If you are familiar with using Skype, you can use a recorder to directly record your conversations with other Skype users (you’ll find my guide on how to record Skype conversations here). Skype also lets you call phones around the world pretty cheaply if you buy their credit. In this post I have assembled a couple of initial methodological thoughts on recording Skype interviews.
The phone interview (and this applies as well for Skype conversations without video connection) features all the advantages and disadvantages of a conversation lacking face-to-face contact. Shuy (2002:540) suggests that in such a setting, interviewer effects might be reduced and that in result the interviews might reach a higher level of standardization and uniformity. Furthermore, higher anonymity might be provided, and interviews might be conducted more cost-efficient and faster because the researcher does not have to meet up with the interviewees (cf. Shuy 2002:540). Depending on the topic and the interviewees, a phone interview can also be safer for the researcher himself/herself (Shuy 2002:540). On the other hand, Shuy (2002: 542) notes that the asymmetrical distribution of power in interviews might be harder to tone down in interviews without face-to-face contact.
Not everybody feels comfortable with talking on Skype
Although high anonymity and disembodiment are provided when interviews are conducted via phone or VoIP (Voice over IP, “internet phoning”), the researcher has to determine whether he/she as well as the participants feel comfortable using this form of communication (cf. Kazmer & Xie 2008: 273). In order to not create an uncomfortable interview situation, you should set up Skype conversations only with people who are comfortable with using Skype or similar programs – talking to a PC screen can feel very strange if you’re not used to it. Kazmer & Xie (2008: 274) note that “[i]n all media, participants’ or the interviewer’s discomfort with the medium can be mistaken for discomfort with the interview topics, or vice versa: discomfort with the topic can be ascribed to discomfort with the medium”.
Quality of Data
It can be also problematic to conduct phone or Skype interviews if a personal topic should be discussed (Shuy 2002: 544). Shuy (2002:542 p.) also suggests that face-to-face interviews might yield to better data concerning the effectiveness with complex topical issues and the thoughtfulness of the interviewee’s responses – but this probably also depends on the interviewees and the communicative behavior they are used to.
Confidentiality & Distractions
Another problem consists in the less controlled environment on the interviewee’s side: The researcher does not know who else might be present in the room with the interviewee, and the interviewee might be easily distracted by his/her environment (this might pose a problem for research confidentiality). In the case of interviews via Skype, the fact that interviewees are sitting right in front of an online computer might even increase the problem of possible distraction (browsing, working, checking mail…).
Technical Issues & Considerations
There is also a range of possible technical issues. The call quality when using Skype can dramatically diverge, depending on your internet and computer speed. If you call another Skype user, his/her internet quality and computer speed will also influence the call quality. If the connection is bad, you and your interviewees might sound very choppy, break up, sound somewhat “distant” or distorted, and there might be a delay or echo when speaking (especially if you or your interviewees use speakers instead of earphones). These technical issues can make interviewees feel less comfortable with the overall interview situation or leave them somewhat confused – especially if your interviewees are not familiar with VoIP technology and its deficiencies. If you suspect sound issues you should explain prior to the interview that you are calling from a computer, and that your voice might sound choppy sometimes, or that the conversation might break up – but that you’ll call again right away. Before you start to conduct interviews via Skype you should therefore not only make sure that you and your interviewees feel comfortable with the mode of communication – but also check if you and the interviewees are familiar with the technology (and problems) connected to it.
Kazmer, M. & Xie, B. (2008): Qualitative interviewing in internet studies: Playing with the media, playing with the method. Information, Communication, & Society, 11, pp. 257-278.
Shuy, R.W. (2002): In-person versus Telephone Interviewing. In: Gubrium / Holstein (Eds.): Handbook of interview research: Context & Method. SAGE: Thousand Oaks, pp. 537-557.