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Logo of nihpaAbout Author manuscriptsSubmit a manuscriptNIH Public Access; Author Manuscript; Accepted for publication in peer reviewed journal;
Res Nurs Health. Author manuscript; available in PMC Dec 15, 2011.
Published in final edited form as:
PMCID: PMC3238794
NIHMSID: NIHMS337774

Is There a Bias Against Telephone Interviews In Qualitative Research?

Gina Novick, RN, CNM, MSN, Doctoral Candidate

Abstract

Telephone interviews are largely neglected in the qualitative research literature and, when discussed, they are often depicted as a less attractive alternative to face-to-face interviewing. The absence of visual cues via telephone is thought to result in loss of contextual and nonverbal data and to compromise rapport, probing, and interpretation of responses. Yet, telephones may allow respondents to feel relaxed and able to disclose sensitive information, and evidence is lacking that they produce lower quality data. This apparent bias against telephone interviews contrasts with a growing interest in electronic qualitative interviews. Research is needed comparing these modalities, and examining their impact on data quality and their use for studying varying topics and populations. Such studies could contribute evidence-based guidelines for optimizing interview data.

Keywords: Design development, Qualitative

Telephone interviews are used extensively in quantitative research (Barriball, Christian, While, & Bergen, 1996; Carr & Worth, 2001) and are often discussed in the survey methodology literature. In contrast, relatively few qualitative studies employ telephone interviews (Sturges & Hanrahan, 2004), and there is little methodological discussion of the telephone mode in the qualitative research literature. When qualitative telephone interviews are discussed, they tend to be depicted as the less attractive alternative to face-to-face interviews. In this article, I explore the use of, and apparent bias against, telephone interviews in qualitative research.

Telephone Interviews in Quantitative Research

The telephone interview is an accepted and well-studied approach for quantitative data collection; it is a principal survey method (Aday, 1996) and the most widely used survey modality in industrialized nations (Bernard, 2002). Reported advantages of telephone interviews include decreased cost and travel, ability to reach geographically dispersed respondents, ability to oversee interviewers (Aday), and enhanced interviewer safety (Bernard). Reported drawbacks of telephone interviews include limited telephone coverage in certain areas, lower response rates (Aday; Bernard; Groves, 1990), need for short interview duration (Aday; Bernard), and absence of visual or nonverbal cues (Aquilino, 1994; Groves)

Researchers have also explored the effect of interview mode on survey outcomes, although findings vary. Aquilino (1994) reported that levels of admission of substance abuse in face-to-face interviews were higher than in telephone interviews. Yet, Pridemore, Damphousse and Moore (2005) found increased admission of recent substance use in face-to-face interviews, but not of ever-use. Findings of studies examining the effect of interview mode on elicitation of psychiatric symptoms are also conflicting (Henson, Cannell, & Roth, 1978; Moum, 1998).

When mode-related differences in outcome are demonstrated, it is still not clear what accounts for them. Hensen et al. (1978) suggested that although the face-to-face mode might facilitate openness, respondents might be subtly induced to admit symptoms they do not have. Considerable attention has been devoted to the absence of visual cues as another possible explanation for mode-related differences. Absence of visual cues is thought to deter disclosure of sensitive information and communication of emotions (Groves, 1990; Henson et al; Moum, 1998), and it is hypothesized to have several effects that induce bias, including increasing social distance (Aquilino, 1994; Groves), increasing or decreasing socially desirable responses (Groves; Henson et al.; Moum), reducing “feedback cues” (Henson et al., p. 128), and increasing or decreasing rapport (Smith, 2005). In short, the picture of mode effect on survey outcomes is complex and unclear, but it is the object of a considerable amount of ongoing research and discussion.

Telephone Interviews in Qualitative Research

In contrast to quantitative research and the quantitative research literature, relatively few qualitative studies employ telephone interviews, and there is little methodological discussion of this mode. I conducted a search for articles in English-language publications on telephone interviews for data collection in qualitative research. Electronic search terms, used alone and in combination, included “telephone,” “phone,” “interview,” “qualitative,” “methodology,” “open-ended,” “semistructured,” and “interview mode.” Databases searched for the years 1990–2007 included CINAHL, Medline, PsychINFO, ISI Web of Knowledge, Sociological Abstracts, and Social Science Full Text. Relevant citations from located sources were pursued, and an academic reference librarian was consulted to ensure that search strategies and relevant articles were not overlooked.

