Tuesday, 1 May 2007

A Critical Analysis of In-depth Qualitative Interview in Organisational Research Studies,

Stoik Musah.
United Kingdom.

This essay seeks to obtain knowledge on the research methodology literature studies of indepth qualitative interview. It also sought to critically evaluate its practical application process in an academic journal article, whose report findings was derived using this data collection method. With reference to the above, an indepth qualitative interview is a dialogue between a skilled interviewer and an interviewee. Its goal is to elicit rich, detail material that can be used in research analysis (Lofland and Lofland 1995). The dynamics of this process is similar to a guided conversation, where the interviewer becomes an attentive listener who shapes the process into a familiar and comfortable form of social engagement (Patton 1990). In other words, qualitative indepth interviews typically are much more like conversations. In this type of conversation, the researcher explores a few general topics to help uncover the participants views, but otherwise respects how the participant frames and structures the responses. That is to say, the participant perspective on the phenomenon of interest unfolds as the participant wants, not as the researcher views it. In other words, the task for the qualitative researcher is to provide a framework within which people (interviewee) can respond in a way that represents accurately and thoroughly their point of view on the subject of the interview. By this, both parties behaves as though they are of equal status all through the period of the interview- whether or not this is actually so (Fontana 2002).

In sociological terms, the above illustration often brings about complexities on how the interview framing is being done. This means that; whether the interviewer is just trying to be a nice person or is following a format- these techniques can be varied to meet various situations. Here, Dezin (2004) notes that traditional techniques as the above tell us that the researcher is involved in an informal conversation with the respondent, thus the researcher must maintain a tone of friendly chat while trying to remain close to the guideline of the topics of enquiry the researcher has in mind. That is, the researcher begins by “breaking the ice” with a general questions and gradually moves on to more specific ones, while also – intelligently asking questions intended to check the veracity of statements made by the respondent. As this process continues, the researcher avoid getting involved in a real conversation in which the researcher, provides personal opinion on matters discussed- instead the conversation should entail a real “give and take”, alongside emphatic understanding from the perspective of both parties(Douglas 1985). This particular aspect of indepth interview makes the interview more honest, morally sound and reliable. This is because, it treats the respondent as equal, and it allows the respondents to express personal feelings on the subject of the interview.

In addition to the above Gordon (1980) also noted that effective indepth qualitative interview entails creating a shared concern for each other, in which both the interviewer and the respondent understand the contextual nature of the interview. For instance listening to others without taking notes or trying to direct the conversation is also important to establish rapport and immerse oneself in the conversation realm, while gathering a store of tacit knowledge about the people and the culture being studied (Fine and Sandstrom1988). The point to note in this line of thought is that, to effectively carry out an indepth qualitative interview the researcher must adapt to the world of the individual studied and try to share their concern and outlooks- only by doing so can the researcher learn anything at all. Some researchers use several methods to accomplish this task, while others apply a combination of different methods as the conversation elapse (Fine and Sandstrom1988).

For this reason, Britten etal (1995) in their work on “Qualitative Research Methods in General Practice and Primary Care” emphasis that the most widely used methods in this context, is the structured indepth interview, unstructured indepth interview and semi structure indepth interview. A structure interview is an interview in which questions to be asked and detailed information to be gathered are all predetermined (Dezin and Lincoln 2003). In a structured interview, the interviewer asks all the respondents the same series of pre-established questions with a limited set of response categories. Put differently, there is- generally, little room for variation in responses among the respondents, except where open ended questions may be used. That is, the interviewer controls the pace of the entire conversation by treating the questionnaire as if, it were a planned script to be followed in a straight forward manner. Under this circumstance, all respondents receive the same set of questions asked in the same order by an interviewer who has been trained to treat all interview situations in a like manner – thus there is very little flexibility in the way questions are asked, nothing is left to chance – there is simply little room for error. This is as a result of the inflexible, predetermine nature of the interviewing –which makes the interviewer have relatively minor impact on the response quality (Gordon 1992). However one major drawback in the literature study, the advocates of this method- are unaware of, is that; the interview takes place in a social interaction context and that its influence by that context. As Denzin and Lincoln (2003) observed that good interviewer recognised this facts are sensitive to how interaction can influence responses. In other words, interviewers should comprehend that interviewing skills involve a high order combination of: observation, emphatic sensitivity to these environment response and intellectual judgements.

