Qualitative approaches emphasize interpretations and nuances; thus, researchers address interviews, texts and immersive observations with an intensive focus, to accurately capture a thorough analysis of process/meaning and achieve "thick description".1 Feminist scholars have enriched considerations of qualitative methodology by emphasizing researchers’ positionality and power dynamics between the interviewee and interviewer. Feminist knowledge production suggests that the researcher should not strive to be an objective observer, as predicated on the positivist assumption, but should rather be recognized "as a real, historical individual with concrete, specific desires and interest"2 whose social, cultural, and economic background shape her analysis. These caveats have been guiding principles for my own reflections and interview process.
My research focuses on international Fulbright3 students in the US, exploring how the pandemic has impacted their cultural exchange experiences and life trajectories in the US. The first challenge I encountered when conducting interviews with students concerned the logistical issues arising from using online software platforms. One of my interviewees left the US during the lockdown period and settled in a Mexican village, where their internet connection was unstable. The interview was imbued with intermittent voices, and scattered, vague and muffled messages. My interviewee's repetitive apology and my consistent inquiry due to the poor internet quality made the interview emotionally exhausting. This made me realize the difficulty of conducting online interviews with interviewees who live in remote areas with limited internet access. Another dilemma is whether to turn on the camera during Zoom interviews. One of my interviewees was introverted and succinct in their answers, so preferred not to turn on the camera. During the whole interview, I felt like I was talking in to a void, which felt de-motivating as a researcher. In this case, I realized that shifting to a phone interview would be better than talking to a black screen on Zoom.
The biggest contradiction of online interviews lies in the absence of presence, but rarely do researchers speak about this and truly acknowledge the difference between online and in-person interviews. Elizabeth Pierre claims that the adherence to presence; that is, the importance of the spoken, is at the base of face-to-face interactions in qualitative inquiry.4 Qualitative researchers tend to regard observation, conversation, and interviews as an art of presence. As Pierre argues, "We believe that our face-to-face interactions with people make our work especially valid… we qualitative researchers are very present in our research, in the thick of things, talking with and observing our participants. Qualitative inquiry is not distant; it's live and in-person; it happens right now."5 Pierre’s argument is partially valid. Without the human presence, it’s hard to build up trust and intimacy as feminist methodologies have advocated.6 In addition, online interviews cannot convey the subtleties of eye contact or body language, which limits a more multi-faceted and nuanced understanding of the interviewees’ words. However, in the pandemic widespread loneliness has swept across countries; thus, most individuals are stuck at home and eager for conversation, which also endows them with a more flexible schedule. My interviewees were all delighted to share their pandemic experiences and complain about the pandemic together. In this way, the interview is an opportunity to manifest the human connection and show that we endure together. Moreover, online interviews may also reinforce the “strangers on a train” milieu, referring to people sharing the most intimate stories in brief and random encounters. The online setting may enable interviewees to be more upfront in sharing their stories.
Another silver lining of online interviews lies in the potential immediacy of transcription in the interview analysis period. Even though transcribing carefully can be an excellent way to rethink and develop new ideas, it is a time-consuming and costly process. Online software such as Zoom can automatically record and transcribe the whole online interview. However, it is important to obtain interviewee permission and abide by the review guidance of institutional review boards (IRB) or institutional ethics comments if technology-assisted transcription software is involved.
In conclusion, online interviews are not ideal due to the lack of presence. But when online interviews serve as a lifeline to make research possible, there are myriad ways to address the challenges posed by online settings.