I retrieved 14 articles that were published between 1988 and 2007. Of these 14 articles, 8 focus on telephone interviews for qualitative research (Burke & Miller, 2001; Burnard, 1994; Carr, 1999; Carr & Worth, 2001; Chapple, 1999; Sturges & Hanrahan, 2004; Sweet, 2002; Tausig & Freeman, 1988). Four of these eight articles review the literature on the use of the telephone mode and offer discussions of the authors’ own use of telephone interviews for data collection (Carr & Worth; Sturges & Hanrahan; Sweet; Tausig & Freeman). In another four of these eight articles, authors discussed their use of the telephone for qualitative data collection (Burke & Miller; Burnard; Carr; Chapple). Finally, Sturges and Hanrahan also offered a systematic comparison of the impact of face-to-face and telephone modes on the nature and depth of interview responses.

Qualitative telephone interviews are not the focus of the remaining six articles, but they are included here because so few articles directly address this topic (Garbett & McCormack, 2001; Kavanaugh & Ayres, 1998; McCoyd & Kerson, 2006; Meho, 2006; Opdenakker, 2006; Smith, 2005). Three of these six articles address the topic of Internet interviews and include discussion of the telephone mode (McCoyd & Kerson; Meho; Opdenakker). Two articles include passing commentary on the telephone mode (Garbett & McCormack; Kavanaugh & Ayres). The last of these six articles is a literature review on telephone interviews not specifically focused on qualitative research (Smith). Beyond these 14 articles are those in which authors simply reported the use of telephone interviews in qualitative research but did not reflect on mode per se.

I also searched several dozen textbooks on the subjects of interviewing or qualitative research for information on the use of the telephone for qualitative interviews. These books were found in the online catalog of the Yale University Library system, in the stacks of the Yale Social Science Library, and through references suggested in two qualitative research courses. I first examined book indices and tables of contents. Few of them have entries for telephone interviews; when they do, they typically direct the reader to sections on telephone surveys (Bernard, 2002; Denzin & Lincoln, 2000; Patton, 2002).

In addition, I explored chapters in several texts on qualitative research or on interviewing that might be expected to include discussion of qualitative telephone interviews. In these books, I often found comprehensive discussion of strategies for qualitative interviewing, but little about telephones. For example, in Patton’s (2002) book there is an 88-page chapter on qualitative interviewing with no discussion of qualitative telephone interviews. In a chapter on interviewing in Denzin and Lincoln’s 1,126 page anthology The Sage Handbook of Qualitative Research, Fontana and Frey (2005) referred only in passing to telephone use for surveys, yet they offered a full page on issues related to electronic interviews. Finally, Gubrium and Holstein (2002), in their 980-page anthology on interview research, included a chapter by Shuy (2002) with the promising title “In-Person Versus Telephone Interviewing.” However, in that chapter, interview mode is examined as it relates to survey research and practical interviews “such as those conducted by hearings officers, doctors, lawyers, and journalists” (p. 537). Also in the Gubrium and Holstein anthology, Warren’s (2002) chapter, entitled “Qualitative Interviewing,” offers no discussion of the telephone mode. Yet, this anthology includes several chapters on various aspects of conducting electronic interviews, including “Internet Interviewing,” which addresses topics such as developing relational skills, establishing rapport and trust, listening and pauses, exploring sensitive topics, and facilitating online focus groups (Mann & Stewart, 2003).

No one textbook or anthology is obliged to cover every aspect of qualitative research, and there is no intent here to single out these books as deficient. Indeed, they were selected for detailed discussion because they exemplify comprehensive, much-cited resources. But they also exemplify the lack of “critical debate” (Sweet, 2002, p. 59) regarding qualitative telephone interviews, which contrasts with the growing attention in the qualitative research literature to exploring electronic qualitative interviews. In addition, those books in which telephone interviews were addressed had only passing and even dismissive references to them.

