do I have to transcribe the interviews I do?

Well no. Of course not. You don’t have to. But you might want to… and here’s why.

One of the great pleasures about researching is that you get to talk to lots of different people. They’ll usually have something interesting to say. It’s rarely the case for example that I leave an interview thinking that it was a complete waste of time. And if I do, this is almost always because of something I did. I didn’t set up the interview properly, the person didn’t know me well enough, I asked the wrong questions, I interrupted or I didn’t listen enough for clues about where the conversation was going…

Now the important thing in research is that you must re-live this interview experience afterwards. Rather than rely on an imperfect memory, researchers always, if at all possible, find ways to record their conversations. This might be in the form of notes taken at the time, or after the event. Or it might be an audio recording or even a film/video.

Each of these methods has their own strengths and weaknesses of course – it’s hard to look at people and follow the conversation if you are taking notes, if you leave the notes till after the conversation you’ve forgotten half of it, and it’s hard with any form of note-taking to get down extended verbatim speech. Recording devices, on the other hand, can be pretty off-putting to the participant(s), and it may take a while for them to forget that they are there. My hunch is that takes longer to ignore a camera than an audio recorder, but either bit of research-kit can be a serious conversation stopper. So no method of keeping records of conversations is perfect.

But I reckon that recordings are preferable to notes. For a start, we often don’t hear things when we are in the middle of a conversation. We miss bits, we take up one thread of a possible line of thought and leave another dangling. We don’t notice that the person we are talking to has used a particular kind of language, or they have always laughed when a particular topic came up, or they paused for a very long time when considering one of our questions. Recordings capture all of these. So I love good records of conversations for the simple reason that you can pick up a lot of the things that you missed the first time round. Did the other person really say that? Wow. I didn’t hear that at all and it does seem to be pretty important in the context of the whole conversation.

My preference is to use an audio recorder, and wherever possible I get the recordings transcribed in full. I used to do this myself, and indeed I did transcribe all forty or so of the interviews I did for my own PhD. I think DIY transcript is actually preferable to anything else, although a lot of people don’t. It certainly is time-consuming, but if you are transcribing a conversation in which you were a participant, then the physical act of transcription is the first opportunity to listen to it again – in great detail. You not only hear things you didn’t hear at the time, but you also have to think, when typing out what you are listening to, about what to record and what not to. Was that ‘you know’ important? What might you lose if you leave it out? Was that silence meaningful? Because transcription may be the first opportunity to re-think the conversation, it is rarely time ‘wasted’.

These days, because I have no time and I sometimes have the money, I pay someone else to do transcripts. T, who does them, takes care with pauses and laughs, with the ums and ahs … these are put in rather than edited out(1). When I get the transcripts back from him, it is always with a sense of anticipation. I generally read through them straight away before I’ve filed them. That’s because I prefer to engage pretty intensively with research conversation records – I see each reading as creating an opportunity for reflection, remembering, and re-thinking. I also listen to the audio recordings to check what T has done, and I can fill in the words that he can’t pick up but I can pick out, because I know how the conversation went. T also puts in my own questions and comments, so that I can see how I responded at the time, and whether there is something I could/should have done differently. This does create some cringe-worthy reading at times, but each of these moments is important as I can see in the transcript how much I steered the conversation in a particular direction. I get some sense of how trustworthy the conversation is, and how much I need to think about my own influence on it.

Right now one of the research projects I’m doing has no budget for transcription and no time for me or the co-researcher to transcribe in detail. I’m worried. The best we can do is to listen to the recordings and note the general points that are being made. We can then go back and transcribe for ourselves the bits that are most relevant. But this does make me pretty uncomfortable. I am very concerned about what we might miss. I’m also feeling sad that I will miss an enjoyable part of the research process.

I always get great pleasure from the process of analyzing transcripts. A lot of people use NVivo or some other kind of software to deal with transcripts and that’s a choice I could make. But I confess that I’m a bit of a technophobe when it comes to transcript analysis. I tend to analyse using the equivalent of long-hand; gradual understanding is gained by reading and re-reading and reading again. I not only look for themes in and across transcripts, but also key words, repetitive phrases, places where people pause or laugh. I often use some kind of discourse analytic approach or a Foucauldian approach to ‘get at’ the ways in which meanings are being framed and made. I do cut and paste things into files but sometimes I also use markers and stickers. It’s not uncommon for me to make three or four passes through transcripts to see what happens when different analytic approaches are used.

So should you transcribe? Well no. Of course not – but really, the question perhaps should be rephrased – why would you NOT want to?

Note:
(1) I don’t use numbered lines in transcripts, but some people like to have this for recall purposes. It’s also important to note that some conversation and discourse analysis methods require particular transcription conventions. I’m not talking about those here.

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About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in analysis, interview, transcription and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

24 Responses to do I have to transcribe the interviews I do?

  1. Itziar says:

    Pat, what a great article and in such a good timing for me!

    I am actually transcribing interviews that I am doing for my PhD research. I have no doubt I want them all transcribed. But a little bit of help in the transcribing process would be fantastic. Do you know of any ‘speech to text’ apps that work well?

    My aim is to re-read and correct everything until it is how I like it (or how I need it), but even doing so, it would save me a lot of time since I am basically transcribing hours and hours of interviews.

    By the way, I love reading your blog! Thank you for your always insightful ideas.

    • pat thomson says:

      Ive heard that some people use Dragon Dictate. Ive never tried it. Maybe someone will read your comment and respond… but I wouldn’t think that the hours and hours are entirely wasted. You do get to listen and think about what you’re hearing..

