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  • Cathy G

Handling interviews in other people’s homes

Updated: Apr 19, 2023

Previous blogs focused on safety aspects of researching in the field, and one aspect of this is doing qualitative interviews in someone's home. Even though we are now in the post-COVID world (or should that be Covid-endemic-world?), there are multiple reasons you might consider a participant's private residence to be the right interview location.


Why interview in people’s homes?

The research requires it

The research topic may itself require it: if you are researching any topic where the home is a substantive part of the topic, then it is logical to conduct research in the home. Social workers and health visitors are obvious candidates for doing research in the home.

The research epistemology may also require it. Experience is situated and contextual, so when researching virtually any aspect of the subjective personal experience, an environment that is personal and relevant to your interviewee is more appropriate. If we are talking about managing personal debt, being present in the subjective environment may give valuable insight. Researchers may have to go beyond the socially scripted, or well-practiced responses that people give to questions. A response that No, we never order takeaways’, can be re-examined in the light of a stack of plastic trays in the kitchen. Your assumption that they are exaggerating is smashed as they tell you about their batch-cooking habits and freezing food in shop-bought re-cyclable trays. Not all research designs will need to be this intrusive (You don’t have to be digging into people’s cupboards), but context is worth considering.

Being present in a context allows us access to areas of conversation that participants may view as irrelevant. For example, during conversation they mention that they love reading, yet there are very few books in sight. This might prompt you to say what you have noticed. Conversation then may then reveal complex strategies (not previously described in the literature) for borrowing books and circulating them in the community through pop-up libraries, without having to clutter their home. Examining new strands and insights to reveal unknowns is vital to qualitative research.


It’s a private space

Opening up and feeling safe might be easier for people in their own home. There is no risk of work colleagues, for example, knowing that they have been speaking to you. Home responsibilities or other factors may mean that they cannot be away from the home or travel to you. People may speak more naturally, and in more detail, when there is less pressure to present a public face and they are in a familiar environment.

None the less, participants will probably be nervous; even more nervous than you. Remember, you know what the process is and you’ve asked the questions before (if only as part of a practice or pilot interview). So, do take your time to ‘read the signals’. Are they sitting up, leaning forwards, ready to take questions, or do them seem more wary? Certainly, I find going through some set procedures can help settle nerves. My personal process is to flourish some paper-work (project description and consent form) to signal a formal start, before showing them any equipment (like recorders) that they might like to have control over, and finally asking them an open question around their interest in the research. This signals, a change in tone and role; they can talk freely. I’m just there to facilitate that talk. This process is the same for me even if I’m in my own office with them, but I have found when in people’s homes, without it, endless chatter about the weather or traffic (standard neutral chit-chat in the British Isles) can eat in to valuable research time.

One might argue that a private, neutral space, like a bookable meeting room, might be more suitable for sensitive or traumatic subjects. Interviewees may wish to keep the experience of re-visiting emotionally difficult events away from their home. So, consider offering a choice to participants. Researching sensitive or distressing topics will be the subject of a future blog.


It’s practical

Remember there are many ways of gathering data without having to go into people’s homes. Remote recording devices (video and audio), whilst intrusive in ways that we are still coming to understand, can create highly personal records for qualitative analysis, not just observations. Participant-centred techniques, like journaling, photo-montage and vlogging (even with low-tech tools) can sometimes give even more valuable insight for researchers, so don’t just default to interview. Go for what is best for the purpose of your research.


What’s expected of me?

Common courtesy and professionalism

Without doubt the most common question I get asked about researching in people’s homes is whether to accept or refuse the offer of hospitality i.e. a drink. Students felt in a bit of bind: to accept might breech some hitherto unknown code of professionalism, and to refuse might cause offence to the host, and damage the trust that is necessary for in-depth research. This bind seemed to be felt most acutely by people who were researching across cultural groups, or where they themselves came from a minority group within a culture. My advice would be to look to the cultural norm first, then consider professional boundaries.

I am very reserved in other people’s homes (or I used to be), so for example, for me being professional meant asking more questions and being more direct about the need for quiet-ish space to talk, than my shy private-self might feel comfortable with. For others being professional might involve being more backward-at-coming-forward (i.e. developing a little reticence), or changing their tone, or choice of language. For example, the ‘host’ might reveal that they have photos of a context which could be relevant. ‘Oooh, show me!’ might be a little over-familiar and demanding compared with ‘Oh, that’s interesting. Is it okay to show me?’ which, is less effusive and gives choice.

Speaking of cultural norms, the other area that students rarely ask about is, what to wear. Most have gathered the sense that what we might call ‘smart casual’ is appropriate in most cases. But speaking of clothing, do bear in mind that you might be expected to remove shoes without being asked, or sitting on someone’s nice furniture in a soaking wet coat might be rude, as well as uncomfortable for you. You might realise after 20 minutes of discomfort, perched on the edge of a stool, or with all your bags clustered around you, and gagging for a glass of water, that you should have said something earlier because it’s distracting you.

