Tag Archives: Academic research

Treating interviews as ethnographic encounters

I have emerged from weeks and months of blog silence in order to think about a question posed on Twitter this morning, in which @MatthewHanchard asked: “Should I be worried if my semi-structured interviews only seem to last about 30 mins if all Q’s were covered (planned for 90 mins) #phdchat”. This not only interested me, and brought back to mind my own early struggles with interviews, but also seemed to require more than 160 characters to give a proper answer. So here goes.

First off, a caveat: I do not know sufficient details of research design, methodology, research questions etc. to give a  precise answer to Matthew’s question. It could well be that 30 minutes is enough. I was interviewing a GP yesterday who had very kindly agreed to see me between clinics. I turned off the tape recorder at about 35 minutes, in which time he had given me a very concise but informative set of responses, and offered me a distinct perspective on my research questions – not bad considering I am in the last week of data collection. I also think that almost regardless of how much time he had available, I might not have been able to delve much deeper than the story he first offered me. Sometimes you just find yourself in front of someone who for whatever reason cannot, or will not, take you any further down a particular path; they may resist or even become irritated if you carry on attempting to push them further and you risk losing the interview altogether. 30 minutes of thoughtful, if circumscribed, description is certainly better than an hour of terse one-word responses, disinterested agreement, or, worst of all, a terminated interview.

The context of the research is also very important. The research I am conducting at the moment is a service evaluation. The main output will be a 10,000 word report back to the trust who commissioned the research. Of this report, the first 2 pages in which we will give a set of key messages and recommendations will be the only 2 pages read by the majority of people who see it (admittedly not the most exciting piece of research I’ve ever done, but don’t knock it until you’ve experienced the post-doc research job market). If I had radical theoretical insights based on innovative methodologies on my immediate research horizons, then I might not be particularly satisfied with a 30 minute interview. But I do not. I need actionable findings situated within the immediate policy context in which they are going to be spread. So, an interview from a senior local clinician full of concise, to-the-point, quotable responses was just the ticket.

I am assuming that Matthew did not come away completely satisfied with his interview encounter. As a PhD candidate he will have aspirations to break new ground in some regard (to do so is after all the fundamental requirement of the PhD: contribution to knowledge). And so 30 minutes feels a bit thin. The fact that he is planning to spend 90 minutes per interview suggests to me that Matthew either has a very long interview schedule, or that he wishes to delve deep into his questions. 90 minutes is a long time to try and hold your own and your participant’s attention. As Matthew has said he is using a semi-structured interview schedule, I am assuming he is taking a qualitative approach. The challenge with the ever-popular ‘semi-structured’ interview, is achieving a balance of open/closed structure that works for you and your research questions, while allowing the participant the space to find their own narrative. Your interests and theirs may be wildly divergent. When you ask a particular question you do not have any idea what it might spark. This is of course the fascination of exploratory, qualitative research. But it means you can find yourself listening to a very interesting story that has strayed far away from your research intentions, and it takes considerable skill to gently shepherd a stray back to the path, without them feeling, well, like a sheep.

These kind of skills come with experience, confidence and comfort with the interview situation. But you can also do yourself many favours by paying close attention to your research schedule, and building in some contingency to it. Regardless of your methodological framework, I think there is an excellent case for thinking about the interview situation as an ethnographic encounter. I’m using ethnography here less as a prescribed set of methods and principles, and more as a set of aspirations based around accessing a contextualised descriptive account of your participant’s story, in their own language. There is a great challenge to doing this in the interview context, which is brief and performative – by which I mean there are quite formal sets of cultural rules and conventions shaping the interview context. These conventions can act as a barrier to the establishment of trust and empathy between researcher and participant. I like to do what I can to break down some of these power relations before the actual event of the interview: ‘gaining access’ in ethnographic research means much more than gaining permission to physically access a particular group or organisation, rather, it is an ongoing concern, an always temporary agreement between researcher and participant which requires ongoing maintenance and sometimes repair. How exactly you will attempt to negotiate access in your own research will be a very situated and subjective concern. The point is you only have rights to ‘be there and ask that’ as long as the person you are asking gives you that right. This will not likely be something that is always negotiated openly, so paying keen attention to social cues, your participant’s level of comfort etc. is very important. This is not just about creating a ‘nice’ research context, it is about having confidence in the veracity of the story you have been told. All stories are constructed, and so gaining a sense of trust is about guiding the interpretations you will generate out of these stories.

The fundamental building block of analysis in ethnographic research is description, and the insight it gives you into context. So, it is essential to allow breathing space in interviews. I often start this right at the beginning, those gentle, open questions at the beginning of the interview. You might not want to just say ‘tell me about yourself’, it should still be focussed on your research questions, but the emphasis should be on giving participants the chance to address you in their own words, to begin to build their narrative, their approach to or experience with the things you are interested in. When I have been aspiring to something as long as a 90 minute interview, as much as a 1/3 of that time might be spent drawing this story out – it is very unlikely that will come in one 30 minute rush, rather you have to follow-up responses, probe for more description, get a fuller context – it is this context that will allow you to make more precise judgements of the responses you get to more structured questions later on.