My search undoubtedly failed to locate other relevant publications, and the presence of a small body of research that employs and alludes to telephone interviews without fanfare or methodological discussion can be seen to indicate that some qualitative researchers view telephone interviews as legitimate. My point here is that in a systematic effort to learn about mode comparisons in qualitative research, I found little to guide me as compared with the ease of finding such material in the quantitative research literature. As Chapple (1999, ¶3) noted:

While entire books have been written about the advantages and disadvantages of telephone interview for the purposes of social survey work…much less has been written about telephone interviewing as a means of gathering qualitative data.

Reviewing the Findings on Telephone Interviewing in Qualitative Research

Although used less often than face-to-face interviews in qualitative research (Opdenakker, 2006; Sweet, 2002), telephone interviews may nevertheless be a “versatile” data collection tool (Carr & Worth, 2001, p. 521). Respondents have been described as relaxed on the telephone, and willing to talk freely and to disclose intimate information. Qualitative telephone data have been judged to be rich, vivid, detailed, and of high quality (Chapple, 1999; Kavanaugh & Ayres, 1998; Sturges & Hanrahan, 2004; Sweet).

When compared to in-person interviews, the advantages of using the telephone include decreased cost (Chapple, 1999), increased access to geographically disparate subjects (Sturges & Hanrahan, 2004; Sweet, 2002; Tausig & Freeman, 1988), decreased space requirements (Sweet), increased interviewer safety (Carr & Worth, 2001; Sturges & Hanrahan), and the ability to take notes unobtrusively (Carr & Worth; Smith, 2005; Sturges & Hanrahan; Tausig & Freeman). Telephones allow participants to remain on “their own turf” (McCoyd & Kerson, 2006, p. 399), permit more anonymity (Sweet; Tausig & Freeman) and privacy (Sturges & Hanrahan), decrease social pressure, and increase rapport (McCoyd & Kerson).

Reported disadvantages include lack of telephone coverage for some participants (Carr & Worth, 2001), absence of visual cues (Garbett & McCormack, 2001), and the potential for distraction of participants by activities in their environments (McCoyd & Kerson, 2006; Opdenakker, 2006), although such distractions were also reported during in-person interviews (Sturges & Hanrahan, 2004). Another reported disadvantage is that telephone interviews must be kept short compared to face-to-face interviews (Chapple, 1999; Creswell, 1998; Garbett & McCormack; Sturges & Hanrahan; Sweet, 2002), thereby reducing in-depth discussion. Yet, little evidence is presented for this claim, and McCoyd and Kerson reported that their telephone interviews typically lasted 1.5–2 hours, with little participant fatigue. Practical suggestions offered for conducting telephone interviews include establishing contact or rapport in person prior to conducting telephone interviews (Burke & Miller, 2001; Carr & Worth, 2001) and using a prepared script to introduce the study at the beginning of the first telephone interview (Burke & Miller).

A Bias Against the Use of Telephones in Qualitative Research?

In much of the literature I reviewed, I discerned a tendency to view telephone mode as inferior to face-to-face interviews for qualitative research. This attitude is implicit in both the omission of telephone interviews in qualitative research texts and in the small body of existing literature on telephone interviews; it is explicit in comments that convey researchers’ low expectations of telephone interviews to elicit high quality data.

For example, Chapple (1999) was skeptical about the quality of the data she would obtain via telephone because she had always believed in the importance of face-to-face interviewing. Yet, she found that her data were unexpectedly rich. Carr (1999) noted that telephone interviews surpassed her expectations for them, suggesting that she had low expectations. Other authors implied that the use of the telephone could undermine quality when reporting that telephones were substituted for face-to-face interviews only when necessary (Opdenakker, 2006; Sturges & Hanrahan, 2004; Sweet, 2002).

Authors of qualitative research texts are direct in asserting the superiority of face-to-face interviews in those infrequent situations when they discuss telephones for qualitative research at all. Shuy (2002) asserted that telephone interviewing must employ highly structured, closed ended questions, whereas in-person interviews simulate natural, everyday conversation and produces more self-generated responses. Rubin and Rubin (1995, p. 141) observed:

Given the need to build a relationship and the importance of visible cues in conversations, you’d rightly expect that telephones are not a major way of conducting qualitative interviews. In telephone interviews, all sorts of conversational cues are missing, making for difficult interviewing under the best of circumstances.

