Tag Archives: Academic Writing

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.

Advertisements

Shooters and Cobblers

I’m thinking about different writing experiences at the moment, and I think they can be often be broken down into either ‘shooters’ or ‘cobblers’. I’m drawing my metaphors here from the several years I spent working behind bars before I went back to school. One job that sticks in my mind was working in a vodka bar, which had a basement bar and an upstairs lounge. The two bars seemed to mostly divide these two types of drinkers – shooters looking to get a quick fix in the basement bar, and cobblers taking their time in the lounge.

Incidentally, in drawing this analogy between drinking and academic writing I’m not suggesting you mix the two, the results generally end up on the cutting room floor. However, one of the things that prompted me into thinking about it was a colleague telling me recently that they found critical reading really difficult without wine – apparently after a couple of glasses they could find the fault in the tightest argument…I can’t vouch for this advice, and there’s a part of me which doesn’t much like the idea of peer review being fuelled by grape and grain, but anyway, I digress.

In the past few months I’ve been required to be both a shooter and a cobbler at different times and for different writing tasks, and it has got me thinking about the many different forms of task that can come under the description of ‘academic writing’ and therefore the many different practices, strategies and skills which we might bring to them.

The shooter, as you will probably know, is a cocktail usually made from 2 or 3 shots of spirits in a small glass, generally disposed of in a single blow. In contrast the cobbler is a long drink served over lots of crushed ice and fresh fruit. It’s a sipper.

I think my default or preferred writing state is cobbling. I think back to my PhD and the way I approached the writing of it, I would have a daily target and the whole day to achieve it, and I would try and stick to particular routines of time and place in achieving it. The relative novelty that writing still represented to me, along with the fact that I didn’t have a clear idea of exactly what I wanted to write before I started, meant that I required such an approach. I needed to sit for long periods of time and really think – agonise even – over what I was writing, and allow it to slowly emerge via many tensions and iterations. It turned out to be an immensely satisfying experience.

However, when writing becomes just one of the things that you have to accomplish in a working day, then cobbling can become a bit of a luxury.

So, shooting, the skill I have had to acquire in the last few months, as I was attempting to publish my thesis as a book. This was an activity which was separate to my day job, and therefore one that had to be fitted in here and there, wherever possible. No longer was it possible for me to sit and hunt the words, I had to learn to sit down knowing that I only had a fixed time to accomplish a particular number of words. Again, I tried to build some routine into this: I would come into the office in the morning and for the first hour would simply open my laptop and start writing. I wouldn’t do any of those other ‘normal’ come into the office activities – wouldn’t turn on my desktop and email, wouldn’t check my messages, wouldn’t even make myself breakfast or coffee (those that know me might understand the kind of stern self regulation this represented). I became pretty adept at it, and in fact, once I had acquired the knack of this kind of ‘plug and play’ approach, I was able to break various bonds of routine times and places and write pretty much anywhere – I started mapping out my day according to where I would be and where best I could find half an hour to get some writing done. This meant that even though I was at that time still quite heavily involved in fieldwork for my day job – unpredictable, demanding, transient, and travel oriented experience that fieldwork generally is – I was still usually able to hit my daily targets. The train became a fantastic ally – as did cafes at train stations – Pret a Manger at Manchester Piccadilly became a second office.

I got so into this rhythm that I was not only able to get the book in on time, but I also managed to submit two papers that had been sitting around waiting for me to submit, or re-submit, for months, but I had just never found the time/place – now these times/places existed everywhere and I just had to be ready to take advantage of them.

Now, I’m back in the offce. I’m writing the research report. It’s odd, but cobbling now seems oddly static. I still find a bit of the shooter in me, that just wants to get as much down as quickly as possible. Then I find I have the rest of the day to try and fill. The challenge is now spreading this energy back out over the day, and breaking it up with other activities, which are productive but which give the writing mind a bit of time to recover and ‘unthink’ – the importance of this is really nicely discussed by Pat Thomson in her blog this week.

I’m not quite there yet at themoment and it’s really frustrating. I’m writing about 1000 words a day, which firstly is not enough for my deadline, and secondly is about what I was writing in an hour or so of shooting before.

Perhaps I should stop writing this blog and get back to the…bar?

 

 


Beings and Becomings

Human beings are always in a state of becoming something else.