I have used the word ‘participant’ throughout this post. This is often a very euphemistic term in interview research, implying a degree of participation which is in fact not permitted by the closed, circumscribed, power-laden manner in which interviews can be experienced. As I’ve said, interviews are highly structured by convention, and so it requires extra work on the part of the researcher to break down some of this. It is very important that words like ‘participant’ finds some meaning in the manner in which you go about arranging, accessing, conducting and analysing interviews. Not just in the interests of conducting more ethically legitimate research, but also in providing you the researcher with some confidence in your interpretation of what has been said – regardless of how long it took to say it.


#AcWriMo Update

So, it turns out routines can be fun!

Having said that, I actually strayed from my original plan on the about the first day and have not actually been able to enact it in its purest form once. But that’s not important right? The important thing is that I have kept to ‘a’ routine, a very productive one. I will probably not make my original targets, but this is partly because my plans have changed a bit as to how I’m going to organise my time between now and the end of December; book hand in day. I have also managed to get more writing done this month than I have in the 3 previous combined. And for the most part I’ve been pretty happy with what I’ve written. Not all of it for sure. There is one section which I am particularly nervous about and might take out altogether, but I was deliberately trying not to be too precious with what I wrote down, just getting it down was the priority.

So my actual working routine has looked more like this:

7am Wake up (6am was just not going to work)

7.30am Leave house

9am Arrive at work. Start writing.

10am Stop writing. Start day job.

6pm Leave work.

7.30pm Arrive home. Live.

11-12pm Go to sleep

I couldn’t get up at 6am mostly because I was finding I wasn’t able to get to sleep till about midnight most nights. This is partly because I go swimming most evenings, and this leaves me pretty far from sleep – though a really hot bath seems to help. But I think it was also a general level of stimulation that really just needed me to be able to loaf around a bit in the evening and do nothing in order to let my brain rest a bit after my day.

Unfortunately this extra hour in bed meant an hour less of writing per day, so I generally only managed 1 hour. I think on my worst day this yielded about 300 words, and on my best just over 1000. In the longer term if I can keep this kind of routine going then I think about 500 words per day would be a realistic target. I have done my best to make up the rest on quieter days in the office and on weekends, and in this I have been moderately successful. I was also pleased to find that there was more that I wanted to keep in the book drawn from what I had originally written for my PhD, sometimes re-written, sometimes just a highlight attached to a chunk of text and a little ‘to do’ note beside it.

Now that I have my introduction, theory and method chapter written I am kind of between a first and second draft. The first half is all second draft the second half is all first draft.

This  is why my plans have changed a bit, and even though I know it is the chapter that needs the most work, rather than write my conclusion now, I want to go through the remaining chapters first and see what else is going to need updating, before I get to the conclusion. Though this potentially leaves me with more writing to do torwards the death, I think it is important to be attacking this thing from start to finish, after all, it does help if the conclusion flows logically from the preceding chapters right?

So, sticking with my same routine, I am now looking not so much for ‘words written’ but ‘pages edited’. I have no idea how many pages per hour I will be able to get through, I guess that depends on how much work they need. But I would really like to be ready to re-draft the conclusion by the end of the month. This then leaves me about two weeks to write the conclusion and have a complete run through, then another two weeks to do the real i dotting t crossing work to prepare for submission. Minus about 3 days for christmas.

I know this is still a shit load to try and get done in the time. But I have a new found stream of confidence running through my sea of neurosis, thanks mostly to the #AcWriMo initiative, and particularly the online accountability spreadsheet on which you fill in your daily tally. The Foucauldian in me revels in this kind of self imposed discipline; with such constraints comes incalculable freedoms.

Oh and I managed the day job as well.


Deep in Digital Distraction

This piece was inspired by a short report I read on Big Think, which asked: ‘Does Digital Distraction Stunt Your Creativity?’. You can read it yourself here.

The question in itself is quite interesting to me. I know there are times when I am particularly vulnerable to digital distraction – usually when I have some large, difficult, or simply annoying task to achieve. Writing is a fine example. Writing is hard work for all sorts of reasons. It’s hard to find the right words, not simply because complex realities defy description, but because every word put down is a part of you, part of your identity as a scholar, they represent you, they carry your hopes and aspirations. When writing is going well it can feel like a mystical process is in flow, where the words are simply tumbling off the ends of your fingers. When it is going badly, it feels like you are trying to scrape a fountain pen the wrong way over sandpaper, it jars, it frustrates, it physically hurts. At such times it can be very tempting to take a break, some light relief, and what better way than to simply swap one virtual window for another, and find yourself in the comforting anonymity of the world wide web.

The web has contributed to much transformation in the way we live, work, relate, and relax. As I have written before, here, the web has certainly transformed research, through organising and making instantly available a world of scholarly resources which previosuly would have required arduous hunting among the library stacks, and then cataloguing manually. Nevertheless, with promise comes danger. I think there are several ways in which the internet is a dangerous medium for scholars, and one that requires cautious, reflective, engagement.

