Gemma and Sophie were volunteer participants in Parenting Science Gang, a radical citizen science project where parents chose topics important to them and designed and executed the research projects (with help from established researchers). We both participated in a group on breastfeeding healthcare experiences. The group included people who had experienced negative and positive healthcare advice (e.g. told to stop breastfeeding when not actually clinically required) together with a large number of healthcare practitioners who wanted to improve breastfeeding advice.
We co-designed a project which asked healthcare practitioners from the group to reflect on their personal experiences of breastfeeding and whether these experiences influenced their professional practice. The study was reviewed by the ethics board of the University of York. To involve group participants in the practice of doing research we chose peer to peer interviewing.
Peer vs Researcher-led interviews
Researcher-led interviewing is probably the most widely used form of research interview and works when you are confident you know what questions you want to ask, your experience (or lack of) is not a barrier to discussing substantive issues and your perceived characteristics (e.g. age, gender, religion, sexuality) won’t affect the interview too much.
Peer interviewing involves an interviewer having something in common with the interviewee, whether it is homelessness (see the 'lived experience' section here), women living in a low-income community, or as in our study, healthcare practitioners’ experiences breastfeeding.
Peer to peer interviewing involves someone in a central research team matching interviewees who have something in common, and having them interview each other rather than one peer interviewer questioning a series of their peers. A researcher does not have to sit in on the peer to peer interview. The goal is a free-flowing, comfortable, creative conversation that sparks ideas.
For peer to peer interviewing to work, participants may need an inherent interest in research, or at least talking about their personal experience. For the Parenting Science Gang project, participants had an interest in research, in breastfeeding (which only 0.5% of women in the UK do for the recommended 6 months), and were healthcare practitioners so may have been primed to have a discussion about this.
A central Parenting Science Gang facilitator, Rebecca Brueton, sent information sheets, consent forms, and interview questions to guide the conversations, as well as matched the pairs based on similar work history, set up the video call between them and then sent the recorded call to be transcribed (further details are in the full SRA paper in the Winter 2021 edition).
We involved group members in the qualitative analysis (with training provided by collaborating researcher Yan-Shing Chang at Kings College London), again so they could have the experience of doing research.
Through analysing the interview content we noticed some advantages of this technique as well as some disadvantages.
Rapport and common ground: interviewees can go deep quite quickly because they have common ground already. One interviewee, reflecting on the peer interview format commented that it was a “relief not to have to explain breastfeeding or healthcare norms” and described traditional interviews as “jolty”.
Open discussion of difficult topics: if interviewees have an idea of where the other stands on a certain topic, they may open up on tricky topics. For example, interviewees in our project were comfortable discussing bed-sharing - purposefully sleeping in the same bed as your infant or child. Some commented that this was a topic they did not discuss with their healthcare colleagues as it is in conflict with some public health advice for parents and their children to sleep on separate surfaces.
Difficulties in clarifying interview content: if both interviewees understand implicitly what the other is saying, they may not recognise when they are sharing insider knowledge that outsiders might not understand. One set of peers discussed breaking hospital policy but not all the analysts on the project understood which policy.
Redirecting the interview: if either interviewee goes substantially off-topic and the other enjoys the conversation, the interview may stay off-topic. If there are specific questions you want to ask each participant, the pairs should be briefed in pre-interview training, or have a professional interviewer facilitate the session (whether a peer or not).
Confidentiality and anonymity: A standard participant information sheet and consent form were used. The central Parenting Science Gang team guaranteed to maintain the anonymity of participants and that any harmful activity revealed by the interviewees would be reported. Additionally, as it was healthcare practitioners involved with the project, they were also bound by the code of their profession to report harmful activity as well as maintain the anonymity of patients and healthcare organisations.
Matching: Interviewees were matched, where possible, on the basis of similarity in work history. For example two nurses, one in A&E, the other in urgent care, were matched and talked for an hour and half. It is possible that varied characteristics of a different set of interviewees (politics, religion, belief, class) might inhibit each other, or that a topic might not be interesting enough to the interviewees to stimulate conversation.
There are advantages and disadvantages to peer to peer interviews. But the advantages of this democratic, non-hierarchical technique might outweigh its disadvantages:
- If I think participants would enjoy talking to someone similar to themselves;
- If participants have enough in common;
- If participants know the right questions to ask;
- If a free-flowing conversation is appropriate for the project.
Link to paper
This blog is based on a paper we wrote for the SRA's Research Practice Winter 2021 edition.
Sophie is a regular contributor to the SRA's blog and a social scientist at the University of Hertfordshire.
Gemma is a breastfeeding peer supporter for Breastfeeding Network and Director of Glasgow Sling Library.