    • silgtavares says:

      Hi Itziar and Pat,
      The transcriptions nearly made me crazy! It does feel very unproductive doing it because of the long time it takes. I had around 90 interviews and my supervisor wanted me “to be close to the data”, what in this context means to do the transcriptions myself. So I searched for a tool to help speed up the process, and found Dragon. However, I tried several times and ended up not using it. Dragon requires you to “train” the software to recognize your voice, what you cannot do to the voice of your interviewees. The solution would be to listen and repeat all the interview, and then I found that just using the foot control to stop and play the interview would work better. A colleague of mine at Lincoln University also tried, and also gave up. We all did the full process ourselves without Dragon. The foot control does help though, you should certainly try if you haven’t yet!
      In the end I managed to work out I was taking 20 minutes to transcribe 1 hour of interview. Based on that I made a plan of transcribing a maximum of 4hs/day, so I didn’t get too bored and could still have some time to teach, read and write. It worked for me… And boy…. Feels good to have ALL the transcriptions printed in front of you!
      Hope it helps!
      Cheers.

      • Itziar says:

        Pat, Silgtavares,

        Thanks!

        I do have half of the interviews transcribed by myself. It does feel good having them all in paper in front of you! But just thinking about the fact that I will have some other 50 or 60 interviews to transcribe in a month… Just makes me think about aaaaall the time I spent transcribing before and aaaaall the work I could get done if I didn´t have to transcribe it all by myself.

    • pat thomson says:

      That’s a lot of interviews for a lone PhD to deal with. Any chance you can get some money to pay someone to do some of them? I think that’s really OK if you’ve that many :)

  2. Kerry Kavanagh says:

    brings back lots of nice memories from my own PhD. regards Kerry

    Sent from my iPad

    >

  3. Jess Mason says:

    As someone who does a huge amount of audio recording, I think advances in technology have really helped the observer’s paradox problem of people being really conscious of the fact they’re being recorded. I use a great app called SuperNote on my iPhone. iPhones are so commonplace nowadays that people tend not to be disconcerted by them in the same way they are by big boxes with ‘RECORD’ and lots of flashing lights on them – I’m convinced it yields more naturalised behaviour from participants.

  4. pat thomson says:

    Yes. I agree. But I think the fact that you don’t have to stop to turn a tape over was the biggest advance I’ve seen. Cassette players, Gah!!

    • Jess Mason says:

      And trying to transcribe from cassettes – argh! Press, pause, rewind, hear tape gradually stretching, participants sound less audible and more like they might be drunk with every replay!

  5. James Hayton says:

    I would add a tip: transcribe early. I’ve come across a few people who have done a big round of interviews and then only transcribe afterwards, underestimating just how much work it takes. If you transcribe the first interview immediately then you start to get some practice and it forces you to look at how the interview went too.

  6. pat thomson says:

    Transcribing early allows you to check how you are going too. But there are some advantages to doing things later rather than sooner… transcribing in job lots helps get an overview of the corpus, rather than working with isolated pieces. Time is only one element in qual research decisions.

  7. jennibrooks says:

    Thanks Pat.

    I’d also add that you don’t always know entirely what you’re going to be writing about at the point you’re transcribing. Having a full transcript means you can flick back through all your interviews for relevant points – much more difficult with partial transcripts or notes.

    I also find it much easier to identify direct quotes with a full transcript (although obviously whether you use direct quotes is another matter entirely!)

    Jenni

    • silgtavares says:

      Great Comment Jenni! I found much more than I as looking for when I had all the transcripts in my hands. And indeed, I found lots of quotes. I pretty much rote the results chapters based on the interviewees words!

  8. Dale Reardon says:

    Hi,

    Can people recommend a well priced but quality transcription service?

    I’m doing interviews for my PhD and can access some funding to transcribe them.

    Thanks,
    Dale.

  9. Great article

    I made the mistake of not checking the battery level in my little digi voice recorder. The inevitable happened during one of my PhD interviews. Didn’t realise until afterwards. It had to happen during one of the most useful and revealing interviews too :-(

  10. Karen says:

    Great Post Pat. I had all my interviews transcribed by a professional transcription service. As I was studying my PhD part-time while working full time and with a family, I simply could not afford the time to spend transcribing myself (I’m not a touch typist). I did have the same anticipation you describe above when the documents came back. I found listening to the recording whilst reading the transcript for accuracy and initial note taking was very good to help me “get close” to the data.

  11. Pingback: Do I have to transcribe the interviews I do? | ...

  12. Lee Yarwood-Ross says:

    I think it really depends on your methodology you are adopting. For instance I would argue that phenomenological research would rely on transcripts more so than a grounded theory perspective. The former aiming for meaning and the latter for conceptual abstraction. In my own PhD I am doing all matter of things-transcribing, field notes and just listening to recordings. After all this is a research development degree and you have to find what ‘works’ for you, coupled with what the methodological literature recommends. I am using Grounded theory (glaserian) and getting past the superfluous data when transcribing can be difficult when the aim is to look for action not meaning. In this approach conceptual memoing should take precedence in tandem with coding. Consistency when writing up about is my concern but I suppose as long as one rationalises their decision making this will be OK whilst shaking in terror!

    • pat thomson says:

      I’m sure you’ve talked this over with your supervisor. But as an ethnographer I’d argue you don’t know what’s superfluous till the end – I’d always advise drs I work with to do the lot if at all possible… But it is after all as you say your phd and your call.

  13. Pingback: Transcribing? | Thesislink

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