What to do when research interviews go awry…

Research interviews do not always proceed as anticipated. For example, the anthropologist, Evans-Pritchard (1972 [1940], pp. 12-13) reports on the difficulties he encountered with the Nuer people, with whom he conducted an ethnography in the 1930s. He comments that the “Nuer are expert at sabotaging an inquiry”, and provides the opening of a conversation with a member of the Nuer to illustrate

I:          Who are you?

Cuol:   A man.

I:          What is your name?

Cuol:   Do you want to know my name?

I:          Yes

Cuol:   You want to know my name?

I:          Yes, you have come to visit me in my tent and I would like to know who you are.

Cuol:   All right. I am Cuol. What is your name?

I:          My name is Pritchard.

Cuol:   What is your father’s name?

I:          My father’s name is also Pritchard.

Cuol:   No, that cannot be true. You cannot have the same name as your father.

I:          It is the name of my lineage. What is the name of your lineage?

Cuol:   Do you want to know the name of my lineage?

I:          Yes

Cuol:   What will you do with it if I tell you? Will you take it to your country?

I:          I don’t want to do anything with it. I just want to know it since I am living at your camp.

Cuol:   Oh well, we are Lou.

I:          I did not ask you the name of your tribe. I know that. I am asking you the name of your lineage.

Cuol:   Why do you want to know the name of my lineage?

I:          I don’t want to know it.

Cuol:   Then why do you ask me for it? Give me some tobacco.


Clearly, learning the language, in itself a challenge, was insufficient to elicit the kinds of information he was seeking. Evans-Pritchard (1972 [1940], p. 14) goes on to report that “besides physical discomfort at all times, suspicion and obstinate resistance encountered in the early stages of research, absence of interpreter, lack of adequate grammar and dictionary, and failure to procure the usual informants, there developed further difficulty as the inquiry proceeded.” Rather than describe these difficulties that Evans-Pritchard encountered here, below I outline a few strategies to consider in your research, when things go awry and interviews seem to “fail.”

When interviews don’t elicit useful data

Some years ago, I used focus groups to generate data for a qualitative evaluation study. When I examined the data once it had been transcribed, I found that participants seemed reluctant to discuss topics, on occasion some members of the group seemed to speak on behalf of others, and several participants did not say anything at all. After carefully analyzing what went on in the focus groups, I determined that the group interview was not the best means of generating data for this particular study, so the study’s design was amended to allow for individual interviews of participants. This proved to be a much more effective means of generating data about the research topics (Roulston, 2011). Methodologists frequently counsel new researchers to analyze data while they are collecting it. This is very useful advice, since if a researcher is able to determine that a particular method of data generation is not yielding the kind of data needed to respond to research questions, they will still have time to modify the research design and collect more data. Depending on the problem encountered, this might mean using other approaches to generating data, or perhaps recruiting more participants for a study, or asking different kinds of questions.

Encountering interactional challenges in interviews

I have also encountered moments in interviews that were interactional challenges. That is, participants declined to answer questions or pursued me for answers to the very questions I had been asking (Roulston, 2013). During the interview, the interactional challenge for interviewers is to figure out how to elicit conversation with participants. Quite often, it is difficult to determine at the moment what is going on, but when researchers encounter participants who are reluctant to talk to them, it is useful to examine data methodologically (Roulston, 2016). Perhaps other sorts of data are needed for a study. Perhaps the researcher needs to spend more time in the field getting to know people. Insights might also be gained about the topic of an interview simply by looking at how people interact when particular questions are posed. If the topic is sensitive, what strategies do participants use to avoid discussing it. For example, Sue (2015) describes how in her study of race in Mexico, participants used a number of discourse strategies to avoid talking about the topics that she introduced. She suggests several strategies that she used to discuss the topics of her research study with participants.  Secondary analysis of interviews can also be productive for looking at what interview data can tell us that we may not have set out to examine. There are many ways to do this kind of analysis. See Nairn, Munro, and Smith (2005) and Prior (2014) for two examples of researchers who have used different approaches to examine “failed” interviews.

What about “truth”?

One of the pressing problems of interview research is that of determining the “truth” value of what is said by participants. It has long been known that people do not necessarily recollect details accurately; nor do they always tell the “truth.” A standard strategy in field work for determining the “truth” of what participants say in interviews is to ask them the same sorts of questions over time, ask other participants in the setting for their viewpoints, and examine further data, including documents, to verify the details of what is discussed in interviews. Yet, researchers are still faced with problems of representation. When writing up findings from analyses of interview data, researchers must respond to questions to do with whether they have accurately interpreted what participants have said, as well as whose “truth” has been represented (e.g., Boelen, 1992). Rather than getting bound up in arguments over the “truthfulness” of interview accounts in qualitative research, Paul Atkinson (2015) argues for the value of examining “the circulation of stories: who tells them to what audiences, their paths of transmission….the social functions that stories are used to perform: enculturation, blame, sanction, and so on” (Atkinson, 2015, p. 105). From this perspective, researchers attend to the interview as performative, and seek greater understanding of the social actions being accomplished when participants tell particular kinds of stories. For example, in my own doctoral study, I was slow to recognize that many of my participants told complaint stories. As I looked further at this data, I came to see that I was deeply implicated in the production of these complaints through both accepting and sometimes challenging participants’ stories (Roulston, 2000). Although it was not something I had set out to study — I came to understand that interviewers can be adept at generating complaints too (Roulston, Baker, & Liljestrom, 2001).

To sum up, then, when interviews go awry, or appear to “fail,” they may be deserving of a second look. You may be very surprised at what you find, as there is always something more to be learned.

Best wishes, Kathy R.


Atkinson, P. (2015). For ethnography. Los Angeles: Sage.

Boelen, W. A. M. (1992). Street Corner Society. Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, 21(1), 11-51. doi:doi:10.1177/0891241692021001002

Evans-Pritchard, E. E. (1972 [1940]). The Nuer: A description of the modes of livelihood and political institutions of a Nilotic people. New York & Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Nairn, K., Munro, J., & Smith, A. B. (2005). A counter-narrative of a ‘failed’ interview. Qualitative Research, 5(2), 221-244. doi:10.1177/1468794105050836

Prior, M. T. (2014). Re-examining alignment in a “failed” L2 autobiographic research interview. Qualitative Inquiry, 20(4), 495-508. doi:10.1177/1077800413513730

Roulston, K. (2000). The management of ‘safe’ and ‘unsafe’ complaint sequences in research interviews. Text, 20(3), 1-39.

Roulston, K. (2011). Working through challenges in doing interview research. International Journal of Qualitative Methods, 10(4), 348-366. https://journals.library.ualberta.ca/ijqm/index.php/IJQM/article/view/8305

Roulston, K. (2013). Interactional problems in research interviews Qualitative Research, 13(2).

Roulston, K. (2016). Issues in methodological analyses of research interviews. Qualitative Research Journal, 16(1), 1-14.

Roulston, K., Baker, C. D., & Liljestrom, A. (2001). Analyzing the researcher’s work in generating data: The case of complaints. Qualitative Inquiry, 7(6), 745-772.

Sue, C. A. (2015). Hegemony and silence: Confronting state-sponsored silences in the field. Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, 44(1), 113-140. doi:10.1177/0891241614540211





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