Duration, Dominance and Depth in Telephone and Face-to-Face Interviews: A Comparative Exploration

  • Annie Irvine Social Policy Research Unit, University of York, UK


Traditionally, methodological textbooks have advised that the telephone mode is not well suited to the task of qualitative interviewing. At the same time, there are well-rehearsed arguments as to why telephone interviews may be a useful option in some circumstances. Despite this debate, there remains very limited systematic empirical exploration of differences in the process and outcomes of qualitative telephone vs. face-to-face interviews. Based on a recent ‘mode comparison’ study that sought to contribute to this gap in methodological knowledge, analysis of the overall duration, dominance and depth of talk between researcher and participant in a small set of telephone and face-to-face interviews revealed the following findings. (i) Despite much variation in individual interview length, telephone interviews were typically, and on average, shorter than those conducted face-to-face. (ii) The shorter duration of telephone interviews was a result of the participant speaking for less time, rather than a proportional reduction in talk from both parties. Additionally, in telephone interviews, participants generally held the floor for shorter stretches at a time. (iii) The researcher did slightly more talking during telephone interviews than in face-to-face interactions. Combined with the reduced amount of participant talk, this meant that the researcher tended to hold the floor for a greater proportion of the time in telephone interviews. (iv) To a moderate degree, the shorter length of telephone interviews could be accounted for by a reduction in coverage of themes. However, the principal explanation appeared to lie in a tendency for telephone interview participants to provide relatively less detail or elaboration. In this article, we consider why these differences may occur, if and how they might matter to the research, and how we might wish to modify interview practices in response.

Author Biography

Annie Irvine, Social Policy Research Unit, University of York, UK
Annie Irvine is a Research Fellow in the Social Policy Research Unit (SPRU) at the University of York. Her research is focused on health, disability, employment and social security benefits. She has particular interests in mental health and employment and in qualitative interview methods.