Interviewing research space Zoom

Zooming in: shifting time, space and distance

Anna Kotova

In mid-2020, my small, city-centre studio apartment became not only my lecture theatre and seminar room, but also the space where I conduct my research. I am, at time of writing, researching the use of video-call technology in prisons in England and Wales, looking specifically at how this is experienced by families of people in prison. This technology – an app called Purple Visits – was designed specifically for prisons with the necessary security features, but at its core it allows people in prison and their families to video-call in a way that has become increasingly familiar to many of us during COVID-19.

In a peculiar twist of fate, I have only been able to conduct interviews using either Zoom or the telephone. The original research design, mapped out prior to the start of the pandemic, would have involved me meeting with research participants face-to-face. So, whereas I would normally spend hours travelling to the interviewees, the research participants and I now enter each others’ homes, albeit virtually.

For those who opt for Zoom with the video on, this is all the more true. They can see my kitchen, the gin bar behind my shoulder, hear my neighbour’s dog (the bane of my current confined existence) barking next door to me. Likewise, I am able to see the research participants’ homes. At times, this helps build rapport – some show me their pets, their living rooms, or other items they are talking about during their interview (for example, one interviewee displayed the artwork she shared with her incarcerated loved one on their video-call and another her home office). Recently, an interviewee showed me the photos of her imprisoned sons. In another interview the interviewee’s teenage child was sat next to her and I could hear the young woman’s voice in the background. This would not have been possible were we sat in a community centre or office, and adds an additional dimension to the interviews.

There is also a sense of ease and comfort to these interviews, which, upon reflection, was unexpected for me as a researcher. In ‘normal’ times, these would be held in a private office, community centre, or a function room of a pub or cafe. We would be surrounded the hubbub and sensory intrusions of everyday life – the smells of coffee, the noises of doors shutting, even interruptions of someone knocking on the door or needing to pick something up from the room we were in. It would also be a neutral space with a sense of “official research interview” to the meeting. I would be dressed in work clothes, for example, and have my hair and makeup done. Online interviews are arranged (when possible) at a time when participants are mostly in a quiet and totally private place so there was very littlebackground noise. Likewise, I live alone, so there is very little interruption (noisy dog notwithstanding).

It is peculiar how the dynamics change when one is sat in their pyjama bottoms, in one’s own living room. Or, if the interview is on the phone, lying on the sofa or bed with my eyes closed, recovering from what is usually an exhausting day of teaching and marking. Even on video-calls, I am usually dressed in lounge or sports clothes rather than business attire. For me, the experience becomes an informal conversation, the sort of chat we have become so accustomed to during COVID-19 lockdowns. I become an over-worked academic in a similar situation to the stressed participants, who are often juggling work and childcare and supporting someone in prison. The researcher-participant hierarchy feels, to some extent, flattened for me – though of course I am aware that this might not be the case for those I interview. For instance, most appear on Zoom video calls dressed in what seem to be “work clothes”, and so might experience the interview as more formal than I do. Nonetheless, there is a sense of togetherness I seek to create via chats about lockdowns and COVID-19 and other topical issues (currently, this is vaccination in prisons!).

The sense of ease and the familiarity of one’s own setting helps most of the interviews to flow easily, with participants sharing their experiences openly and candidly. Those on Zoom are able to illustrate how they would stay still during a prison video-call, or show the backgrounds they use to ensure the call goes smoothly. This is because the technology can glitch or stop the call if portraitss or photographs are visible, or even if the caller’s head moves too much. This enables me to see exactly how the interviewees conduct themselves on a prison video-call – via them briefly reeancting the experience for me on a Zoom call – a fascinating experience which would not be possible offline (because I would not see the backgrounds, the framing of them on the screen, etc.).

Despite the positives, I wonder about the conflation of research and home. It is at times difficult to detach after the interviews, in a way that I might have done taking the train back after meeting with a participant. I would occupy myself with getting home, buying food, settling down for the evening. When one’s trip back is the few steps from the desk to the sofa, the interview lingers. It stays, intangibly, within my tiny studio apartment, the words of the interviewee lingering much longer in my mind as I reflect on what we have discussed. Since lockdown means very little sensory and experiential distraction – no trains to rush to, no adverse weather to be annoyed about – there is more headspace for the interview to occupy my mind after the event.

I am certain that remote interviewing is here to stay, at least for the foreseeable future – and it is undoubtedly beneficial for those who have accessibility needs or for whom there are other reasons why a Zoom interview might be easier, practically and/or emotionally. Nonetheless, we need to be careful and consider the ethics of ‘entering’ someone’s home, albeit virtually. I do not know whether I linger with the participants after the interview, but there is no reason to suggest why this would not be the case for participants as well as the researcher.

Interviewing during a pandemic, thus, raises some interesting questions about power its fluidity in research. To some degree, inequalities are flattened because participants can choose what they show me, where they are located (for example, they can choose a white wall rather than a place where I would be able to see much of their room). They can even choose for me to not see them or their home at all if they opt for a phone call. On the other hand, I as a researcher still enter their home environment to some extent, albeit indirectly. Morever, it is possible that my perception of power inequalities flattening is heightened because I am used to conducting research interviews and therefore am comfortable with lying down and conducting a phone interview from my bed! For participants, this may not be the case – this might be the very first time they have taken part in research. Ultimately, the choice should rest with the interviewee.