This might be true for other types of being as well, but, alas, I am no neuro psychologist, so know little of the ways of monkeys, rats and the like. So we’ll stick to humans. And possibly there is something in the distinctive evolution of our consciousness that makes this a particularly human fact. Nevertheless, any living matter is constantly changing, growing, maturing, flowering, then wilting, decaying, dying.

Hmm. This wasn’t supposed to be so serious.

The bit of human beings that interests me today though is identity, and it is in this sense which I say, we are never something, because as soon as we are conscious of ‘being’ something, our internal and external worlds collide and we become something else. Lots of people disagree with me on this one – those psychologists, again, most of them definitely do. But then, many of their ideas lose their foothold if they cannot begin with a relatively stable, static concept of identity, so I guess they have something vested in keeping that idea around.

Thinking about ourselves as constantly both being and becoming requires us to step outside this conventional understanding of being as something fixed and stable, to instead see being as a dynamic set of actions, processes, relations, aspirations, and, of course limitations. Many ethnographers get around the problem of being by talking about a set of doings; seeing culture at its most elemental, as collective practice.

I think about these things regularly, it’s a perspective that lives in me, and everything that I write is presupposed by these ideas. But in practice such a perspective can make for a deeply unsettling experience.

Well. I’ve changed.

A facile enough statement given the preceding paragraphs; but of course I have.

But this is different. Or at least it would be different if I were not so cynical.

Happy New Year!

I didn’t make any resolutions.

I don’t believe in them. They articulate a sense of what I want to be. A new me. What I am not.

Yuk. Aspiration presupposed by self abjection. Just what they want us to think.

Actually I did make one resolution, not to take sugar in my tea anymore, but this was for the sake of my teeth. I now drink about twice as much tea. That’s the thing with resolutions. They prompt a different set of doings.

So. When I got to this new year in the style I did; that is, on the back of an achievement of which I was very proud, I was very careful not to say: “Right! This is it. I’m something else. Now I have to live up to it. I’ve done this before and it has never worked out.

The thing is, something has changed. I’m doing things in a manner I don’t recognise. Not just don’t recognise fully, I’m not looking at one of those infuriating spot the difference puzzles. This is fundamental.

Hang on.

Nothing is fundamental.

Damn.

What I cannot stop tying myself in knots trying to say is that I am enjoying my working life much more than I accustomed to. Beyond that, I could not be happier with it. There’s loads of it – there always is – but this is no longer something that makes me feel disconsolate, anxious, stressed, guilty – all self defeating things which will allow that endless shit to pile up and become even more unmanageable.

No. Now I just get on with it.

And enjoy it.

I love it in fact.

*Suddenly* I find myself no longer looking upon what I do as a set of compromises resulting in continuous frustration, constantly looking back to something I thought I had better.

And I don’t know what it is. And I don’t want to. If I worked out what it was I would swiftly find some way of destroying it.

For now I will just enjoy it. But not be content with it; no surer synonym for death than contentment.

My as yet unsure and not-wanting-to-be-made cautiously optimistic appraisal of this situation is that recent experience has given me a massive boost in confidence and I am currently riding the crest of a wave. And while I have got the book out of the way for now, I still have a very severe set of deadlines ahead of me, and that has always been a good motivator as well. But even that has changed. There’s no anxiety, I just think I can do it and so I get on with it.

Yeah, it’s the confidence thing isn’t it. Some kind of honeymoon period. It can’t last. I mean, for all my rambling about dynamic sense of self, I actually have a very fixed and essential idea of myself as doing certain things in certain ways. As being good at some things and not at others. Well I’m currently being good at things that I am not accustomed to being good at and it has upset this sense. And the only way I can hold onto any fixed point in this swirling mess is to believe that it is temporary and as soon as circumstance allows I will return to being what I thought I was.

While I can reflect and see that this is the most repulsive piece of binary self othering, I can’t seem to stop performing it on myself.

Pride comes before a fall you know.

But all the while I am wondering, not quite hoping, too cautious for that, just wondering, quietly, to myself.

What if?

Well. If.

It took me about 2.5 years to get used to the idea of a PhD and myself as someone capable of doing one – by which time I was about six months from completion.

‘If what it might be turns out to be…etc…Well, then it will have taken me about four years to get used to the idea of a post doc career and myself as someone capable of doing it, and doing it well.

At this rate, the first 5 or so years as a senior fellow will really suck.