The Rules of Conversation: Another Win for Science

I was provided the opportunity to conduct a mock qualitative interview a few weeks ago. So what if my interview participant was a class cohort?  The challenge of capturing good data pertinent to the objectives of the study was the same: capture sufficient data to allow for qualitative coding and analysis later. 

Question: What is the best way to capture both individual and social contexts of a participant’s lived experiences during qualitative interviews?

The Science of Qualitative Interviewing

Ravitch and Carl (2015) explain, context is everything. The authors wrote that “every interview is conducted within multiple, intersecting contexts.” The inference is that regardless of the participant being interviewed, where the participant is being interviewed, or how the participant is being interviewed, the interviewer should remain cognizant of the context that might shape the participant’s opinions and views (p. 148).

After warning that “general questions lead to general responses,” Ravitch and Carl advise a skilled interviewer understands that interviews happen within a complex ecosystem of a participant’s life and that both individual and social conditions can influence a participant’s response to interview questions (p. 148).

The Rules of Conversation

Work by Gibson (2003) supports Ravitch and Carl by noting there are two certain things about conversation. First, he explains that conversation is “rule-governed” concerning who speaks and what they say and how the dynamics of discourse ensure basic levels or order and intelligibility. Absent the rules, Gibson opines, the phenomenon of conversation would not exist which would lead to perpetual chaotic encounters (p. 1335) among humans. Gibson argues the rules of conversation must be established to ensure only one person speaks at a time speaks, the conversation is set at a level that enables all parties to understand what is being said, and discord is avoided or limited to the extent that keeps an open and honest exchange ongoing between the parties.

The second thing Gibson explains about conversation is that life can deal one or the other party an unfair hand in terms of who gets to talk, when, and under what terms and referred to this as-as “differentiation of persons.” Gibson opines here that personalities and positions understand that conversations can lead to either favorable or unfavorable consequences which can impact the balance of what is said and heard between the parties involved. Gibson wrote these two rules lead to tension during conversations between parties that should be addressed simultaneously for full and open conversation to flow (p. 1336). Calling this a “participation shift,” Gibson advocates that skilled interviews then must learn to manage the turn-by-turn transformation of the interview process using the two stated rules if the full width and breadth of data collection using interviews is to be achieved (p. 1368).

If Gibson’s position is accepted, how can qualitative interviewers design questions that capture both the individualized underlying social processes that lie at the root of a participant’s responses (micro-sociological) and the systematic or social environmental process that might influence a participant’s answers?  

How to Conduct Quality Qualitative Interviews

Ravitch and Carl wrote a skilled interviewer’s ability to distinguish between individualized and contextualized responses by gaining an understanding in advance of how the questions to be asked might shape a person’s responses and how such variable will impact the study’s goals (p. 148). The authors infer the key to making the distinction is in how the questions are framed.  For instance, Ravitch and Carl wrote interviewers write research questions that probe for the:

  • Individualized (micro-social) and environmental/systematic (macro-social) contexts of the participant lived experience and their relevance to research study;
  • Specifics surrounding places, times, positions, and circumstances while capturing the participants’ lived experiences;
  • Assumptions the participant is making regarding what the interviewer or society knows about the phenomena; and
  • Implicit cultural or economic aspects of the participant’s thoughts, opinions, attitudes, and beliefs about the topic and the participant’s views related to the suitability of their feelings.

Ravitch and Carl advise these foundational principles for writing qualitative research questions can lead to quality data collection during structured, semi-structured, and unstructured qualitative interviews by ensuring sufficient data is provided in the observation and fieldnotes to allow for comprehensive data analysis later (153-154).

Jennie’s Perspective

The topic of inquiry for my mock qualitative interview was how do teachers feel about student engagement, using 21st Century problem-based learning techniques, and the systematic/cultural impediments and supports provided to teachers interested in using problem-based learning strategies.

The individualized context was that my cohort had taught at a local high school that fully supported teachers that used student engagement and problem-based learning to promote student experiential learning. The interviewee described several instances within stated timeframes where she had used problem-based learning in her classroom as well as described several experiences where she received support from her principal while using student engagement and problem-based learning strategies. The interviewee also conveyed that she realized that all school districts do not support these types of innovations and that other districts are failing to provide their teachers with adequate training to implement such initiatives.  

The results were that, had if the assignment had required me to code and analyze the data after the interview for inference and conclusions – I had enough micro-sociological and macro-sociological to have been able to do so.

“Good job, Jennie!”, some of you may be thinking. However, the caveat is, my professor developed the interview questions. Point proved. Conducting good qualitative interviews is science. When properly planned and orchestrated – it will work every time.


Ravitch, S. M., & Carl, N. M. (2015). Qualitative research: Bridging the conceptual, theoretical, and methodological. Sage Publications.

Gibson, D. R. (2003). Participation Shifts: Order and Differentiation in Group Conversation. Social Forces, 81(4), 1335.

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