So, should I accept an offer of a drink or not?

For me it depends upon the level of rapport that I have already established, and I have varying responses:

‘Just a water would be lovely, thanks.’
‘Only if you’re having one, otherwise I’m fine.’
‘Yes please! Tea with milk, with if you have it, or just as it comes.’

Or more rarely, as I’m a thirsty person.

‘Ah, no thanks, I’m grand, but don’t let me stop you’.

Occasionally a drink or some food will be presented to you without preamble. A ‘thank you’ and perhaps a polite sip or bite is probably sufficient in most cases, unless you are thirsty or hungry, or you’re doing more in-depth anthropological/ethnographic work. In which case a clink of glasses and a cry of “Nostrovia!” before knocking it back in one, might be called for. A rather extreme example, but it serves to remind that knowing and understanding your purpose in being in someone’s home is probably your best guide for your behaviour if all other knowledge deserts you.

It is worth remembering that not everything that is presented to you will be as you anticipated; dirty cups, a puddle of water in a pint glass, an elaborate tea-set. Expect the unexpected. A colleague, who was interviewing parents about their child’s special needs, was once sipping happily from a mug of coffee during an interview, when the mother mentioned that her son had a habit of wee-ing in the mugs. “Oh really. And is he still doing that?” my colleague, responded, calmly placing her mug back on the coffee-table. She now accepts a drink if offered (usually “Just water thanks”), but never takes so much as a sip.

Personally, when doing research with older British people, I learnt quickly that refusing a cup of tea made people look at you like you are a weirdo, and they closed up for the rest of the interview. I hate tea, so just had to stomach it to keep the research going! - Ed


What is there to be worried about?

Having extolled the benefits of the insight that personal context can give you as a researcher, there are bounds to your curiosity. Going around opening cupboards and doors uninvited, or generally ‘snooping’, is definitely not courteous or professional and it’s unethical. If, for some reason that I cannot begin to imagine, your research design absolutely requires you to covertly examine the contents of people’s drawers, then prior ethical approval is required. Like most forms of covert research, participant debrief and post-debrief consent would be required.

These things are definitely best discussed with others, and if you still don’t feel you would avoid offence, then communicate with your participants in advance. Your participant information should lay-out all the common elements of any project, such as how long, any recording or technical equipment, need for a space that is suitable to talk, but an informal call/text/email checking that it will be OK to leave your overnight night-bag in the hall may also be needed.

So, in terms of practical advice, think about what you will really have to have with you, what kind of environment is essential, and what are absolute deal breakers. Communicate what you need rather than what you don’t. Terrified of dogs? Find climbing flights of stairs difficult? Can’t cope with 8-year-olds squabbling in the background? TV on in the corner? Family members coming and going? Then you need to request in advance a quiet room where you can be free from the interruptions of normal family life. Some of my personal needs I deal with myself. I’m allergic to cats and nuts, but not so much that it would kill me, so I take antihistamines and don’t eat the kind of nibbles or biscuits that are customarily presented to guests. If an issue presents itself during the interview, then I ask myself if it is in keeping with the research purpose and will it enhance the ambience for the research without causing undue distress for any of us.

Occasionally you will make mistakes, like forgetting to have spare batteries or knocking your tea over (another reason for sticking to water), or getting flustered. Breathe! When asked about advice for new researchers, several participants in our on-going research project, Qualitative Researcher Journeys, referred to the privilege of being allowed into people’s lives and homes. Jackie said that she had never felt nervous in people’s homes. She was more concerned for the nerves of participants allowing you, a stranger, into their personal space. Reassuring and informing participants is especially important given the crossing of this important psychological and social boundary.

Finally, the concept of home is in itself problematic, but for the purpose of this blog I have envisaged a private living space, which is likely to be a living room of some sort where guests are normally invited. This may even be outdoors (especially in COVID times), I’m thinking more garden seat than standing either side of a gate (as I know some of my students have had to do), but I’d love to hear comments on the types of spaces where you will be doing your interviews in the comments below.

If you are a researcher with a disability, you will probably have thought about your requirements far more than most, and found ways of communicating what works for you and your participants. Please do share your thoughts and experience below.


Resources

Beard, Maria (2018) An exploration of the factors associated with paediatric burn injuries in rural and peri-urban Malawi. PhD thesis, University of Nottingham. http://eprints.nottingham.ac.uk/id/eprint/49174


Forth-coming. Gibbons C.A. Qualitative Researcher Journeys Project. Quirkos Ltd.


This article first appeared on the blog for Quirkos.com 24 October 2022. It is reproduced here with an update to paragraph one, and with the kind permission of Daniel Turner. Director of Quirkos.



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