Some authors have commented upon this apparent bias. Sturges and Hanrahan (2004) noted that qualitative researchers use telephones infrequently owing to concerns about whether telephones are appropriate for the task. Tausig and Freeman (1988, p. 418) pointed out that interviews typically are assumed to be face-to-face, not via telephone, and that the thought of conducting a clinical research interview via telephone “invites clinical and methodological skepticism.” Although both author groups then proceeded to challenge these assumptions, their writing also reveals that they share this bias. Sturges and Hanrahan noted the lack of mode comparison research, conducted such a study themselves, and found that data from telephone interviews were comparable to data from in-person interviews. Yet, they described this project as exploring “whether telephone interviews can ‘stand in’ for face-to-face interviews” (p. 115), suggesting that in-person interviews were the default mode. Tausig and Freeman provided an account of conducting 48 telephone interviews on sensitive topics that elicited rich data. Nevertheless, their article is entitled “The next best thing to being there: Conducting the clinical research interview by telephone,” suggesting that they share the very bias that their article so effectively challenges.

To summarize the findings of my review, although authors have reported that qualitative telephone interviews may have many advantages and yield high quality data, there is relatively little formal evidence to be found regarding their merits and shortcomings vis-á-vis face-to-face interviews. There is a need for additional well-designed studies comparing interview modalities in qualitative research. Given the lack of evidence, it is unwarranted to favor any particular interview mode for qualitative interviews. Nevertheless, face-to face interviews appear to be viewed as the “gold standard” for qualitative research (McCoyd & Kerson, 2006, p. 389).

An Explanation for the Bias: Absence of Visual Cues and Data Loss and Distortion

This bias toward face-to-face interviewing appears to reflect a fundamental concern about the absence of visual cues and its impact on data quality. Because telephone conversation is indeed talk “constrained to sounds, split from action” (Hopper, 1992, p. 8), the absence of visual cues cannot be disputed. Absence of visual cues is said to have a number of effects, including the loss of informal communication and contextual information, the inability to develop rapport or to probe, and the misinterpretation of responses (Chapple, 1999; Creswell, 1998; Opdenakker, 2006; Sturges & Hanrahan, 2004; Sweet, 2002). Yet, there is little research confirming these effects, and there is no clear understanding of how they might compromise qualitative data.

In this section, I try to clarify and evaluate the underlying concerns regarding the effects of absence of visual cues. Absence of visual cues could result in data loss or distortion, which in turn, could harm data quality. Three principal types of data loss or distortion might result from the absence of visual cues: (a) loss of nonverbal data, which includes responses such as facial expressions and body language; (b) loss of contextual data, which includes information about the environment as well as physical features of the respondent (e.g., appearance, manners, race or age); and (c) loss or distortion of verbal data, which consists of spoken words.

Loss of Nonverbal Data

Nonverbal interview data can contain cognitive or emotional content, and are thought to contribute to the richness of data and interpretation of participants’ verbal responses (Burnard, 1994; Chapple, 1999; Fontana & Frey, 2005). Information conveyed in gestures and actions is undeniably lost via telephone. However, these data may not always be essential or helpful, as nonverbal behavior can easily be misinterpreted (Burnard; Chapple; Sturges & Hanrahan, 2004). Furthermore, these data may not actually be used extensively in analyses that rely heavily on transcripts rather than on field notes. Finally, there may be ways of compensating for the absence of nonverbal responses, such as intonation (Opdenakker, 2006), and hesitations and sighs (Sturges & Hanrahan). As Hopper (1992, p. 8) noted regarding telephone conversation, “visual cues are absent, but what those cues accomplish in face-to-face encounters does not go undone.” Thus, while nonverbal responses are lost in the telephone mode, there may be compensation for their loss, and, when present, nonverbal responses are not always interpreted accurately or used.

Loss of Contextual Data

Opdenakker (2006) stated that a disadvantage of being unable to see participants is that the interviewer cannot see where the interviewee is situated. The value placed on contextual data may be traced to the origins of qualitative research in sociology and anthropology (Patton, 2002; Warren, 2002) in which ethnographic methods, most notably, participant-observation, are prized However, not all qualitative designs include participant-observation.

