Tag Archives: Messy 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.

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The Big ‘C’ of Contract Research

I have loads of many more apparently interesting topics to blog about at the moment, but I am simply too busy for words. So I’ve got a short piece to write about a topic which is unusually of great interest to me at the moment, and that’s the ‘contract’ bit of contract research. Why is this unusually interesting to me at the moment? Because mine is about to be terminated.

So. This is the sharp end. The reality of all contracts. They end. The end of a contract, like the end of a life is very much a part of that life, it infuses it through and through, to paraphrase the sublime Yukio Mishima, it is almost like the end is the only reality of a contract’s life, who’s true meaning is tending to that end.

But, enough lyricism. I have come to learn a little bit about tending to the very end. Mostly through mistakes, but this is a pretty good way to learn. My situation at the moment is a slightly complex one, but certainly not unusual, so I’ll tell you my predicament and maybe I’ll have a few pointers to offer at the end.

My contract is due to expire at the end of December this year. My boss very much wants to keep me on, and we have been having discussions in the last few weeks and months about how this might be secured. As there is no major project funding in the pipeline it is going to be a case of trying to piece together an extension, possibly from a few different funding sources. As a team we were approached by one of our current research partners, asking us to do some consultation work, and we have since sent back a proposal which would give me six months full time salary. This was certainly very fortunate, but I’m not quite ready to sit back on my laurels, because we do not have anything formally agreed yet, and we are now getting very close to the time when my official termaination of contract will be issued, which is usually 3 months before the end of contract.

I’m not too worred though. And there are a few reasons for this. Firstly, being issued with notice of termination of contract is not the same as having one’s contract terminated. There is three months between the two and if anything can be formally agreed in the meantime then the termination will be withdrawn. This gives us three months to badger our research partner for some formal sign off, if this looks like not coming through (and it really needs to soon for me to be happy) then my boss reckons he can get hold of about three month’s salary for me, and it also gives me three months on the redeployment register, so if both the first two options falls through.

Being on the redeployment register means that I will be given the opportunity to apply for jobs I am qualified for before they are advertised externally. If I apply for a job and I meet the essential criteria then I am guaranteed shortlisting for interview. It’s a pretty good system, but does have its flaws. There is no guarantee for example that I would stay at the same level of responsibility and salary than I am now. There are also some organisational politics often at work, where such and such in the sociology department doesn’t want to employ the internal candidate from the business school, but rather wants an external sociology candidate, and writes the job description accordingly.

The other fact is I don’t particularly want to move away from my current team. I like it. Sure I don’t want to stay in the business school for ever, but if I could stay on for 3 – 6 months and write a load of papers out of my current work and perhaps collaborate with them in a major funding bid then those would be significant feathers in my cap, and would give me intellectual closure on the project – which is going to overrun whether I am still employed on it or not.

The other reason I am not *too* stressed out (and I place those aserisks there to tell you that this is still a rather nasty situation to be in) is that I have been having these conversations with my line manager for some time. I have made sure, despite all our busy schedules, that he is behind me, that he knows what he is required to do in terms of the official procedure, and that he is doing it. I guess I really am getting used to the whole ‘managing up’ thing. But seriously, when it comes to termaination of contract, you need to make sure you are receving this support, because the great big organisational wheels turn slowly and without a senior member of staff helping to push them along for you, they will grind to a halt.

The very most important thing I have learnt from experience though is make sure that you own this procedure yourself. Make sure you know all your rights. Make sure you are in conversation with HR if you have any issues, and even get an employment rep in if you don’t feel like you are getting the kind of support from management or from the wider organisation that you require.

I have not owned this process in the past. I’ve been guilty of denial with contractural processes and allowed the wheels to turn all by themselves and it has worked out badly for me. One time I had been working on a project, which had been extended, and then we had been given a bit of extra work by the PI from their own personal research account. However, I made the mistake of not ensuring I was given an extension of contract, but rather a new contract was made and so officially I had my contract terminated – even though I started a new one the same day. As far as the organisation was concerned I was then a new member of staff, not an existing member with 18 months service.  Most universities allow for temporary contracts to become permanent after 4 years service – so that’s pretty much your pot of gold as a contract researcher –  and so not taking ownership of this process put me back to the beginning of that chase.

You are always aware that a contract is going to end. Do not let this draw you into fatalism or denial. Make sure you have a plan of action and that you have the right people behind you to make it happen.


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?