The pain, pain and some joy of transcription


Unlike mainly quantitative research that rely on the cliché of number crunching, interviews as used in qualitative research allow one to get access to a wealth of information that can provide insights over and above what the numbers tell. This makes the use of interview data in research a joy. However, the very joy of interview data is usually preceded by lots of pain. One can talk of the pain of drafting the ‘right’ questions, the pain of chasing after people to interview and even the pain of an interviewing ending in 5 minutes because the interviewee is too busy and only gives short answers. All these can be painful experiences with regards to the interview process. However, none of these can compare to the pain, the pain and more pain of undertaking transcriptions.

In the first week of April, 2015 I finally brought to an end a season of my PhD life that I hope I don’t have to repeat. It had been a season of transcribing a total of 38 interviews that ranged from 30 minutes to 120 minutes of audio recordings – the average been around 50 minutes. The strong aversion I developed towards those audio recordings partly account for why it has taken me this long to write on my transcription experience. I needed to let the wound heal 🙂 Now someone might ask, why do you torture yourself by manually transcribing all the interviews when there is technology available? Others might ask, did you really have to transcribe all these interviews? The short answer to the first question is that none of the available technology proved useful in getting around the accent and pronunciations of both myself and my interviewees. With regards to the second question, my goal was to get through this transcription process once and for all. I preferred that option to that of having to go back to the recordings every now and then to transcribe certain portions. I still like to go back and listen to the recordings but this time for enjoyment.

With the wound from this joyfully painful experience of transcription almost healed I can now look back on some of the lessons and irritations I learned from the process. These lessons will I hope make me a better interviewer in my next research projects.

Issue 1: Sound quality About 80% of my recordings were all fine in terms of sound quality. But the 20% with poor sound quality were a pain to transcribe. At some point I had to go over about 10 times before I managed to grasp just a single sentence. The issue of sound quality was partly avoidable as I could have placed the recorder much closer to my interviewees. The challenge however is how do you place a recorder in a way that it is not so confronting to your interviewee? People tend to hold back a bit when they know they are being recorded so for the most part I tried to make the recorder as unobtrusive as possible – therein lies the major cause of the poor quality of some of the audio recordings.  Furthermore due to the dum sor situation in Ghana some of my interview recordings features the humming of power generators. You can imagine the pain of transcribing such a recording.

Issue 2: Sentence construction The process of transcription requires an imposition of order on sentence structures. The interesting or rather challenging part of imposing order is when you get someone speaking for about 2 minutes non-stop with no discernible pauses or stops. How do you punctuate such speech? Sometimes there is no other option than to let the speech run so that you can have about 5 lines of typed speech with no comma or full stop. This is especially the case when people keep adding ‘and’, ‘you know’, ‘because’ etc to their sentences. With these they can keep running for over 100 lines of typed speech but leave you with no room to punctuate. Any attempts at punctuation renders the speech unintelligible. Indeed qualitative analysis already starts with the decision of how to punctuate interview data. This is the more reason why analysis need to be contextualised. Added to the issue of sentence construction was what I found to be overused words/phrases. Examples include – ‘okay’, ‘because’, ‘indeed’, ‘absolutely’, ‘you know’, ‘you understand?’, ‘ahuh’ and so many more.

Issue 3: Interruptions This is perhaps the biggest lesson am taking with me from this experience. Don’t interrupt your interviewees too much, note down your questions as they speak and ask them when they are done speaking. Constant interruption and back-and-forth short dialogues are a pain to transcribe. You will have to rewind the audio and get stuck on repeated repeats in order to transcribe. I realise now how ‘interrogative’ I got in some of the interviews. Being interrogative is all well and nice for getting to the bottom of an issue but I have now learned to do it in a different non-interruptive manner. The few occasions when I had joy from transcribing the interviews was when interviewees kept talking for like 5 minutes without me jumping in. It meant you can just keep typing without pressing pause or rewinding.

So, this is my brief evaluation and feedback on the transcription process. It might all come across as an arduous task which in many aspects it is. But the joy of having the typed out interviews in front of you that you can analyse over and over again makes the pain worth it. Oh, one important point I almost forget – during the transcription period I relearned the value of time. My days were strictly calculated and scheduled because on the average it took me 30 minutes to transcribe 5 minutes of interview recording – if the sound quality is good and am not interrupting too much. With a plan of 1 interview recording a day (9am – 5pm working time) I had my job cut out for me so I couldn’t spare any minute. Now at the other side of the transcription tunnel it is much easier to use time in a fluid way. I wish the whole PhD process was like the transcription phase where you knew exactly what you had to do and how long it will take you. Now at the analysis and writing stage things become so fluid and amorphous as you constantly keep chasing after refining arguments and conclusions. There is still joy in all this because I can just about see a flicker at the end of the tunnel 🙂

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