Tag Archives: Ethnography

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.


Ethnographic Poems

Ethnographic research, which usually involves prolonged and in-depth engagement with a particular social group, brings with it certain dangers to do with the historical association of ethnography with colonialism, the up-close-and-personal nature of fieldwork, the interpretations made by the researcher, who is usually an outsider, and with the representation of these interpretations after the event.

One of the responsibilities of the ethnographer is to engage in an ongoing reflection with events in the field, always questioning interpretations, always making truth claims with caution, and always searching for traces of oppressive regimes being reproduced through their actions.

The poems reprinted on these pages were part of this process for me, during my PhD research, which regularly took me across the country between my home and my research sites. Sitting on the train, ‘gazing out the window’ provided a productive metaphor for the research gaze I was taking into my fieldwork, and the verses below littered with the familiar images of train travel and the things seen and felt along the way. If you would like to read something in a bit more of a conventional academic vein on the promises and dangers of ethnographic research then you can do so here and here.

These poems are sketches, scribbled down on notepaper, improvised. Please don’t expect them to scan, nor to convey any straightforward meaning. While I offer no interpretation of them here, there are various recurring images and themes, such as loss, harm, exposure, betrayal and capture, and these are all dangers worth interrogating if you are engaged in ethnographic research. On reading them again I am also struck by the tone, like some kind of heroic martyr, or fallen angel. As far as I know I have managed to keep my published output free of such tones, so perhaps that is one function of these little endeavours.

Betrayal in Academic Research

There is the potential for conflict within the world of academic research, which is associated with the requirement for us to be critical while also being fair to the people who we encounter in our research activities. Being ‘critical’ does not necessarily mean ‘voicing criticism’, it refers to a broader commitment to rigour in scholarly work; weighing up multiple perspectives, reaching balanced conclusions, putting theories and methods to appropriate use, and the like. So, I conceive of thinking critically as thinking differently; unpicking common assumptions, deconstructing social norms, and providing alternative perspectives.

Thus, being critical and being fair are not necessarily opposed; often research is taken on with some kind of emancipatory agenda, with the objective of making clear the manner in which a particular individual or group is experiencing some kind of misuse of power, or oppression. However, an emancipatory ideal may be something that it is comfortable enough to write about in the comfort of our institutional surroundings, at a distance from the people we suppose we are setting free, but the actual work of carrying out research with real people in their real everyday surroundings brings with it a set of tensions to which there is no easy solution. We are merely required to identify tensions, reflect on them, think about the path that brought us to them and, hopefully, think how we might better avoid them in the future.

This kind of reflective pursuit is becoming more common within various forms of critical research, perhaps most common in ethnographic research, where a researcher or group of researchers enter a particular social group and participate in their everyday activities over a sustained period of time. Researchers who choose to engage in this kind of reflection can experience it as a constant, self imposed, injunction; to better oneself, make oneself less harmful, to improve. Experiences of research both good and bad may stick in the mind and heart as things we must try to do more of or try to avoid in the future, but all things to learn from. Thus we acknowledge that as practitioners in thinking, learning, and teaching, we are required to also think about, learn about, and teach, ourselves. This may be a dangerous road, one that can lead anywhere from conceit to neurosis, nevertheless, it is a road taken voluntarily, with some awareness of where it might lead, and importantly, with rewards provided for taking it, such as a relatively satisfying, autonomous, well renumerated, and challenging occupation.

One of the questions this raises for me is: Can this equation be balanced in the same manner for the people we, sometimes rather euphamistically, refer to as our ‘participants’?

The simple answer, I think, is usually, ‘No’. Though participants may enter into a research study voluntarily, they often do so with fairly limited information about the researcher’s intentions, and thus will often not have much idea of the implications of participating, and there may be precious few rewards on offer for them, certainly financial rewards are very rarely offered, and it would be naïve to assume that there will always be an equivalent intellectual reward. I fear the complete opposite is the case. A ‘participant’ only usually participates in a project within a particular time and space, perhaps just one or two of the various times and spaces of that project, and then only really in a partial way. As researchers we can be very cagey about our work, we can give the bare minimum away about our agenda, we can protect our thoughts and notes and make them private, we can certainly keep our analysis to ourselves, we can write and articulate ourselves in unaccessible ways, and we can publish in journals that participants will not often have the opportunity to read. Thus, I see us constantly faced with a paradox, where we carry lofty objectives to do with making paricular societies more inclusive, while going about this business in exclusive ways.

There are various ways in which we can try and open up research to be more inclusive to participants. We can collaborate with them from an earlier time, perhaps at the proposal stage, so that they have more of a hand in both research questions and design; two fundamental aspects of the process. Then we can share our thoughts on data collection during time in the field, we can offer our early thoughts up for consideration by members of the group we are studying, and attempt to draw their thoughts into our own conclusions. Then we could collaborate over the analysis, involve several participants in really grind out what we think is going on in a particular situation. Lastly, we can write publications with varying degrees of participation, right up to jointly authored papers.

These moves are mostly positive, at least in their intention. They also have consequences. Some are fairly obvious, such as resources. The more collaborative a project the more resources of time, and therefore money, will be required. This is particularly so in collaborations with participants who do not share many of the academic languages that we take for granted. This is not a statement of intellectual snobbery, it is an acknowledgement of the idiosyncratic ways in which academic work can progress. Academic norms of critical thinking and contributing to knowledge are not necessarily shared outside the academy. Many people do not value abstraction, theorisation, reflection, review and re-review. Yet these are the tools of the trade.

I can have very enjoyable conversations with colleagues that might go on for hours, which would send most people I know to sleep within minutes. I can spend weeks analysing a set of fieldnotes, and still come out the other side not quite sure what my final argument is going to look like. I have several publications on the go at any one time which are in various stages of writing and review, some of which refer to research I completed years ago and some of which may never get published. I know some of these are very difficult things to get used to, some of them, particularly the latter, I still struggle with regularly, and I have entered this world voluntarily; is handing some of these struggles over to my participants being fair to them?

Thus, while we should certainly strive to make our work more inclusive to those that it involves, it might not be the best thing to try and share everything. What many of us end up doing is trying to incorporate some more participative tendencies into our research work, to try and even up the power imbalances as much as we can, while still making sure that we deliver the goods within the times laid down by the funders.

This partial sharing of agendas can still be a tricky business, involving tensions between you and your participants trying to negotiate what will likely be your very different approaches to a particular subject. At times I have felt like it really would have been better to leave the door closed, as sometimes these attempts can backfire, and in pursuing a more participatory or inclusive agenda you can end up causing more harm than if you had conducted things in a more conventional way. The thing is, if you conduct things in a conventional way you really don’t know what harm you might or might not have caused. This is the promise and danger of reflexive work – you open things up to examination, so don’t be surprised if you don’t always find something you like there, does this mean you shouldn’t have opened it in the first place?