Ndiweteko Jennifer Nghishitende
Living with the Consequences of Slavery Cluster
Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull.
My research aims to understand women’s journeys after experiencing ‘modern slavery’ in the UK. Though ‘modern slavery’ is understood as an umbrella term encompassing various forms of exploitation, including human trafficking, slavery, servitude, and forced or compulsory labour, the term is highly contested, and so in my writing, I have decided to place inverted commas around it.
In October 2021, I began collecting data through semi-structured interviews with women affected by ‘modern slavery’ and practitioners working in the field across the UK. Because there were still high levels of Covid-19 infection, I offered the women I interviewed the choice to talk online or in person. In this blog, I will share some reflections on my experiences of conducting interviews online, and their benefits and drawbacks. The names of the women involved have been changed.
Out of the nineteen women I interviewed, only five decided to be interviewed in person, while fourteen chose Zoom. As soon as I realised that online interviews were the preferred method, I began asking the women why they had chosen to meet on Zoom rather than in person.
Zoom has a reputation as a ‘subtly dehumanising technology’ with the potential to undermine the trust that is necessary to building rapport. However, in general I did not find it difficult to warm to the women, especially when they learned that I am a mother – a good number of my interviewees were mothers.
When asked why they had chosen Zoom, the first prominent reason the women gave for preferring it was the ability to express themselves freely. Ginger said:
It was more convenient, and I could be free to speak my mind, in my own space where I know that no one can hear me. I felt free to speak with you and also be vulnerable in my telling you of everything that happened.
Naomi highlighted a potentially overlooked aspect – the problem of anxiety.
I prefer zoom. No travelling and it depends on the area anyway where I’m going. I’m a very very quiet person on a normal day so when I’m around people that I don’t know or I’m not used to I’m very very uncomfortable. I have anxiety so I’m always conscious when I’m outside.
When participants in such intimate research feel safe to speak, the interview process becomes much easier for both parties and better for collecting quality data. Remote interviews may then be the solution for those who have access to them and consent to use them.
Some women also informed me that the screen provided an essential emotional shield. Selma, for instance, said she would not say she particularly preferred either online or face-to-face interviews. However, in hindsight, she said, ‘it was better seeing me upset over the cam than physically.’
Other women also saw online discussions as less embarrassing and raised other issues related to the screen image. Paula had this to say:
online is fine but the travel … is only because my leg is bad, I think for me and that the things probably we discussed I will find it harder to discuss face-to-face because you wouldn’t want to break down and online kind of like allows me to speak. That’s my own personal opinion. To speak quite bluntly about a lot of things let’s say if we were sitting face-to-face I would start watching your body language and say maybe I’m making her uncomfortable maybe I’m not you know those kinds of things.
Most women indicated that because they could not see most of my body, they could not see my body language. This was important because sometimes body language can act as a disincentive. Similar to Paula, Ruby said:
No hassle of travelling and to be frank, I would not be as open to speaking with you as I am now. I would have been looking at your body language to see if I am making you uncomfortable and then decide based on that whether or not I should reveal more.
As the researcher, I also found distance in the screen as I fought back tears at several points during the interview. But at the same time, I felt powerless. Though I appreciate that when some women become emotional, they want to be on their own to deal with this, in person, I could have offered a tissue or a drink of water.
At the same time, the distance provided by the screen can be a problem. Travelling away from an interview’s location can help the interviewer deal with the emotions they accumulated from the interview by putting a physical distance between themselves and its location. However, this was not possible with Zoom. You can press a button or close your laptop once you say goodbye, but the interview stays with you. It lingers.
In addition, I was at a disadvantage in not seeing much body language. Although I could note facial expressions, long pauses, laughter, tears, and sighs, I could not see what the women were doing with their hands and found it hard to notice when they shifted in their seats. Without these important non-verbal cues, I found it difficult to assess their level of discomfort and deliver my duty of care towards them.
In one case, all body language, including facial expressions, was eliminated. I had given all the women the option to keep their camera off during the interview, but fortunately, only one woman decided to do this. Nonetheless, her ability to see me while I could not see her was an interesting experience. Out of curiosity, I asked her at the end why she did not feel comfortable having her camera on; she said, ‘I don’t know you’, which was fair enough.
For those who chose Zoom, the convenience of an online interview was a key factor, and this has been confirmed by other studies. Tiwa indicated that ‘it’s only because of my busy schedule. I can only afford to do Zoom at the moment, which made the interview faster rather than waiting for a day that I’ll be free’. Others pointed out that they were glad that they did not have to travel to meet me, and spending less was also cited, even though I had informed them that I would be responsible for any costs they would incur. I believe this revealed some empathy for my research costs. I have to say here that I also appreciated the convenience that came with online interviews for me, which saved me time and money. Most importantly, I could complete my research diary immediately after the interview while the conversation was still fresh in my mind.
It was interesting that safety, including contracting Covid-19, was the least cited reason. Only one woman glossed over the issue. One other mentioned safety and said: ‘You stay in Hull, will it be easy for you and besides, I haven’t met you before so for safety reasons as well.’
It is, however, also important to note that not everyone prefers Zoom, as Naita’s response reveals:
I’m not sure… I would have liked to meet face-to-face, but it was convenient that I could fit the zoom meeting into my schedule also. So, I normally like to meet face-to-face, but it all depends how busy I am.
Despite slight connectivity problems with one or two interviews, my experience of Zoom interviewing overall has been positive. Nevertheless, I acknowledge that there are some drawbacks and while online interviews seem promising and will probably gain more prominence moving forward, we should keep in mind the inequalities that Covid-19 has laid bare across the world, at individual and government levels. Communities with little or no access to computer technology will, in this online world, be excluded from research. This should remind us that when able to do so, the physical field is still the best place to be, even if it means spending more hours travelling and spending more money to hold interviews to ensure that no one is left out.