Posted by: Mike Plett | May 15, 2014

Interview transcription and ‘unlicensed surgery’ on participants’ identity

Lindlof and Taylor’s chapter on qualitative interviewing offered a lot of food for thought. I was especially struck by their discussion of the process of transcription. As a journalist, and even in my current role as a communications specialist, I’ve struggled with how far I should go in “cleaning up” ungrammatical and extraneous speech. Sometimes such editing can smooth out distinctive characteristics in the subject’s speech. Lindlof and Taylor provocatively state that “the kindest interpretation of this sort of editing is that we are trying to make the content of their speech more accessible. Less charitably—and more truthfully—we are performing unlicensed surgery on the participants’ identity” (2011, p. 215).

I believe researchers and journalists have a duty to transcribe their interviews as close to verbatim as possible. But as a communications specialist for OSEA, the interviews I conduct with our union members receive more aggressive “cleaning up” because my goal is to ensure that our members are shown in the best light possible, which hopefully also means helping further the interest of the union. But at the same time I do not want the members to appear inauthentic, which is why agree with Lindlof and Taylor that capturing distinctive speech is an “ethically and politically uncertain art” (2011, p. 215). I’m curious how many of us have participated in such “unlicensed surgery.”

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