Action research and evaluation on line
Session 8: Convergent interviewing
This is Session 8 of areol, action research and evaluation on line, a 14-week public course offered as a public service by Southern Cross University and the Southern Cross Institute of Action Research (SCIAR)
...in which an action research interviewing technique for preliminary data collection is described, and used to illustrate some principles of data collection
Talking informally to people can be an effective method for data collection. The interviewing method described in some detail below resembles informal conversation in some respects. As you read it, you may be interested in looking for ways to use some of the processes in your normal conversation
In this session
- in brief...
- the interview
- the interview series
- convergent interviewing and involvement
- convergent interviewing as action research
- archived resources
- other reading
- in summary....
The topic of this and the adjoining sessions is data collection for action and research. This session describes one particular approach to data collection. It is known as convergent interviewing.
I begin with an overview of the technique. This is followed up by a more detailed description, first of an individual interview, then of a series of interviews. Finally I offer some suggestions for applications, and further reading.
I have a number of reasons for describing convergent interviewing at this stage in the program. It illustrates many of the principles discussed in the previous session. It was designed as an action research technique. It is systematic enough that it can be described easily, but flexible enough that it can be used in messy situations.
If I used only one data collection method (though that is quite often inadvisable) I think this might be it. At first glance it's less participative than I might wish. But this can be remedied, or at least alleviated.
To start each interview you ask a very open ended question, and then keep your informant talking. The content of a convergent interview therefore comes almost entirely from the informant.
Each interview starts this way. All informants are given the chance at first to contribute their perceptions unshaped by more detailed questions. In most interviews, but especially the later ones, you add more specific questions. This occurs towards the end of the interview. The specific questions become more precise from interview to interview.
The process is structured. There are some definable stages to each interview. You interpret the information as you proceed -- you don't save it up for analysis at the end of the program. The series of interviews is structured in such a way that information is interpreted from interview to interview.
In analysing the data, you identify disagreements: when different people offer different views of some issue. You use them to guide the development of probe questions which take you deeper into explanation.
The result is a reasonably efficient form of data collection and interpretation. It allows the quality of data and interpretation to be checked. The process is driven by the informants and the data they provide. If sampling is reasonably good, you can obtain a good understanding from surprisingly few people.
All of this will become clearer as we go into more detail.
There are five main stages:
1. Rapport. Make the informant comfortable, and introduce yourself. Give brief details of:
- who you are
- what you are doing
- who gets given any information
- what the purpose of the interview is
and any other information which your informants are likely to want to know about the study. Use this stage to build initial rapport.
Your informants will probably want to know who will get the information, and in what form. My preference is to collate information in such a way that I preserve the anonymity of informants. I also prefer to make the same information available to everyone."I'll report the results of the interviews only in summary. I'll do it in such a way that you can't be identified as the source of any information. Any information which I give to anyone is also available to you."
I think it's important to be clear about your motives, who is paying you, who gets your allegiance, and what is likely to happen as a consequence of the interviews. If the informants have to guess at this, their paranoia may blossom. People may assume that unstated motives are deliberately hidden motives, and they may suspect the worst."I've been asked to do this interviewing by the chief executive of the organisation. I've agreed to do so only if certain conditions apply. One is that I will act for everyone's benefit, not just the chief executive. Another is that we've set up a working party to guide the research, and on which all levels of the organisation are represented. Another is that any information which goes to the chief executive also goes to everyone who asks for it."
2. Ask the opening question. This defines the general area without being more specific. Think of it as a question which is almost free of content."I'm interested in learning how this organisation works. I'd like to know what's good about it, and what can be improved. So, what do you like, and what do you dislike, about working for this organisation?"
Or, more simply: "Tell me about this program."
3. Keep the informant talking. This is the key part. Your goal is for the informant to talk, without being asked specific questions, for about 45 minutes to an hour.
Nod, smile, say "Mmhmm". Pause and look expectant. Repeat their last word or phrase with a questioning intonation: "Trust?". Say "Tell me more". "You mentioned..." Use all of the techniques that the counselling literature calls "minimal encouragers".
Be curious about the informant's experience. Give her 100 per cent of your attention. This requires effort. But if you do this, you probably don't need to use any specific rapport-building techniques.
Your task is to understand what it is like to be this person in this situation. Most informants find this an affirming experience.
(A note for more experienced interviewers... You can, with some risk of bias, improve the depth of rapport and the quality of information by the use of careful self-disclosure. This has the effect of making it a little more like a conversation. However, it is difficult to do well. It lowers the efficiency of the interview if overdone. After all, it is the informant's views which are being sought, not yours. And, unless you are scrupulously careful, you may shape the informant's responses.)
When their early suspicion and reticence have lowered, many informants talk very freely. I have often been given information which would have placed the informants at risk if I had reported it in a way that allowed them to be identified.
