Elicitation in Qualitative Interviewing

This week, we have a guest blogger, Janie Copple, who talks about methods of eliciting participants’ descriptions in interviews. Janie Copple—is a 4th year Ph.D. candidate in the Qualitative Research and Evaluation Methodologies program at the University of Georgia. Prior to coming to UGA, Janie completed a Master’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and worked for fifteen years as a middle grades social studies and English/language arts teacher. Janie’s research interests include narratives of motherhood and qualitative research methodologies and pedagogies. 


Hello everyone. My name is Janie Copple and I am a PhD candidate in the Qualitative Research and Evaluation Methodologies program at the University of Georgia. Today I am going to be sharing a presentation with you on beginning approaches to elicitation in qualitative interviewing. As this introductory slide indicates, there are various ways to approach elicitation in qualitative interviews and I wanted to begin with this image to give you a sense of the possibilities in approaching elicitation. I would like to note at the beginning that this presentation is not intended to be an exhaustive list of elicitation techniques or variations on elicitation methods. It is intended to particularly provide novice researchers who are new to elicitation and qualitative interviews with an overall understanding of approaches one might take in elicitation when conducting qualitative interviews. In this presentation I’ll provide a brief overview of the ways elicitation has been taken up in qualitative interview studies. I will focus on some elicit elicitation techniques, how they’ve been approached in interview studies and conclude the presentation with considerations for using elicitation.

As seen here the word ‘elicitation’ involves drawing out or bringing forth emotions, facts or opinions. When we situate elicitation within qualitative interviewing, we are focused on techniques that trigger or evoke responses, memories, or stories from our participants. Elicitation has its roots in anthropology, the most common being photo elicitation. In the early days of anthropology, researchers such as Margaret Mead and Bronislaw Malinowski used photography as data collection in their work. In this photo which is housed in the limited online collection of Margaret Mead’s papers in the Library of Congress, we see Mead photographed in the center with who we might assume are participants from her 1925 study on adolescent female sexuality in Samoa. What is important to note here is that photographs at this time were used as documentation tools of researchers in the field– a way to represent and capture the field as reality or the field as it is.

In 1957 an anthropologist named John Collier, Jr (pictured in the foreground of this photograph) was conducting research with a team on the impact of environmental factors on mental health in the Maritimes in Canada. It was during this project that Collier experimented with the ways photography might be used in interviewing participants. In 1957 he published a paper on photography and anthropology in which he coined the term photo elicitation for the first time. Here we see in this quote from Collier about the potential of photography in eliciting participants’ responses during interviews. Collier notes that “the photograph is a restatement of reality, it presents life around us in new and objective, and arresting dimensions” as well as the idea that it [a photograph] “can stimulate the informant in some way to discuss the world about him as if observing for the first time”. If we flash forward over 50 years in 2002, Douglas Harper published an often cited article entitled “Talking About Pictures: A Case for Photo Elicitation”. In this article Harper described the potential for photographs to evoke not only deeper information but different information than interviews that use words alone. Harper expanded the definition of photo elicitation to include paintings, cartoons, public displays, graffiti billboards– virtually any visual image. Harper noted that photo elicitation techniques may involve studies in which the researcher or participant takes or provides the photos used during the interview.

Notable examples of photo elicitation in qualitative interview research include Clark-Ibanez’s (2004) ethnographic study of two urban elementary schools in south central Los Angeles. In this study students were asked to take photographs using disposable cameras of what was important to them to help Clark-Ibanez better understand the complexities surrounding students’ relationships with their communities and homes. Photos were developed (remember this is back in the day of disposable cameras before digital photography and before phone cameras!). The photographs were developed and used in interviews to facilitate conversations with students about their relationships to their communities and homes. In this article Clark-Ibanez makes the case for participant generated photos in fostering an inductive approach to understanding lived experience and outlines photo elicitation interviewing as methodology. Another example can be found in Allen’s 2011 study on sexuality and schooling in New Zealand where students were given disposable cameras and asked to create a photo diary over seven days around the topic ‘How do you learn about sexuality at school?’ Interviews asked questions about how students took the photos how they decided which photos to take and about challenges to this approach. Allen argued that photo methods allowed for possibilities to explore more-than-word discourses about the production of sexuality in schools.

Lastly, I want to point to an example of researcher-generated photos in photo elicitation interviewing with Noterman and Kommers’ (2014) study using what they refer to as ‘iconographic elicitation’ in an ethnographic study on participants’ Marian pilgrimages (participants traveling to pilgrimage sites that incorporate statues of the Virgin Mary). In these elicitation interviews participants viewed iconographic images of statues of the Virgin Mary that they had visited in their pilgrimages and responded to questions to do with particular feelings, memories and stories evoked by the image that was shown. In this article Noterman and Kommers found that iconographic elicitation methods were an effective way of overcoming the problem of silence and the outburst of tears among some participants who were emotionally touched during interviews that used words alone. Again, we see this idea that iconographic elicitation was able to evoke responses in interviews where word-alone interviews were unable to do so.

Another approach to elicitation might involve object elicitation. A participant is either provided or brings an object to an interview and is asked to reflect on the significance of the object as it relates to a particular experience, event, phenomena or to inquire around the material quality of the object itself. In an article published in 2013, Susan Nordstrom coined the phrase ‘object interviews’ to understand the “connections family history genealogists made between objects and ancestors”. In a recent conference presentation that Nordstrom gave about gave around object interviews at the International Congress of Qualitative Inquiry she noted that “without objects there’s not much family history for genealogists to study”. In that presentation she drew upon her work in this 2013 study that uses the Deleuzian concept of the fold to rethink objects and subjects as connective folded entities in the interview space. Material culture scholar Sophie Woodward (2020) picked up on the notion of object interviews in an interdisciplinary project in which she invited participants to bring a pair of old jeans to explore the ways participants “speak the material”. In this study Woodward considered the ways in which jeans themselves function in the interview as co-constructors of knowledge and argued for the “evocative quality of materiality in bringing form to narratives”. Lastly, I mention Willig’s (2017) phenomenological study on participants living with terminal illness. In this study participants were asked to select objects that held special significance during particular phases of their lives as they live with terminal illness. Willig argued that ultimately object elicitation allowed for rich multi-sensory details of everyday lived experiences that might have escaped word-only interviews.

