Academic journal article International Journal of Doctoral Studies

Interviewing When You're Not Face-to-Face: The Use of Email Interviews in a Phenomenological Study

Academic journal article International Journal of Doctoral Studies

Interviewing When You're Not Face-to-Face: The Use of Email Interviews in a Phenomenological Study

Article excerpt


As more people congregate online, qualitative researchers are exploring the use of online tools for research (Abrams, Wang, Song, & Galindo-Gonzalez, 2014; Jones, 1999; Hine, 2000, 2004, 2005; Mann & Stewart, 2000; Seymour, 2001; Synnot, Hill, Summers, & Taylor, 2014). These tools include email interviewing, instant messaging, and (a)synchronous online focus groups. Written communication can indeed induce strong feelings and reactions in its readers (Watson, Peacock, & Jones, 2006). Williams (2009) attested to becoming upset while reading email interviews of participants' stories of abuse and self-harm. She felt that this emotional reaction helped her to interpret the experiences of participants. Indeed, writing often has a cathartic effect on the author, helping to work through emotions (Etherington, 2003; Pennebaker, 1993). Using computers to collect qualitative data easily fits into most contemporary technologically imbued lifestyles. In particular, email has become a normal and responsible mode of communication (Burns, 2010).

The Values and Limitations of Email Interviews

Email interviews cannot be implemented as a reproduction of traditional face-to-face interview techniques. It is a data collection method with a unique set of tools, values, and limitations (Graf figna & Bosio, 2006).


Eliminates the boundaries of time and space. The use of computers allows researchers to extend their access to potential participants. This can be especially advantageous when geographical distance is too great to travel (Burns, 2010; Chen & Hinton, 1999; Dimond, Fiesler, DiSalvo, Pelc, & Bruckman, 2012; James & Busher, 2009; Mann & Stewart, 2000), and when seeking access to difficult to reach populations such as the sick (Cook, 2012; Synnot et al., 2014), the military (Opdenakker, 2006), the elderly (Brondani, MacEntee, & O'Connor, 2011), and teen drug users (Barratt, 2012).

Reduces research costs. Email interviews save time and reduce project costs because there is no required travel in order to interview (Fontes & O'Mahony, 2008; Opdenakker, 2006), neither are there transcription costs (Bowker & Tuffin, 2004; Fontes & O'Mahony, 2008; Opdenakker, 2006; Seymour, 2001).

Prioritizes participants' comfortability. Tanis (2007) posits that written forms of communication allow for greater participation by people who may have speech and/or hearing difficulties. Additionally, with email interviews, participants can reply to questions at his/her convenience (Bowker & Tuffin, 2004; Burns, 2010; Cooper, 2009; Opdenakker, 2006). Being able to respond to interview questions in the comfort of one's home or during 'down time' may encourage participants to feel safer about sharing their personal experiences (Bowker & Tuffin, 2004; Egan, Chenoweth, & Mcauliffe, 2006), including experiences that may be particularly sensitive and/or embarrassing (Deakin & Wakefield, 2014).

Encourages iterative reflection throughout the interview process. In email interviews, both the researcher and the participant have more time to reflect on the question(s) and provide thoughtful answers. Researchers also have time to iteratively interpret data before asking followup questions (Opdenakker, 2006; Ratislavova & Ratislav, 2014; Sammel, 2003).

Streamlines the interview. Having the interview already transcribed eliminates transcriber bias when translating audio data to textual data (Ayling & Mewse, 2009). Additionally, there is no background noise being recorded during the interview (Opdenakker, 2006). Data quality is essentially the same between email and face-to-face interviews (see Meho, 2006). However, multiple studies have demonstrated that data collected online via text is more succinct than data that is collected verbally (Abrams et al., 2014; Benford & Standen, 2011; Campbell et al. …

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