Assistant Professor, University of Iowa

Before You Transcribe That Interview…

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.



19 thoughts on “Before You Transcribe That Interview…”

  • Thanks for the post and sharing those links–I think I know a qual researcher or two who could use them!

    In general, I prefer the “naturalism” approach at least for the transcriptions. If you start with all the “ums” “by the ways” and “even me’s”, you can remove them later when writing up the research, as you indicated will be your approach. But, if you get rid of them right away, they’re lost and it would be far more time consuming to go back through and insert them. Also, it’s very important to take into account cultural utterances that may actually affect the meaning and to not treat all of these seeming unnecessary words/phrases as such.

    And, lastly, in regards to transcription services. I think they’re great for giving the interview (other audio) its first go. The transcriptionist gets the basic stuff down and from my experience are pretty accurate–I’ve used CastingWords–and then I listen and edit the transcript to be more “natural.”

  • I wonder if you transcribe the “Naturalistic” style because of the video background – I do the same thing when I transcribe and I imagine it’s because I’m used to editing interviews and have to know precisely where the edits go…?

  • @Paul, that makes a lot of sense. Timing is so important in video that you need to know these things. I have avoided some quotes because of how they sound, and I have definitely spent a decent amount of time “denaturalizing” interview audio. On the Media had a great story about “cleaning up” audio on NPR – http://www.onthemedia.org/yore/transcripts/transcripts_123104_curtain.html

    I should also note that even though my method is more naturalistic than the transcriptionist, there are definitely more thorough ways to do this as well. Oliver, Serovich, and Mason provide a key that looks like this:

    () – Just noticeable pause
    (.3) – Pause time in tenths of seconds
    .hh – Speaker’s in-breath
    hh – Speaker’s out-breath
    : – Stretching of preceding sound or letter
    underline – Speaker emphasis
    . – Full stop or stopping fall in tone
    ((sniff)) – Indicates a non-verbal activity
    Wor- – Shows a sharp cut-off

    I am definitely not that thorough.

  • Hi there – I did a random Google search and came across your sources. They are really great, thank you for posting them. Your work looks really interesting!

  • Thanks for taking the time and sharing ur experiences with us. I have been pondering these questions for long… Starting with my first interviews next week.

  • Thanks for the clear and straightforward advcie here.

    I was actually looking for software that will convert audio to text (professional services too expensive for a skint student) but have now resigned myself to the lonnnnng route of manual transcription.

    Having read this I at least feel like I’m slightly better prepared – and will probably go for the naturalistic approach for the reasons laid about by Melissa’s post.

  • found this through google, and it was really helpful.

    i remember reading slides about types of technique that you can used for transcribing. There was three of them but i forgot the names. But it was from the general version (more less similar to denaturalism) to more detail version. maybe you have any idea about it or any reference that i can read because it’s hard to find it…

  • I started my transcription business almost 16 years ago. I do several different types of transcription– insurance, board meetings, dissertation interviews, non-dissertation qualitative research interviews, etc.–with insurance claims and dissertation research interviews at the top. For all my transcripts I ask the person requesting them if they have a specific format, if they need everything I hear, all utterances, verbatim, leave out the insignificant utterances, include or not include false starts, etc. If they don’t know what they want, I tell them what I think based on my experience. But I have never seen anything like is found at the links you provided…thank you !! I’ve never heard the terms “naturalism” and “denaturalism” either. Insurance recorded statements, for example, would always fall into the “naturalism” category. Other transcription I do has pretty much been determined by the person requesting the transcript and what they prefer. Sometimes it can be straight “naturalism” sometimes all the way in the other direction, including correcting grammar, and then a lot of stuff everywhere in between. Thanks again for your article and the links. I think the information will be very helpful to me, and some of my clients as well.

  • Thanks for information on transcribing, about to begin on this adventure and found your information enlightening.

  • Very useful information on some guidelines for transcribing. However, as you said, transcribing can be very tedious and not everyone has the time to do them. Nowadays, there are plenty of transcription services such DirectCaption.com that can get your transcriptions done in a timely manner and on the cheap too.

  • Excellent! Just what I was looking for! Not sure if you are still checking this, but had a question. What about when the person goes off topic to something completely unrelated to the research question. In these cases, do you paraphrase the content? Anyone have any references for dealing with this situation.

    • Thanks Amy. To answer your question, I think it depends on the preference of the researcher and the utility of the content. I’ve known people who rely on ellipses every time someone goes off topic. On the other hand, I tend to type it all out, unless there is an interruption, phone call, etc. that is clearly not connected to the study. My worry is that something I deem “irrelevant” at the time of transcription will turn out to be quite relevant later as my understanding of the study evolves. If I don’t transcribe that material at the time, it becomes invisible to me later on when I might want it. I don’t have any references on this, but if you find any, I’d love to see them.

  • This is a great post, I’m bookmarking it for future reference and plan on citing at least 1 of your readings in a paper.

    This time around I’m saving some time by listening through the recordings first and selecting sections to transcribe.

    I may be doing a larger field-work project though, depending on my grade for this paper. In that case I’ll be making a full (mostly de-naturalised) transcript for each interview.

    Thanks for the advice!

    Luke

  • Thank you! Right what I needed during this process. Question: Am I to transcribe only the participate or both the participate and interviewer?

    • Glad to hear this was helpful. As far as transcribing the interviewer, that depends on the structure of the interview. I’ve conducted interviews that were very scripted, so it wasn’t necessary to hear exactly how I worded each question since the wording was very similar from interview to interview. But I’ve also conducted semi-structured interviews in which the conversation flow was very important and something I might include in the final manuscript. Then it’s important to get your wording exactly right, because the response is very dependent on the question.

      • Thanks for the response. I am transcribing for Chapter 4 of my dissertation. I am asking each participant the same research questions, although some participants needed additional explanation of the question during the interview.

  • Thanks for this post, Brian.
    I completed my interviews, and don’t know where to go from here. This post is a good push to start the transcription process!

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