Firstly, as the Big Think piece suggests, it does not tend to be a very productive distraction. I know from bitter personal experience that if the first thing you do when you turn on your computer is check your email then your day will be less productive than if you just go straight in and start writing. I think this is one of the reasons why early mornings were always my favourite writing times – early, like 5 or 6am, in my dressing gown, in my home office, which is a little attic room with a sky light and walls of overcrowded shelves. If I started early and started well – i.e. without distractions, I could often turn out 1 or 2 thousand words before lunch. Then I could spend the afternoon catching up with email, researching new resources, and editing and shaping what I’d written that morning. This is all in the past tense for a reason, part of my ongoing sense of doctoral nostalgia, but that’s another story.

Writing is not the only example. I’m currently analysing around 70 interview transcripts for my current project. Now I really enjoy analysis, it is one of the ‘proper’ bits of research, where you really get to engage and try and make sense of this mass of data in front of you. But it’s tough. There’s loads of data. And there is loads you could say about each and every sentence. Therefore it takes a long time and it takes intense concentration. The internet can seem like a perfect way to give yourself a rest every now and then, but I know that once this route is taken, then that concentration will never quite go back to what it was before, and the gaps of productivity in between surfing breaks will get shorter and shorter. Much better to have a little walk around, make yourself a cup of tea (non-caffeinated if this is going to be an all day session), get some fresh air, unplug. Much as I mistrust external forms of discipline, I would be very interested in finding out more about the ‘Freedom’ software referenced in the Big Think piece, which somehow, prevents your computer from tapping into any online resources while you have it running. Much as I feel like this might be philosophically contemptable – a sort of Clockwork Orange-like intervention – I am all too aware of my inability to regulate myself in this regard, so I might just give in to it.

Secondly, the internet is a dangerous place for the kinds of things we can learn on it and the manner in which that learning takes place. Merely having access to a greater quantity of more diverse resources does not necessarily make you better informed. The unverifiable nature of much that comes through the web is certainly something to be wary of for anyone engaging it for scholarly purposes. Then there is the old cliche that ‘less is more’. This can be proved valid when you find yourself with such an excess of resources that your original purpose is lost in the myre. If you are looking to contribute to knowledge then it is essential to define your research questions really closely, and then really narrow your online searches to match your requirements. Otherwise you will end up trying to account for the whole stinking universe and you will drown in it.

Keeping with this second concern, but branching out from the practical need to focus for depth, I am interested in the slightly messier conceptual world of depth, and whether the internet can offer it. I know very little about how our brains work in the language of neurochemisty. But what I do know, or think I know about synaptic exchange, has given me an image of our brains as being a little like an Edwardian telephone exchange, in which a conversation between two sides can only take place if an operator makes a meaningful link between them. Thus I think, brain chemistry, and therefore knowledge, is fundamentally about connections. I find this image holds some water if we apply it to making a scholarly argument. A good focussed argument for a 5000 word paper, for example, really only has to make one point. However, in making one point we have to draw on and link a range of resources and try to connect several ideas together, then we have to piece it together in 5 or 6 moves, which again need to be seemlessly connected. The importance of signposting in academic writing undelines the importance of these connections, they are your telephone operators: ‘this is where I’ve been, this is where I’m going, this is how I’m making the transition’. Click. And you’re through.

So, connection. That also seems to be fairly fundamental to the internet. I think you could safely say that it is the dominant metaphor when thinking through the virtual. One requires a connection, once one has a safe, reliable and speedy connection, one can make a world of connections at the merest click of a mouse. And yes, the internet is a great big dizzying world of potential for knowledge. However, I worry about it. I worry that quantity can take over from quality. That the kind of knowledge to be gained from endless skating across the surface of many different debates is rather thin and superficial. And this is the kind of working that the internet seems to encourage. There are always more links, more resources, more chains, more connections. Yet, we rarely land on something that moves a debate beyond,  more often finding ourselves moved further across. This of course is not an inescapable state of affairs, but something we have to be very wary of if we are to avoid it and achieve depth of engagement with a given subject.

Lastly, the internet is dangerous because much as it might appear to be an anonymous, private little world of your own, it is not. Perhaps this is something that people are more aware of now that most of us have been exposed to the storm of spam that follows allowing your first Facebook app to access your personal information. Yet we carry on doing it. Online information, far from being ‘merely’ virtual, can be very difficult to conceal, and impossible to kill. That means that if you are representing yourelf online in some way, particularly for occupational purposes, then you’d better be pretty damn careful about what you say. We all say things we regret from time to time. The internet allows those things to come back and bite you.

I would not advise anybody to stay away from the internet as a means to accomplish any of the things that I have written about here. I use Facebook and Twitter, I’m Linked-In, on Google Plus, I have an online research profile, and I have a blog (which is currently distracting me from my ‘real’ work), and I spend hours a day trawling through online databases trying to find new words on my topics of interest. I merely warn those who do so to do so reflectively, and to remember these wise words from Michel Foucault, which I take with me everywhere:

‘Nothing is inherently evil…everything is dangerous’