Other approaches to elicitation might ask the participant to engage in a particular activity during the interview. Timelining, for example, is an effective elicitation tool when asking participants to consider a chronology of events–for example, life history, transformative or milestone experiences, or changing shifting notions of identity over time. Timelining can look a variety of different ways. A researcher might ask a participant to simply draw a timeline with a rough range of dates in text format. A researcher might ask a participant to incorporate images–maybe draw out a timeline, maybe cut and paste images into a timeline. There are many variations on approaches to timelining as elicitation. Collage is another elicitation technique that might be used in connection with timelining or on its own. Participants might be asked to browse magazines newspapers print materials for images words that describe or represent a particular event, emotion, experience or identities.

One example of using timeline elicitation and qualitative research is Kolar and colleagues’ (2015) study on the use of timeline mapping in studies on resilience among marginalized groups. Researchers examined experiences using timeline mapping across two studies–one with South Asian immigrant women on experiences of domestic violence and another on street involved youth who were victims of violence. Researchers examined timeline mapping elicitation across both studies and argued that timelining facilitated rapport building, opened space for participants as navigators in the interview, and led to therapeutic moments during semi-structured qualitative interviews. Another example seen here is from Pell and colleagues (2020) who used visual timelines in a telephone interview study with participants describing narratives of starting a family.  Researchers pointed to the importance of timeline elicitation in framing the interview, staying focused on the topic and providing a space for disclosing personal and sensitive experiences more freely. Lastly, I mentioned Vacchelli’s (2018) study using collage-making and focus group interviews to examine migration narratives of refugee and asylum-seeking women in the UK. Vacchelli situated this study in feminist literature on embodiment to consider how the act of collaging is “reflexivity at work for participants”.

Some considerations of elicitation and qualitative interviewing include first and foremost how you’re thinking about elicitation as aligned with your research design and theoretical framework. For example, in my own study that explores mothers preparing children for puberty, I invited participants to bring objects that held some significance for mothers and their stories of preparing children from puberty. I was interested in the ways objects engage with mothers in the production of their narratives. If, for example, I was interested in the ways mothers’ attitudes towards menstruation or puberty changed across their lifetimes or changed in the course of their journey with their child, I may have considered timeline elicitation. If I were asking children about their experiences with this sensitive topic, I might think with the concept of embodiment and incorporate collage elicitation or perhaps a combination of collage and timelining. Lastly, if I were interested in mothers’ or children’s first period narratives, I might have begun interviews with a narrative journaling exercise. I provide these examples here to emphasize that there are a range of options and ways to play with elicitation and qualitative interviewing. Regardless of which approach you choose, an ongoing consideration in elicitation and qualitative interviewing requires the researcher to remain nimble and flexible during the interview. Consider how you might remain open to where the elicitation might lead– perhaps someplace unexpected for you or the participant–while keeping your overall research purpose and questions in mind.

Although this presentation only scratches the surface of elicitation in qualitative interviews, I hope it’s given you some ideas on the ways you might begin to explore elicitation in your own interview research. I encourage you to play with a few techniques and see where they take you! Thank you for listening.


Allen, L. (2011). ‘Picture this’: using photo-methods in research on sexualities and schooling. Qualitative Research, 11(5), 487–504. https://doi.org/10.1177/1468794111413224

Clark-Ibáñez, M. (2004). Framing the social world with photo-elicitation interviews. American Behavioral                 Scientist, 47(12): 1507–27.

Collier, J. (1957). Photography in anthropology: A report on two experiments. American Anthropologist   59, 843–859.

Harper, D. (2002). Talking about pictures: a case for photo elicitation. Visual Studies 17(1): 13–26.

Kolar, K., Ahmad, F., Chan, L., Erickson, P.G. (2015). Timeline mapping in qualitative interviews: A study   of resilience with marginalized groups. International Journal of Qualitative Methods, 14(3), 13-             32. https://doi.org/10.1177/160940691501400302

Nordstrom, S. N. (2013). Object-interviews: Folding, unfolding, and refolding perceptions of objects.         International Journal of Qualitative Methods, 12(1), 237-257. https://doi.org/10.1177/160940691301200111

Notermans, C., & Kommers, H. (2013). Researching religion: The iconographic elicitation                 method.                 Qualitative Research, 13(5), 608-625. https://doi.org.10.1177/160940691301200111

Pell, B., Williams, D., Phillips, R., Sanders, J., Edwards, A., Choy, E., Grant, A. (2020). Using visual   timelines in telephone interviews: Reflections and lessons learned from the Star Family Study.             International Journal of Qualitative Methods, 19(1-11).   https://doi.org/10.1177/1609406920913675

Vacchelli, E. (2018). Embodiment in qualitative research: Collage making with migrant, refugee and           asylum women. Qualitative Research, 18(2), 171-190.     https://doi.org/10.1177/1468794117708008  

Willig, C. (2017). Reflections on the use of object elicitation. Qualitative Psychology, 4(2), 211-222.                 http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/qup0000054

Woodward, S. (2016). Object interviews, material imaginings and ‘unsettling’ methods: Interdisciplinary approaches to understanding materials and material culture. Qualitative Research, 16(4), 359-             374. https://doi.org/10.1177/1468794115589647

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