Memorise the themes as they arise. Or (after getting permission) take "key word" notes. I suggest you learn ways of doing this without losing eye contact. Detailed note-taking interferes with rapport.
In case you were wondering, I think tape recorders are fine. They interfere with rapport initially, but usually not for long. But you have to listen to each interview twice, once in reality and once on tape. I'd rather use the time to conduct another interview. To my mind, that's usually a more efficient use of time.
Your views may differ. Why not experiment, then make up your own mind. If you do use a tape recorder I suggest you place it within reach of your informant, and let her know how to turn it off any time she wishes to do that.
"This is the pause button. Please use it any time you wish something not to be recorded. Please use it any time you want me to erase something you've just said."
4. Probe questions. Towards the end, ask the probe questions developed after earlier interviews. You won't have to ask them all, as some will have already been answered during the interview. There may not be any probe questions in the first pair of interviews.
If you have any probes about the actual conduct of the interview and the research, ask them now. It's useful to have such probes to refine your process. They may be about such matters as the project as a whole, the interview, the sample, and so on.
I often make a practice of asking who else I ought to talk to, "...especially people whose views are different to yours". This serves to check my sampling.
5. Summary. Ask informants for a summary of the key points they have mentioned. Compare this to your own mental summary.
Thank the informant profusely. Very briefly repeat the key points about what will happen to the information, and how the person can access it.
Write up the results of the interview while it is still fresh in your mind. Bullet-points are adequate -- this doesn't have to be a polished report.
That's the interview. The work done between interviews is also an important part of the process.
The interview series
For best effect, interviewers work in pairs. You interview one informant each, and then each prepare a brief summary of the interview themes. Immediately after, you meet to compare results and develop probe questions.
After each interview you also review your methods. Is the opening question working as intended? How appropriate does the overall interview format appear to be? Does the sample appear to include all of the various points of view?
Choosing a good sample is important. For reasons I've mentioned elsewhere in this program I prefer a maximum diversity sample. I like to have all interests, including minority interests, represented. I often add to the sample as I develop a better understanding of the diversity of people within the organisation or community.
If I can arrange it I also like to interview very different people in the early stages. This generates more disagreement between the interviews. Where agreement arises it usually turns out to be widespread. Because it's an early interview, you have lots of opportunities to find exceptions.
(There is also relevant material in the sessions and other resources on participation.)
A key element in the process is the development of probes. You compare your summaries, looking for themes mentioned by both informants (or by one informant and an earlier informant). If you are doing the interviewing on your own, compare adjacent interviews.
Suppose the two informants agree. For instance, both may say "We plan poorly."
When this happens, devise a probe question or questions to find exceptions. "What's good about the planning you do?" Or "Who is best at planning?" Or "When do you plan well?"
Sometimes they will disagree. One may say "We're terrible at planning". The other may say "One of our strengths is planning". Both have mentioned the theme of planning, but they have different perceptions of it.
Develop a probe to explain the disagreement. "Some have said planning is done well; some have disagreed. What do you think? Why do you think there are differences of opinion about this?"
On the face of it this isn't a very participative approach to data collection. However, consider this:
- The information is coming from the informants, not being determined by the questions you ask.
- Through your probe questions, you are also involving the informants in interpretation. They are helping you to develop a better understanding of the situation.
And you can take it further than that...
- You can use members of the client organisation or community as interviewers. (Primary school children have interviewed their peers for me, on occasion.)
- You can report the results back to a group from the client organisation or community. They can then determine the significance of what you have found.
It isn't as participative as some methods. But even here there is a lot you can do to increase involvement.
Convergent interviewing as action research
Consider, now, some of the features of the method that you've just read about. In particular, notice its cyclic nature and its use of dialectic.
Each pair of interviews, including the review session immediately following them, constitutes an action research cycle. The review sessions interpret the data emerging from the interviews. During the review sessions you also plan the questions which will give you a better understanding of the situation.
At the same time, the questions used, the process and the sampling are checked. They can then be modified at the next round.
As with the earlier evaluation case study 1 the interview series may also form a larger cycle. The interview results may be compared to those from other data collection methods.
The probe questions contribute much to the efficiency of the technique. You don't need to carry forward copious amounts of data: you record the interpretations.
You will recall that there were two types of overlap in the themes, and two corresponding types of probe.Agreements which were tested by seeking exceptions
Disagreements for which explanations were sought
In other words, in later interviews you challenge the interpretations arising from early interviews. You also ask more specific questions, pursuing deeper understanding as you follow up the explanations and disagreements.
By seeking exceptions you allow disconfirmation of your data and interpretations. The disagreements, and the explanations you seek, are important. They guide you deeper into the pool of potentially-available data.
Notice, too, how the process is driven by the informants and the data they provide. Although the probes become more specific, each interview begins with a very open-ended question. Each informant is give a chance to contribute data uncontaminated by your interpretations so far.