Furthermore, there are different types of qualitative interviews, including informal interviews occurring during fieldwork, and more formal, focused and structured interviews (Patton, 2002; Warren, 2002). Natural settings are sometimes discouraged for more formal interviews to decrease environmental distractions (Creswell, 1998), suggesting that context can sometimes interfere with collecting interview data. If a formal telephone interview is the only interaction between researcher and participant, contextual data indeed might be lost. For example, features such as participant attire or residence that may signal economic status would not be conveyed. But such data do not always enhance the understanding or interpretation of words (Burnard, 1994). Accordingly, loss of contextual data may not always undermine the quality of qualitative findings.

Loss or Distortion of Verbal Data

Use of the telephone might reduce rapport, probing, and in-depth discussion, and may result in distortion of data. The development of rapport is central to qualitative research interview processes (Fontana & Frey, 2005; Patton, 2002), and loss of rapport might diminish the quality or quantity of responses (Sweet, 2002). Rapport may be reduced if it is more difficult to create a “good interview ambience” (Opdenakker, 2006,¶ 13) via telephone. In fact, however, participants may feel more relaxed and able to disclose sensitive information when not in the interviewer’s presence (Chapple; Kavanaugh & Ayres, 1998; Opdenakker). In addition, interviewers can employ strategies to create a sense of connectedness and to put participants at ease. These include taking time to chat informally before the interview (Burnard, 1994) and careful choice of words and intonation to respond empathically and non-judgmentally to disclosures of sensitive information (Tausig & Freeman, 1988).

Telephones are also thought to reduce rapport through loss of contextual or nonverbal data (Sweet, 2002). However, there are ways of compensating for this loss; interviewers can cultivate awareness of auditory cues, such as anger, sarcasm, curt responses, or “rapid, compulsive speech” (Tausig & Freeman, 1988, p. 424). Furthermore, certain visual data, such as race, attire or neighborhood, may not necessarily build rapport. Smith (2005) noted that because the physical appearance of interviewer and participant has less influence in the telephone interview, participants might feel more at ease and focused on the conversation.

Another way that telephones might be thought to reduce rapport is that the use of technology per se may be viewed as intrusive. Shuy (2002) asserted that telephone interviews generate less natural responses than face-to-face interviews. But the widespread use of recording devices (Bernard, 2002; Creswell, 1998), as well as the burgeoning use of the Internet for qualitative interviews (Beck, 2005; Egan, Chenoweth, & McAuliffe, 2006; Fontana & Frey, 2005; Hamilton & Bowers, 2006; Mann & Stewart, 2003; McAuliffe, 2003; Meho, 2006), suggest that the use of technology is actually well-accepted in qualitative research. Furthermore, given the increasingly widespread use of cellular telephones (Carr & Worth, 2001), telephone communication is probably perceived as quite natural in many contemporary societies.

Apart from the possible impact of the absence of nonverbal cues on rapport, loss or distortion of data may occur if telephone interviews inhibit probing or in-depth discussion. If telephone interviews are shorter or less comprehensive than face-to-face interviews, then quantity and quality of data would be compromised. Some authors have suggested that, when comparing telephone and face-to-face interviews, quantity and quality of data obtained via telephone are not affected adversely (Sturges & Hanrahan, 2004; Sweet, 2002). In contrast, others have reported that telephone interviews have less depth than other modes (McCoyd & Kerson, 2006) and that the absence of visual cues decreases the ability to probe (Carr & Worth, 2001). Carr and Worth also reported, however, that less probing results in conversational pauses that permit respondents to provide more in-depth responses that might otherwise have been blocked by the interviewer interrupting.

This observation suggests the key role that silence may play in telephone interviews. Sweet (2002, p. 62) found it “difficult to assess silences and nuances” on the telephone, and Tausig and Freeman (1988, p. 424) noted that:

(on the telephone), silences had to be tolerated and assessed so that the interviewer could act appropriately. Thoughtful pauses differed from defensive or angry ones, and were often differentiated by the degree of discomfort experienced by the interviewers.

