4.4 Doing in-depth interviews 188.8.131.52 Mechanical recording Mechanical recording devices came into sociological research in a big way in the late 1960s after Phillips launched the audio cassette in 1965. Prior to that, reel-to-reel tape recorders were too big and cumbersome for field research. Lee (2004, p. 878) noted that initially:
the slower tape speed of cassette recorders meant that sound quality was inferior to that of reel-to-reel machines... . By the late 1970s, however, improved sound quality and further miniaturization saw a shift in favour of the cassette recorder. Perhaps epitomized by the Walkman, introduced (originally as a playback-only machine) by Sony in 1979, the era of the pocket tape recorder had arrived.
Mechanical recording devices may present certain difficulties. Some people may be reluctant to speak if they know they are being recorded, they may feel unable to relax or afraid to reveal personal or sensitive information.
When using a recording device, the traditional view is to make it unobtrusive by keeping out of the line of vision of the informant, who should be reassured that it serves only as a note-taking device. However, now that devices, such as digital recorders and video cameras, are so compact, interviewers often place the device right in front of the respondent or even ask the respondent to hold the device and talk into it (as microphones are built in).
In practice, audio recorders rarely present any real problem, especially for younger respondents; informants usually forget about the device even when they can see it. Nevertheless, if the use of a recording device does prevent the development of rapport between interviewer and interviewee, use of it should be discontinued. Lee (2004, p. 880) noted that:
It is true that, except in highly conflictual or repressive situations, few social groups now seem routinely hostile to being recorded. Nevertheless, it seems likely that there is a hierarchy of suspicion. Those of higher status or in positions of power typically have greater awareness about speaking on and off the record. Quite how far this has generated systematic patterns of disclosure bias in particular fields is difficult to assess.
However, there is relatively little research into how mechanical recording affects the interview situation, which is pertinent when addressing issues of reflexivity (see Section 1.11)
All methods of recording interview data pose difficulties and it is necessary to weigh up the advantages and disadvantages of the different approaches in relation to a specific research objective and a particular informant. It will be necessary to practice your data recording techniques before attempting to use them in a real interview. You may also find after conducting a first interview that they need some adaptation.
It is important to be familiar with the control features and functions of the mechanical recording device: how to turn it off and on, pause, how to insert and remove tapes or how to download digital recordings as well as being aware of the capacity of the machine. Before setting out, make sure the device works, that you have appropriate batteries plus at least one set of spares; that you have blank tapes if required or download adapter that fits your portable computer. When interviewing check the recorder to make sure you have started it appropriately and keep an eye on it to ensure that it has not stopped recording for any reason.
Using an interview guide, undertake at least two in-depth interviews with different people (Build on Activity 4.4.1 or Activity 4.4.3 if appropriate). Record the interviews in any way that is suitable to the situation. If you make notes during the interview, write them up as soon as possible after the interview is concluded. Similarly, if possible, transcribe tape-recordings while the interview is still fresh in your memory. This is a time demanding activity but is essential practice before undertaking field research