Furthermore qualitative interviews can also be carried out in an unstructured manner in order to contrast them with the above highlighted form of interview method. An unstructured interview is a spontaneous conversation, not a set of questions asked in a predetermined order (Herman and Bentley1993). Here you have a focus and you welcome information on different aspects of the subject question from the interviewee. In this type of qualitative method of interview, you can direct your conversation in any direction- that is to say: you proceed in an order that is natural. The important point to note, in this type of interview method is to gather and record information on every aspects of the subject in question. Besides you can always return to an earlier subject that you did not explore at the time it was mentioned, to ask more about certain topics that require clarification (Herman and Bentley1993).Unstructured interviews are simple, informal and saves time when preparing for the interview. It provides a general understanding of the important concepts, relationships and general rules on the subject content, and this make way for problem solving strategies that can guide future enquiries in the course of the conversation. This informality aspect of the unstructured interview helps the researcher to get quickly to the basic structure of the subject domain. On the contrary this form of interview generally lacks the organisation that allows for preparation as the previously discussed structured form of interviewing. Besides both parties –in the course of the conversation- usually find it very difficult to express some of the important elements of their knowledge. In the same way the data acquired from an unstructured interview is often unrelated; existing at various levels of complexity and its difficult for the interviewer to review, interpret and integrate (Bashir and Besim 1997).Accordingly, many studies employ a combination of these two types often called a semi structured interview. This kind of interview combines both methods to bring forth the foreseen information- and also apply open ended questions- to elicit unexpected types of information. Semi structured interviews are flexible as well, unlike the structured interview which have a set of questions. In this method of interviewing, the interviewer may have a framework of themes in mind, at the onset- to explore, like it is in a structured interview, but as the conversation commence- a different method of interview, new questions and clarifications can be brought up as a result of what the interviewee says.

Consequently, the above excerpt gives a concise, yet informative synopsis of what an indepth interview entails- what is important now is to lay out the primary issues that selecting this method demand. For instance indepth qualitative interview is usually based on sample sizes (Minichielli etal 1991), and the most common form of sampling techniques used in indepth interviews is most often snowballing sampling and theoretical sampling. The snowballing sampling involves interviewing initial contacts in the organisation and then asking these contact persons who they think is appropriate to interview- to gain insight on a particular subject issue (Rubbin 1995). On the other hand the theoretical sampling involves the generation of conceptual or theoretical categories during the research process(Bowling 1997).The principles behind this method application process, is that sampling aims to locate data and to develop or challenge emerging hypothesis –this process stops when no new analytical insights or hypothesis is forthcoming.

Turning to another line of thought in this subject, that is similar to the above excerpt - is the question of having a valid research indicator to measure a concept. That is, would other researchers reach similar conclusions if they apply the same method in their research analysis? For this reason indepth interviews arguably have the greatest problems with validity of any research method(Remenyi etal 1998).In other words, while an individual may hold a matter as true and valid it may not correspond across the whole population or even among other researchers in that area of study. However, the most striking aspect in this area of validity and measurement of concept in many papers reporting the results of qualitative research is the absence of detail accounts of methodology and data analysis to describe exactly what was done in the research work. For this reason Bryman. and Burgess (1994) argues that journals need assessors who are properly equipped to evaluate qualitative reports using criteria appropriate to the methods used. In particular, an example of this application process is a critical assessment of Fang Lee Cook study entitled “Outsourcing of Public Services and Implications for Managerial Knowledge and Careers” in the Journal of Management Development Dated 00/05/ 04. The purpose of this study was to explore how the nature of work and career prospects may have changed for managers in both the public and the private sector under the public/private outsourcing relationship. It investigates managers new roles, problems, new relationships and multiple principal-agency relationships they confront, as a result of this public/private organisations outsourcing practices.

Notably, one positive outcome of the research findings was the insight in revealing interestingly unexplored issues confronting managers in these outsourcing relationships. The researcher discussed in depth the impossibility of the outsourcing provider to function properly in the outsourced firm without making use of the tacit knowledge of experience employees; who as a result of their length of work experience with the organisation have social and technical knowledge of how processes within the outsourced organisation are managed effectively- this fact reveals that management knowledge is often context specific and cannot be easily codified and transferred as some literature on knowledge management postulate(explicit knowledge)-something most of the literature studies neglect in their research analysis.

With reference to the above critical analysis on the content of the aforementioned article, reference should be made first; on the source of findings, such as the interview with the principal people in the outsourcing provider firm. That is to say, the researcher failed to provide more informations, from the interview; on the reason why these outsourcing providers fail to train their own managers as alternative to these experienced employees (in the outsourced organisation) to take over this newly acquired businesses . And to also find out from the principal staffs interviewed ( from the outsourcing provider company), if there was other reason they refuse to train these managers other than cost and the time frame involved in the process. For the most part, this should have been an interesting area to explore and understand the problems these outsourcing providers confront from their own end, in the course of the business relationship. This is because the literature studies on outsourcing most often fail to extend further, their research analysis on this subject issue. In most cases what you find in academic text is that: after portraying outsourcing companies as solution providers to complex issues confronting big businesses– they conclude and do not extend further in their analysis: to provide insight on the problems these outsourcing providers encounter in the course of managing these extensive portfolio from different client organisations.

