Transcription: Imperatives for Qualitative Research

"What are key understandings and issues evident in the transcription literature between 1979 and 2009? and what are the implications of these for qualitative research?" This very interesting journal article seeks to answer these research questions, and illuminates some of the important aspects of transcription for qualitative researchers.

Transcription is a practice central to qualitative research, yet the literature that addresses transcription presents it as taken for granted in qualitative studies. In this article the author provides a review of three decades of literature on transcription between 1979 and 2009. The review establishes core understandings and issues that have informed the transcription literature, including the ways it is said that transcription is overlooked in qualitative research. Discussion of the literature raises the need for more empirical studies that examine transcription in qualitative research, and suggests specific questions that qualitative researchers might address in relation to transcription and its reporting.
Davidson, Christina Rush. "Transcription: Imperatives for qualitative research." International Journal of Qualitative Methods 8.2 (2009): 35:52.

One of the things I've recently been struck by - as both a qualitative researcher and director of a transcription business - is that the process of transcription is sometimes overlooked as an integral part of producing data for analysis in the social sciences.

"Transcription is also considered to be a representational process (Bucholtz, 2000; Green et al., 1997) that encompasses: 'what is represented in the transcript (e.g., talk, time, nonverbal actions, speaker/hearer relationships, physical orientation, multiple languages, translations); who is representing whom, in what ways, for what purpose, and with what outcome; and how analysts position themselves and their participants in their representations of form, content, and action.' (Green et al., 1997, p. 173) This elaboration reminds that transcription is not merely the mechanical selection and application of notation symbols. Instead, researchers make choices (Kvale, 1996), and these represent some actions, in certain ways. Choices are integrally related to theoretical positions and how researchers locate themselves and others in the research process (Jaffe, 2007)." 

Interestingly, the article argues that transcription isn't just a robotic process of creating text from audio - transcribers are human beings that make decisions about what to include and what not to include, with an aim to provide an accurate representation of the interview or conversation that took place - but this representation is not objective. In some cases, a hesitation before responding to a question, a flicker of nervousness in a respondent's voice or a tone of sarcasm can completely change the meaning of the response... and it is up to a transcriber to determine what is and is not included, which can be a challenge if the transcriber is not a member of the research team.

Likewise, if working from audio recordings rather than video, visual queues such as body language, pointing or referring to objects in the room may also be lost. Does this mean that we should aim to include every word, every pause and every sound in a transcript? I would argue for the majority of research this is unnecessary, but it is crucial to consider that a degree of interpretation and representation has taken place been the interview being conducted by the researcher, and the researcher beginning qualitative analysis of transcripts.

Davidson's article reviews literature on the process of transcription, the conceptualisation of transcription and how this produces meaning, and the ways that researchers can best work with transcribers to overcome challenges. Finally, she analyses several articles that discuss how transcription is reported in qualitative research - an issue which she suggests is underdeveloped in the research.

"The matter of why transcription remains so underaddressed in qualitative research is curious. In the literature we find various explanations: Little attention is given to it in the training of researcher students (Bird, 2005), methods texts continue to foreground data collections methods such as interview conduct (Halcomb & Davidson, 2006), the literature is spread widely across the journals of a range of disciplines, and issues of transcription in some disciplines do not interest researchers in others (Luebs, 1996)."

Given the amount of attention paid to rigorousness of data in quantitative research, it does seem curious that transcription in qualitative research is so taken for granted. If you're thinking about how transcription plays a role in your qualitative research and how to address its challenges and shortcomings, I definitely recommend reading the full article.

Transcription as part of data preparation for research

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