Researchers also may feel awkward when interacting with participants in person. In fact, considerable attention has been devoted to imparting tactics for cultivating relationships and rapport when collecting qualitative data in person, for example, how to enter the field as a participant-observer, how to conduct interviews on sensitive subjects, or how to conduct interviews that respect different cultural values (Bernard, 2002; Kavanaugh & Ayres, 1998; Patton, 2002). The emphasis on developing rapport and on putting interviewee and interviewer at ease is also evident in the literature on electronic interviews. Suggestions for addressing the electronic “nonresponse in a virtual venue” (Mann & Stewart, 2003, p. 618) – the electronic equivalent of verbal silence - include responding promptly to participant questions, asking follow-up questions, and sharing similar experiences.

Apparently, then, collecting or generating interview data creates interpersonal demands, regardless of mode, and some researchers might be more comfortable conducting interviews via telephone. Irrespective of mode, however, it seems that interviewers need to develop strategies to feel comfortable, put participants at ease, and develop rapport. Given the limited attention to qualitative telephone interviews, the literature describing such tactics is scant, although some articles do offer such advice (Burnard, 1994; McCoyd & Kerson, 2006; Sturges & Hanrahan, 2004; Tausig & Freeman, 1988). But this need could be addressed more fully were qualitative telephone interviews to become more widely embraced.

Finally, when interviewee and interviewer are not visible to one another, they might misrepresent themselves (Nunkoosing, 2005), and researchers may be unable to detect “misleading information” (Garbett & McCormack, 2001, p. 101). If true, this would result in distorted data, yet there is no evidence that this occurs more often via telephone than in person.

In summary, although loss of rapport, inability to probe, or deception via telephone may be thought to result in loss of or distortion of verbal data, there is no evidence that these problems arise. Furthermore, interviewing can create interpersonal stressors, and interviewers may need mode-specific tactics designed to assist them in navigating these challenges.

Discussion

The apparent assumption that face-to-face interviews are superior to telephone interviews may stem from a legitimate concern that lack of visual cues could lead to data loss or distortion. If these losses occurred, data analysis and interpretation might be affected, harming the quality of research findings. Yet, there is little evidence that data loss or distortion occurs, or that interpretation or quality of findings is compromised when interview data is collected by telephone. In fact, telephones may allow respondents to disclose sensitive information more freely, and telephone conversation has been reported to contain several features that render it particularly suitable for research interviews (Hopper, 1992).

The neglect of, or bias against, telephone interviewing in the qualitative research literature contrasts strikingly with the growing interest in qualitative electronic interviewing (Beck, 2005; Egan, Chenoweth, & McAuliffe, 2006; Fontana & Frey, 2005; Mann & Stewart, 2003; McAuliffe, 2003; McCoyd & Kerson, 2006; Meho, 2006). Internet interviews are seen as “cutting edge” (McAuliffe, p. 59), as offering “unprecedented opportunities” for conducting qualitative research (Meho, p. 1293), and as a way to develop meaningful relationships with participants and to give voice to the disenfranchised (Beck). Thus, it seems that telephone interviews neither have the endorsement enjoyed by face-to-face interviews, which are seen as the gold standard, nor the excitement generated by Internet interviews, which are seen as “challenging methodological boundaries (McAuliffe, p. 59).

More research is needed comparing these different interview modalities, examining such factors as researchers’ and respondents’ experiences of them, their impact on the nature and quality of data, their use for studying topics of varying sensitivity and complexity, and their effectiveness when interviewing participants varying in age, sex, and health and social status. Researchers also should explore when any one interview mode might be appropriate or inappropriate to use and generate strategies for establishing rapport and eliciting comprehensive and detailed responses via different modes. Such investigations will help determine whether the face-to-face mode deserves to remain the gold standard for qualitative research interviews, and enable the development of evidence-based guidelines for qualitative researchers who seek to optimize the quality of their interview data.

Acknowledgments

The author gratefully acknowledges Margaret Grey, DrPH, RN, FAAN and Lois Sadler, PhD, APRN-BC, PNP for their advice and many helpful suggestions for developing and editing earlier versions of this manuscript.

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