Before You Transcribe That Interview…

Thankfully, I am almost done transcribing all of my dissertation interviews. While the transcription process helps me get intimately familiar with my “data,” it is also a time-consuming, repetitive, and some-what unpleasant task. It makes my neck cramp, my shoulders tighten up, and my vision blurry. Someone recently gave me a gift certificate for a massage. I think I will redeem that soon.

Although I did the vast majority of these interviews myself, I did hire a transcriptionist for two longer interviews. When reviewing the first one last night, I realized the transcriptionist and I had been using much different approaches. Let me give an example to help illustrate the differences. Here’s an excerpt from one of my interview transcripts:

OK, basically these are stories that I myself have experienced by living here in Kibera. Stories that are touching. Stories that I’ve seen people, from people’s lives, you see. Sometimes you see I look at other people lives and I feel that the life that they are living should be told to the world, should be told to the leaders of this world, so like, so that they can think of what we can do to change this world.

While the hired transcriptionist did not do this interview, I imagine if s/he did, it would look like this:

These are stories that I myself have experienced by living here in Kibera. Stories that are touching. Stories that I’ve seen from people’s lives. Sometimes I look at other people’s lives and I feel that the life that they are living should be told to the world, should be told to the leaders of this world, so that they can think of what we can do to change this world.

As you can see, the second excerpt includes editing of “unnecessary” or “unintentional” or “habitual” words and utterances. I also added a big of grammar editing to top it off.

This got me thinking about the transcription process and wondering how I should present these interviews in the text of my dissertation. So I pulled all the research methods books off my shelves, but the only brief reference I found was in Lindlof & Taylor’s Qualitative Communication Research Methods (2002, p. 206).

Unsatisfied, I did some searches online, and I found that there are actually a few published articles that focus on the process and the significance of transcription. (If you’re interested, I’d recommend “The Politics of Transcription” & “Transcription: Imperatives for Qualitative Research.”)

In Oliver, Serovich, and Mason’s “Constraints and Opportunities with Interview Transcription: Towards Reflection in Qualitative Research” (2005) the authors lay out the differences between the “two dominant modes: naturalism, in which every utterance is transcribed in as much detail as possible, and denaturalism, in which idiosyncratic elements of speech (e.g., stutters, pauses, nonverbals, involuntary vocalizations) are removed” (p. 1273-1274, emphasis mine).

The authors argue there isn’t a clear right way or wrong way to transcribe your interviews. In fact, most researchers use a hybrid of these two approaches. Generally, their decisions are based on epistemological orientations as well as their assessments of what best serves the research objectives. What they do advise is that qualitative researchers take some time early in the research design to reflect on which method of transcription is best for them:

The time affords researchers the ability to deliberate over transcription practices and how it affects participants and the goals of research. In relating these issues to research outcomes, it may be necessary to assess the constraints and opportunities of naturalized or denaturalized transcription. This concerns the nature of the research question and what is being sought in the data. (p. 1286)

Since my transcriptions are mostly finished, I will take this into consideration when incorporating interview quotes in my dissertation and account for that decision in my methods section. But in the future, I plan to work this out much earlier. And get more massages throughout.

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