Amy B. Smoyer, PhD

Prison Food, Incarcerated Lives, Health & Social Work

Transcription Meditation


My friend Lisa invited me to attend a 2.5 hour Gong Yoga class this afternoon to celebrate the full moon.  Very groovy.  However, I figured that by the time I got dressed, drove over there, took the class, showered and napped - well, the whole day would be over.  Ever committed to staying on task, I decided to practice the meditation of transcription instead.  I transcribed my interview with Participant #20.  The interview was one hour and ten minutes long.  It literally took me all day to transcribe this 70 minute tape, with some short breaks for the Farmer's Market and housekeeping.

There is a fair amount of discussion among qualitative researchers about transcription.  Is it better to do it yourself, or should you hire someone to do it for you?  There are similar discussions about a lot of other tasks, for sure.  DIY or pay someone to do it for you?  Care of small children, painting the living room, washing the car, etc.  The debate about transcription is no different.  Key factors for decision making include resources of time and money and how worthwhile it is for you to do the task yourself.

At a Qualitative Research Workshop at NYU that I attended in late July, I sat across from a clever young woman who had just finished her PhD and landed an Assistant Professor job at a highly regarded University.  The DIY question about transcription arose and she encouraged me to hire someone to do the job, "I would have never finished my PhD if I didn't hire someone to transcribe for me."  As soon as the phrase "never finished" left her lips, the fear gnome surfaced from the underworld and shot one of his little pointed arrows right into my heart.  Yikes. 

So this all got me to thinking.  I did plan to do the transcription myself - I have already done quite a few.  However, the "never finished" place is not a destination I wish to visit.  Am I going to draw the process out unnecessarily by doing the transcription myself?

I turned it over in my head a few times, read some articles about transcription, and decided to forge ahead with the DIY plan.  Truth be told, I have had positive experiences transcribing in the past.  Sitting with the data.  Hearing the voice of the participant coming through the ear pods.  Her breath.  Her accentuation.  Transcription allows me to very slowly re-live the interview, hearing things I didn't hear when I was in the data collection moment.  Plus, listening to my own voice and questions offers all kind of opportunities for personal and professional growth.  Reflecting on self and the world around me - it's starting to sound like Gong Yoga, dontchathink?

There is also a strong and convincing argument that transcription is an intepretive act that researchers should be wary of delegating to others (Bird, 2005; Lapadat & Lindsay, 1999).  The choices we make about how to represent the spoken word on paper is the first in many steps of qualitative analysis.

So that's where I am.  Sitting, listening, typing and trying to outwit the fear gnome.