In the early stages of contracting for an action research project, a potential client will often expect a detailed proposal. My preference is to negotiate something much more flexible. I seldom know, from initial contact, what process will appropriate.
In this situation, I may offer to do some convergent interviewing (for a fixed price, it this is a paid engagement). After the interviewing, I can present a report, and a more detailed proposal of how the project might proceed.
I have found that relatively small samples, carefully chosen, can allow a good diagnosis.
Sometimes, low-impact data collection is needed. For example, it may be a large community or organisation, and time may be short. Some quick data collection may be useful; and convergent interviewing is one possible method for collecting the data.
Again, for large organisations and communities, you may be working more directly with a smaller working party. Convergent interviewing is easily learned. The working party can use it for initial data gathering. (They will also need some effective way of reporting back to the other stakeholders.)
On some occasions, you will find that your client group members have already done some data collection. If so, it's likely that they used some form of written survey.
Unless they designed it well, it may not have given them the information they wanted. Often the information is hard to interpret. A relatively small number of convergent interviews may help you clarify and interpret the survey data.
There is a document titled "iview" on the archive which gives more detail and a step-by-step description of convergent interviewing. You will find it at the following URLs:http://www.uq.net.au/action_research/arp/iview.html
Both interpretation and process are driven by the information collected. A document "datadriv" on the archive explains this in a little more detail.http://www.uq.net.au/action_research/arp/datadriv.html
(The text-only version may not yet be available.)
The archived file mentioned immediately above was developed from the following monograph:Dick, B. (1990) Convergent interviewing, version 3. Brisbane: Interchange.
For a thorough discussion of a somewhat different style of research interview, I suggestMinichiello, V., Aroni, R., Timewell, E., and Alexander, L. (1990) In-depth interviewing: researching people. Melbourne, Vic.: Longman Cheshire.
It discusses the context of interviewing, examines the principles, relates interviewing to research generally, and provides lots of practical hints.
You'll get a good overview of the theory and practice of research interviewing fromKvale, Steinar (1996) InterViews: an introduction to qualitative research interviewing. Thousand Oaks: Sage.
Other useful books:Seidman, Irving (1998) Interviewing as qualitative research: a guide for researchers in education and the social sciences, second edition. New York: Teachers College Press.
Brenner, Michael, Brown, Jennifer, and Canter, David, eds. (1985) The research interview: uses and approaches. London: Academic Press.
Holstein, James A., and Gubrium, Jaber F. (1995) The active interview. Thousand Oaks, Ca.: Sage.
McCracken, Grant (1988) The long interview. Newbury Park: Sage.
Weiss, Robert Stuart (1994) Learning from strangers : the art and method of qualitative interview studies. New York: Free Press.
- The archived file "case1" on the archive. The URLs are
ftp://ftp.scu.edu.au/www/arr/case1.txt [ back ]
ActivitiesA thought experiment
Interview yourself. (If you do it aloud, I suggest you give some attention to privacy and sound-proofing.) Practise devising probe questions on the run. You can do this by asking yourself for exceptions, and then asking for explanations of the exceptions.
If you interview yourself in this way about your action learning project, how similar is this to a critical review?An individual activity
Several features of convergent interviewing respond well to practice, these four in particular:
- building rapport through giving the informant all of your attention;
- keeping the informant talking by using a variety of natural "minimal encouragers";
- taking key word notes without losing eye contact; (if you mark the next vacant line on your note pad with your non-writing hand, you can take notes there while maintaining eye contact. You can move your non-writing hand during natural pauses in the conversation.)
- devising probe questions.
Involving a partner in the process will help to reinforce it for you, too. Otherwise do two interviews. Afterwards, compare the two interviews and develop probe questions.
Finally, debrief your experience. Give attention to the four aspects of convergent interviewing you have been practising. Use an action research approach in the debriefing. This is more effective if you include your informants in your debriefing.
Then, for best effect, do another two interviews.For your learning group
Help each other identify ways in which you can use convergent interviewing in your action research projects. You may be able to organise to help each other with the interviewing, so that you can work in pairs.
Let's practice action research on areol. What ideas do you have for improving this session? What didn't you understand? What examples and resources can you provide from your own experience? What else? If you are subscribed to the email version, send your comments to the discussion list. Otherwise, send them to Bob Dick
We've been examining convergent interviewing as a low-involvement action research method for collecting data and developing explanations of it.
One key feature of it is the treatment of information. Agreements and disagreements are used to devise probe questions. Probe questions seek to test agreements by finding exceptions, and resolve disagreements by seeking explanations.
The next session examines a group method for data collection and interpretation. See you then. -- Bob
Copyright © Bob Dick 2002. May be copied provided it is not included in material sold at a profit, and this and the following notice are shown.
This document may be cited as follows:
Dick, B. (2002) Convergent interviewing. Session 8 of Areol - action research and evaluation on line.
Maintained by Bob Dick; this version 11.04w; last revised 20020712
version of this file is available at