Furthermore, the hypothesis drawn from the research work tends to be a bit focus on what the research was about. In other word, although the research question of “The Changing Role of Managerial Workers in Managing the Public/ Private Outsourcing Relationships” tend to contain what the reader expects from the researched work- yet the understanding of the question tend not to be a closed question but a question making way for a mass of loosely linked descriptive issues, that are very broad in their own making, if one wants to further explore them individually. Nevertheless, with its loosely linked nature, it becomes more focused as the study progresses. Moreover from a critical perspective on the heart of the principal line of thought in this article- the understanding of the nature of strategic alliance, management task( as define in the article), and interorganisational relationships, demands more detail analysis than that derived from the use of this method (Indepth Interview). Under this circumstance, it is not surprising that it did have been appropriate to use both qualitative and quantitative method together in a complementary fashion to bring about indepth understanding of these organisational phenomenons. This is because the loosely linked issues that emerged in the course of the research, requires quantitative analysis to dissect their constituent form to help understand their nature more. For instance, clarification on the issues underneath the rationale behind the quotation below would have been better explained using both method (qualitative and quantitative method).

“Supervisors in housing benefit are now taking – work – home, in their spare time, whereas before “they switch off” once they finish work for the day. This new approach to work gives a sense of ownership and satisfaction, but the invisible pressure is constantly presents as one supervisors said: you feel that you have to make an impression on the company”.

A formal quantitative testing of the root causes of the above excerpt would have helped standardise and evaluate the robustness of this causal hypothesis. Another critical area in question, in the use of this method in the article is in the generalisability of the representative sampling which strengthen the claims and findings in the article. For instance in page 272, the writer asserted that the source of most of the data inherent in the research findings was from over 60 semi structured interviews, carried out with senior managers, junior managers, middle managers, supervisors, trade union representative and other staffs. Moreover a total of 27 managers were interviewed face-to –face. In addition to the above, the writer described the categories of the managers interviewed: that 12 of those interviewed were senior or middle managers. But the researcher failed to provide more information on this group of individuals interviewed- more information as (i) How long have they been with the organisation and (ii) How long have they served in management positions within the organisation. In this way the researcher, thus allows the reader to note the similarities and differences between the settings, which is analysed, in the research.

On the contrary, the researcher has carefully taking into account clarity in describing the methods used to sources the research findings- one area the researcher has demonstrated to the reader that careful considerations has been given to the above subject, in this method of interview, is the way and manner a pragmatic categorisation of the three managerial groups interviewed was singled out for the research interview (Page 273). It was a perfect segmentation of the particular individual whose nature of work and career prospect has been affected by this inter-organisational relationship (outsourcing). The impact of this careful selection process- to some extent, has contributed to the robustness of many new flag up issues introduced in the course of the research findings; that was never discussed in most outsourcing literature studies. For this reason, in qualitative research literature studies, readers needs to know how the data sourced, were categorised for analysis. In particular Britten etal (1995) reiterated that readers need to be reassured- that the researcher did more than glanced through their field note and transcript, and then look for examples which will confirm those ideas. Readers are looking for evidence of rigorous and systematic analysis. That is, the reader should be confident that where researchers wants to make a claim on the basis of their data- there is evidence in the study that this data was sourced systematically.

Above all, in all research methods, the ability to present ones method and findings clearly and succinctly is of central importance. This means that clearity in the categorisation of the data sourced, clearity in the data analysis, and clearity on how this data was chosen- like for example, if quotations were properly referenced providing clarification on the source of the statement etc. In the same way, just as quantitative researchers present the data in their report in the form of tables and statistics so also do qualitative researchers present their datas in the form of quotation from transcript or excerpt from field note (Nicky etal 1995). A good description of the above illustration in the article is the quotation below.

There is no real love in between the trust and the private firm but we still scratch each others back and try to get the best out of each other… middle managers are often the scape goat and get sacrificed when things go wrong ( A Supervisor).

With the introduction of raw data as the above in the article, the researcher has to some extent demonstrated understanding in thinking clearly on the above subject by skilfully referencing the particular source in the organisation who made this statement – no name was attached. In this way it has been possible for the reader to tell who made that statement, and what is the source authority- within that organisation to come up with such claims- usually failure in this area of writing clearly demonstrates the analysis has not been sufficiently well developed.

Furthermore, the findings generated from this research work has to some extent demonstrated the significance of its result and how this apply to particular practical /theoretical problems in managerial capacity within an organisation- surely this to some extent, did contribute to the literature studies on this subject(outsourcing). In particular the study provides evidence that the adoption of information technology in management of organisational activities as seen as major cause of recent demise in middle management (Scarbrough and Burrell 1996) is not sufficiently true and valid. Infact, technology to some extent serves as a good source of competitive advantage but the tacit knowledge of managerial workers is more – a core competitive source of advantage that organisations will do all they can to acquire, retain and develop these individuals and their body of knowledge to add value to the organisations performance.

Consequently wide academic research literatures exist to demonstrate the practical application of indepth qualitative interview in organisation research study. However as has been discussed in the dynamics of its application process. It is the researcher that holds the balance of power in managing the outcome of the conversation, it must be their role, in the course of the conversation and the method of interview applied- which gives direction to what the interviewee says, and ultimately the strength of the research findings.Accordingly, success in this area will involve having to make a number of adjustments (as it applies to the article discussed previously) to the detail accounts of methodology applied, data analysis and assumptions they bring to carry out their research.


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