Transcribing interviews

This is possibly one of the most time-consuming tasks in my PhD work, and often seems pointless, since I’m not doing any fancy quantitative coding exercise. I carry out interviews with policy-makers and stakeholders as a way of gathering information that is not freely available: information on the background of policy negotiations, on what was really discussed and was a major issue, on how stakeholders accessed policy-makers at the right moment, and whether these stakeholders considered themselves to have had an impact on the final policy result. I love carrying out the interviews – it’s a great way to meet people, and to discuss issues that are interesting to both of us! But I am not a fan of transcribing. So I have lately developed a kind of save-time, shaved-down version of it that combines transcription and analysis in one, and saves me hours of rewinding and relistening just to catch that one fuzzy word…

This is probably not good advice for new PhD students, or for those who are interested in the precise words used by the interviewees, or interested in the reactions when said interviewees were asked a particularly controversial question. If all you need is information, then here’s a nice few tips I’ve picked up along the way:

– When you ask an interviewee if you can record the conversation, make sure you start recording at the very beginning, and record yourself speaking/introducing yourself first. Demonstrate by your own example that the recorder can pretty much be ignored (as long as you have enough battery power, that is). The only downside to this is that you will have to listen to yourself also when you play back the interview (and everyone knows it’s a bit strange to hear your own voice)!

– For transcribing, I once transcribed pretty much every word of my early interviews, but discovered this was unnecessary and pretty unhelpful when it came to thrashing out the main messages. Transcribing the main points is enough, but you will have to listen to your recording properly to get those messages. In my experience, this is actually a much more effective way to retain the information gained than simply writing down individual words one after another!

– If someone interrupts their own idea in mid-sentence (quite usual in general conversation) with another idea and then another idea, listen to the whole segment first, then stop the recording and write down the main ideas.

– If you can transcribe these main points in bullet points or paragraphs, this will make it a lot easier for you to make use of the notes when writing up your chapters later. But note that people rarely speak in clear paragraphs, so you will have to distil this yourself. This is an example of you already jumping to the analysis of the information by whistling it down to one main idea per bullet point/paragraph.

General comment: combine transcription and analysis and save time (yipee!).

Warning: don’t try this if you are planning to codify particular words used in interviewee responses!

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Transcribing interviews

  1. Vanessa

    hey, good to read your advices here. i did this myself during my research and typed up only bullet points / paragraphs from my interviews. now my professor wants my data…i don’t feel very confident sending the information in this format. how did your professors react on your transcribing process?

  2. Hi Vanessa, thanks for your comment.

    It’s true that you should always check with your professor(s) before embarking on the short-cut route! I am lucky in that I have recordings for the majority of my interviews and know that the transcript can be prepared later if required, but my doctoral committee doesn’t need it at present. My interviews were about collecting information, and not about analysing particular reactions and coding responses. Some types of interviews require more detailed transcribing than others… In my case, my supervising committee recognised that I didn’t need to focus on the little details, so they were happy with the note-taking format I used, since it gave all the information I needed.

    If your professor insists on detailed transcripts, I would ask your professor if (s)he is willing to help you pay a student to transcribe the interviews for you (or find funding to do so). This would save you the time and it never hurts to ask.

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