Research Interviewing: The Range of Techniques

By Bill Gillham | Go to book overview

14 The telephone interview

The telephone interview has mushroomed as a survey technique in market research since the 1970s, and procedures and analysis here are well developed, see, for example, the standard text How to Conduct Telephone Surveys (Bourque and Fielder 2002). The primary emphasis is on the use of relatively brief structured interviews, the results of which can be analysed in a standardized format. But this is an area where market research techniques do not convert well to the purposes and criteria of academic research, particularly where qualitative data are sought.

The technique has sometimes been seen as a means for academic researchers to combine the virtues of survey sampling (where some variant of random sampling techniques is normally used) and in-depth person-to-person interviewing, that is, achieving both representative breadth and interpretive depth. The reality is somewhat different. For example, Russell (1983) carried out a telephone survey of women in San Francisco to interview them about their experiences of sexual abuse as a child: not the easiest of topics for a 'cold call' survey using random digit-dialling techniques to select households. That she achieved a 50 per cent response rate is remarkable but it made a nonsense of the researcher's attempt to achieve a representative group by probability sampling since the characteristics of those who did not respond were unknown.

This imbalance indicates a major weakness of telephone interviewing: that even with the most skilled and persuasive of interviewers there is likely to be a high refusal rate to 'cold calls'. Telephone interviewers in market research are highly trained to overcome initial resistance including assurances that, for example, 'this will only take five minutes and we would really like to know what you think'.

Some authorities emphasize the use of 'pre-calls' and introductory letters, perhaps indicating topic headings so that the targeted person at least feels consulted about participation. See, for example, the book by Frey and Oishi (1995) which deals with these approaches and also seeks to distinguish the criteria for using telephone and 'in person' interviews.

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