Tag Archives: Narrative

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?


The Fall. Part 8.

June 25th – 26th – Alpine – Big Bend – Alpine

Strangely enough, given our chosen mode of accommodation, we decided to rent a car in Alpine, and having taken grateful advantage of the good will of our hosts we found ourselves, only an hour or two after arriving at our destination, back on the road again. This time in a sporty little silver Chrysler. It feels so incredibly light after the RV, it’s like riding a go kart. Our main concern with taking the RV out into the wild open range is that the darn thing only does ten miles to the gallon, and running out of gas in the middle of the Texas nowhere sounds like a decent way to attract vultures.

So, on the first night we took the car up to this little place called Fort Davis. It was this really funny little town, absolutely frozen in time. There are cute little wooden houses, a retro diner selling cream soda and original cola – which tastes amazing – and home made fudge and ice cream. Then there are various little nik nak shops, one of them run by some very strange people, and that was pretty much it. Once the initial novelty had worn off it became a little claustrophobic, like someone just might steal your shoes and sling them over a telegraph wire. So we moved on. We drove back a different way to go via Marfa, the other little town in the same area as Alpine. En route the scenery became a very pleasantly familiar rugged, earthy, gritty, spiky countryside, with the occasional farm marked by an old fashioned wooden windmill, open backed trucks by five bar gates, and the criss crossing wind kicking up miniature cyclones of dust by the side of the road, and always the tarmac stretching off into the distance, lending definition, perspective, purpose.

Marfa past us by without incident and we were heading back towards Alpine when a very frightening thing occured. I momentarily succumbed to tiredness and started to drift off the road. A little gravel kicked up and I was jolted to the reality of the situation in time for it to amount to nothing more than a beating, but ultimately relieved, heart. Time for an early night.

The following day we set off pretty early, aiming to complete a big loop that would take us down to and through the Big Bend State Park and on to the National Park, which is smaller and borders the State Park to the East. After about an hour driving through dusty territory now familiar, we began to perceive a shift towards a more sharply defined and extreme landscape. We very soon found oursleves in the park proper. The road became a steeply rolling curving beast, hiding vast hidden dips, and once again lending definition and direction to a new and desolate beauty around everyone of the steep, narrow corners. Oddly reminiscent of Iceland, in appearing a little like you might imagine the surface of Mars – only here the earth really was scorched red. 

Even in the more economical Chrysler we had concerns about running out of petrol. We were less than halfway through our trip and more than half way through our tank – and so far had not passed a single gas station. With no alternative but to press on, the creeping, disconcerting sense that we might have made the ultimate road trip rookie mistake, was starting to play on our minds a little. Our hopes were raised a little when we rounded a corner right next to the Rio Grande (no more than a paddling stream at the bottom of a ditch in this part of the world), and we saw a few houses and a church steeple on the next hill. However, as this and two more similar settlements lumbered by, with no more sign of petrol than there was of any life at all, our nerves were once again becoming frayed, until, quite unexpectedly we came to a junction with a road going South towards the border and a petrol station diagonally opposite us. We must have been right on the border between the two parks, and though after filling up we did venture on to the entrance to the National Park we decided that we had run our luck far enough and so turned back and went North back past the petrol station back towards our camp. 

It seems odd really, but while the petrol had brought us relief it hadn’t quite settled us completely and we just didn’t feel like continuing. The other-worldly appearance of the State Park had perhaps given us our fill of wild rugged Texas for one day, and the camera needed re-charging in any case, Pen having taken something close to 1000 photos in a single day. So I guess some kind of visual-fatigue had set in. Long drive to Santa Fe tomorrow. A new state and a new time – Mountain Time.

The Fall. Part 7.

June 23rd – 25th Austin – San Antonio – Del Ray – Alpine

I’m still raving about Austin! Blues on the Green was amazing. 2 bands played, the first sounded a bit like a Tex-Mex No Doubt and the other a little like the Chillis, when they were still good – these are the ones who are gonna make it apparently – they’re still pretty raw, but put on a great show. Perhaps the most appealing thing was just the whole concept, and how much it has fallen into our ‘Austin way’ of doing things. Free. Outdoors. Every fortnight. At least 5000 people casually rocking up to the park on a wednesday night. Bit of a drink, bit of a smoke, nothing messy. People were there who said they’d forgotten it was on until the last minute at work, people were there for the first time, even though they’d lived in Austin for years, some people were obviously regulars. A few local stalls aside, there was very little money making going on and no marshalling that I saw – very refreshing compared to fortress festivals back home. Like the whole of Austin it felt local and thrown together and full of charm…God this sounds awful, I sound like someone I could really dislike. But seriously, it was, like, groovy dude.

