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© Lee Harvey 2012–2019

Page updated 16 June, 2019

Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012–2019, Researching the Real World, available at
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A Guide to Methodology

CASE STUDY: Seven kinds of probes (from Edwards and Holland, 2013)

H. Russell Bernard (2000) specified seven seven different kinds of probes that can be used in, what he called, qualitative interviews.

1.Silence. This probe involves being quiet once an interviewee appears to have finished answering a question, perhaps nodding your head, and waiting for an interviewee to continue and add more to the topic they were discussing. It provides interviewees with time to reflect. Allowing silence to endure in an interview can be very difficult for interviewers, but effective if used sparingly.

2. Echo. This is where an interviewer repeats the last point that the interviewee has said, and is useful especially when they have been describing a process or event. Bernard asserts that this probe shows the interviewee that you have understood what they have said so far and encourages them to continue and expand.

3. Uh-huh. Saying 'yes', 'I see', 'right' and so on as an interviewee talks affirms what the interviewee has said. It can act rather like silent nodding of your head.

4. Tell-me-more. After an interviewee has answered a question, this probe encourages interviewees to expand and go further through follow on questions along the lines of 'Why do you feel like that about it?' 'Can you tell me more about that?' 'What did you mean when you said . . .?' 'What did you do then?' etc.

5. Long question. These sorts of probes can help at the beginning of interviews in the grand tour mould. Bernard gives the example of when he asked sponge divers he was interviewing, 'Tell me about diving into really deep water. What do you do to get ready, and how do you ascend and descend? What's it like down there?' (Bernard, 2000, p. 198). He also says that threatening or sensitive questions (he gives the example of condom use) can benefi t from a long rambling run up to them.

6. Leading. These are directive probes—though as Bernard points out, any question leads in an interview. The idea of asking leading questions is often treated in introductory methods textbooks for students as if it were an anathema, with concerns about 'bias'. The assumption is that if you ask a leading question then the answer you get will be produced by the way the question is put: such as 'do you think that this is a really bad way of behaving?' Qualitative interviewers with experience, however, know that this is rarely the case. Interviewees are perfectly capable of telling you that you do not understand what they mean; that actually they don't 'think it's a really bad way of behaving' at all.

7. Baiting. Bernard says this sort of probe is a 'phased assertion' in which the interviewer acts as if they already know something. He contends that either people then feel comfortable opening up or are likely to correct you if they think that you have got the wrong idea.

Bernard also provides advice on dealing with interviewees who either say too much or too little during an interview. 'Verbal' interviewees are very likely to go off at a tangent as they tell you much more than you need to know for your research topic. He recommends 'graceful' interruption and moving the interview back on track. 'Non-verbal' interviewees provide monosyllabic or 'don't know' responses to questions. As Bernard says: '[S]ometimes you can get beyond this, sometimes you can't.' If you can't, then it is best to 'cut your losses' (Bernard, 2000, p. 200). Indeed, often qualitative interviewers can feel themselves to be failures if they have to give up on an interview but this is not the case. There is little to be gained by continuing on for the sake of it and ending an interview may sometimes be the wisest course of action.


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