from experience I have been told by a lot of people that I am not an awkward person. I find something personally relaxing about being in my own space when conducting interviews. It comforts me and in turn I can be more open towards others.
Although the multi-sited nature of my fieldwork and the Covid-19 crisis call for research flexibility, I quite like online calls. It gives a different dimension to research and a different feel to the field and what encompasses the research field. Combining online interviews with in-person interviews can only be beneficial in the long-run. I think this mostly due to the multi-sited nature of my field work. It is impossible to be in multiple places at once and online research can help bridge this issue of not being everywhere in the world at once. It has meant that I have been able to keep in contact with people across the world, in different time zones and locations whilst I advance my research. The only issue with online research is that you are not able to meet face-to-face which I believe is crucial for building trust between interlocutors and researchers. During my time in London I managed to build rapport and trust with my interlocutors. This has led to a bond and their belief in me that they can trust me to have their best interests at heart when conducting my research. I feel this bond can only be created in-person and online it is harder to create this trust. Now though, my interlocutors are honest and open in our interviews online or in-person. I have returned to the Netherlands but I am still conducting interviews with people based in London who trust me. I think that my research can only benefit from this.
This is my personal opinion.