Whose line is it anyway?

Research interviews are a strange world in my experience. It was quite a long time before I had any faith in them at all as research methods, and longer still until I gained any comfort in the role of interviewer. I’m getting there on both counts.

The current project I”m working on is almost entirely based on interviews, around 100 of them in total, each lasting around 90 minutes. That’s going to be a hell of a lot of words. But what do they actually mean? Each piece of data is really just an improvised statement, prompted by a question which the respondent may never have given any thought to previously, all contained in a completely manufactured situation – the interview – which might appear contained, in a room, on a tape, but in fact is very much part of the fabric of the world that it enters, it’s just getting a handle on all the different meanings of the varying performances one encounters in the interview situation which can make your head spin. An enigma machine might be handy.

Is this how Clive Anderson felt after each sweaty, incomprehensible, possibly brilliant performance from Tony Slattery? His response seemed, generally, to give the points to Ryan Stiles.

I think performance is a good way to begin to try and understand the things said and done in interviews though. It’s a metaphor which has found its way across the arts and social sciences with a variety of uses, though all linked – from the conventional notion of actors on a stage with a script, to the regulative performances of teachers when Ofsted are in town, to the (sub, semi, un?) conscious performance of different identities shaped by different social situations. With interviews, we’re looking at elements of all three of these.

One of my current projects is an interview based study exploring the knowledge and identities of managers in the NHS. Not the most popular group of people in the world, which is one of the things that makes them interesting to conduct research with.

My most recent interview was with a woman in her 40s, for the sake of a handle we’ll call her P, who had climbed the ranks of her chosen occupation very successfully, was very friendly, confident, candid, and generous with her time. Sounds like the perfect interview right? Well, it was a very interesting interview, however, I have never felt so policed by an interviewee before. P spoke about the things she wanted to speak about. If a question interested her – or she could move it on to territory that did interest her then she gave some great responses. If the question didn’t interest her or moved outside her comfort/interest zone she simply blanked them, moved the conversation on to something else, or on more than one occasion treated them not as questions but as statements – she just nodded, smiled, maybe just turned up the corner of her mouth or shifted her eyebrow slightly, and I was forced to move on. Given her seniority in the organisation, I am not at all surprised that she is able manipulate a situation to her advantage – I probably gave her very little challenge in this regard.

The tricky question is how to make sense of all this context when looking at the interview later as a piece of data, to be compared, contrasted and categorised with 90 others.

My interview style tends towards allowing the interviewee to follow their own nose as much as possible. Obviously sometimes you need to try and pull things back to your own research interests, otherwise you can be left with a very interesting but completely unwieldy set of data which won’t lend itself to any kind of meaningful system of analysis. There is a sense in which this interview drifted much further from the schedule than I should have allowed. However, I think the responses were heartfelt and honest – which can be two of the greatest unknowns in the interview situation. I found this viewpoint strengthened when P commented, after I had switched the tape recorder off, that she was glad that this would all be anonymised, because she had felt comfortable speaking honestly and openly. If I had stuck more rigidly to the schedule I think I would have got a series of fairly brief, disengaged responses, and actually I think she would have become bored and made moves to terminate the interview earlier. As it was I heard a storm of opinions about P’s everyday work, the decisions she had made in getting to the position she was in, the styles of management and leadership she found inspiring and the things she tried to do to be a role model to others, there was also some very critical opinions about the organisation she was working in and the system of healthcare as a whole. And despite the fact that, like almost everyone I have interviewed for this project, she complained about the lack of hours in the day, she gave me almost 2 hours of her time and seemed not to tire or resent this at any point.

All this stuff was going round my head on my train back home after the interview. I had felt utterly stunned on coming out of the interview, it had been an assault on the senses. In some ways it had been a challenge to my own sense of authority as the interviewer – a role which implies, according to conventional accounts of research, that the interviewer does the steering, and takes control. While I think this conventional account is fundamentally flawed, I think there are still expectations hanging in this kind of situation, that an interviewer is going to come in and ask questions and the interviewee is going to answer them. This can make interviewees very nervous – props like a tape recorder often don’t help, they are all part of the performance, which comes with a set of inherited meanings – being on stage, being watched, judged, making mistakes, forgetting your lines. Sometimes you can work and work at getting what you think might be an unconsidered response – not in the sense that you want someone to be careless, but in the sense that you want someone to not over construct their performance, systematically censoring out anything they don’t want seen. None of this was the case with P. She said exactly what she wanted, sometimes considered, sometimes completely off the cuff, sometimes she would even ironically apologise for an opinion – it all seemed to suggest that she understood the rules, and was happily playing with them in whatever way she wanted.

So, I’m thinking maybe becoming the audience in this particular performance might not have been a bad thing. But every different stage seems to demand a different performance, and still i’m plagued by the eternal, cliched, questions.

What does it all mean?

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