Using interview quotes (Part I)

Much ethnographic research makes use of interviews. How should quotes from those interviews be used in publications? The analysis and arguments should, of course, be based on the totality of data, regardless of which segments are cited verbatim. NVivo is an excellent tool for ensuring this.

When you are writing, however, you may also want to quote what your interviewees actually said. In this post, I will summarize the formalities of how to use quotes. In another post, I will address the content-relates aspects of how we use quotes.

Rules may vary slightly according to the house style of different journals, but these are fairly general conventions. Examples in green are correct; examples in red are wrong.

1. Long quotes are set in a separate, indented paragraph with spacing above and below. These are known as block quotes. (40 words is a common cut-off point for ‘long’ quotes.)

2. There are no quotation marks around block quotes.

3. Block quotes may start with the continuation of a sentence from the text:

  • A man in his fifties said that

since the war ended, life has become more difficult. …

4. If the quote completes the sentence that introduces it, as in the example above, there is no colon. If the quote follows a complete sentence, a colon can be used to show that the quote is an illustration of that sentence. (This applies to block quotes and quotes in the text alike.)

  • One man claimed that ‘life is much worse now’.
  • One man claimed that: ‘life is much worse now’.
  • One man made an extraordinary claim: ‘life is much worse now.’

5. Short quotations in the text are indicated by quotation marks (‘Single’ in British English and “Double” in American English. The reverse is used for quotes within quotes.)

5. Italics are never used for marking a quote, only for emphasis, foreign words and titles of books, newspapers, etc.

6. Square brackets show the author’s editing of the quote, e.g. from ‘My brother died there five years ago’ to ‘My brother died [in Mexico] five years ago’.

7. Ellipses in square brackets […] indicate omissions; ellipses without brackets indicate hesitation or unfinished sentences. This is perhaps the ‘rule’ where there is the most variation. Alternative conventions exist. It is important, however, to distinguish between the author’s selective omissions and the interviewee’s speech.

  • ‘My brother… you know, he died five years ago in Mexico.’ (Original verbatim quote, with ellipses showing the interviewee’s pause or hesitation.)
  • ‘My brother… you know, he died […] in Mexico.’ (Legitimate shortening, clearly indicated.)
  • ‘My brother […] died five years ago in Mexico.’ (Legitimate shortening, clearly indicated.)
  • ‘My brother… died … in Mexico.’ (Ambiguous indication of interviewee’s pause and author’s omissions)

8. More specific conventions for showing pauses, tone of voice, etc. exist, but are not commonly used in general social-science writing. How much quotes can or should be edited for clarity, and how much may be changed without using square brackets is not codified. (It might for instance, be fine to omit a mid-sentence ‘er’ without letting it show in the quote.)