We carried on in Austin much like we’d started – biking around everywhere, going to wholefoods, chilling by the river, imagining our imaginary future there…who knows.

So, wherever we went after that was bound to be a bit of a disappointment, and San Antonio duly delivered. Bit of a dud. It looks quite pretty – there’s the Riverwalk, The Alamo, of course, the Mexican style market place and cute little churches and pastel coloured bricks and little plazas and chic hotels…but it was lacking any real character. There was either no pulse by day and only seedy feeling tourist trail of the Riverwalk by night. We saw an old Dixie style jazz band, which was cool, but the people on the next table prattled incessantly through the first half and then stopped and started clapping ‘knowingly’ through the second. I’m not sure which was more annoying, but it seemed to capture something of the place, and what it didn’t have.

It was also exceedingly hot – not the wet heat of N’awlins, not the breezy sunshine of Austin, just straight-up dry, unrelenting, heat, almost unbearable. It was also the place where we had to waste a morning getting the RV fixed – though we figured might as well make it here – we didn’t like our campsite much either. So, you get the point. Basically it sucked.

Not to be outdone, we found a fancy hotel with a rooftop spa and for the price of their cheapest treatment both spent the day pampering ourselves with steam rooms, jacuzzis, and beers by the pool. We found it so much the most satisfying thing to do in this place that we went back the next day and did it again, before turning in for an early night and an early escape from the snarly roads of San Antonio the next morning.

Got on the road about 6am today. Having thought we might go North to Oklahoma before going on to Santa Fe, we instead decided to do some more of Texas, and I’m really glad we did. Our destination today was Alpine, a small town on the edge of the Big Bend National Park, which is probably not much smaller than Wales, and sits in a little rounded corner of SouthWest Texas, with the Rio Grande and Mexico just beyond.

Having made it out of San Antonio in good time we had a bit of a hold up via our first police pull-over. We had been told that with out-of-state plates we should expect this, though I had just kind of run an amber light and apparently I was doing a little over the speed limit as well (oops!). He was really nice though, never a hint that he was going to book me, however, he did inform us that the registration for the RV expired in May – three weeks before we even picked it up! He didn’t want to do anything about this, and he said that it would take a pretty mean cop who would do anything, but, that technically once we are back in California (where it is registered) we could be towed and impounded! There has been a growing snag list for El Monte RV rentals, various little annoyances like the microwave not working and shelves falling down, then they were totally useless with the cracked windscreen. But now this has really annoyed us and we can only hope that it doesn’t put a real downer on the California stretch. I’ll just have to not give a policeman any excuse to pull me over and hope that they don’t notice the little red sticker on the back which has the expiration date on it, and which in our minds has grown massive. Pen is really pissed about it, and is busy making plans for what our American friends might call a real shitstorm when we drop the RV off. To be honest, I just really want to get to LA with our means of transport and accommodation! Anyhow, nothing we can do for now, so we’ve tried to put it to the back of our minds.

So far nature has helped us along with this. After the first hundred miles this morning, through the border town of Del Ray (I say town, but only in the absence of an collective noun for nothingness.) After this things started to iprove visually, with the Amistrad State Park, reservoir and canyon, the countryside becoming more hilly until eventually we found ourselves inside one of those old Malboro ads – scrubby, hilly desert on either side and shimmering, almost mirage like tarmac extending off into the seemingly infinite distance. It was great. The Texas of the imagination, a big open lovely nothing. And hot. Oh my it’s hot. We were fine in the A/C van, but you could still feel the heat, whenever Pen opened the window to take pictures a 70 mph blast of hot air billowed about in the cab. Stopping for petrol certainly involved some perspiration, at one point I thought the diesel coming out of the pump might just spontaneously combust.

Although we haven’t got within the boundaries of the National Park yet, we felt like as we progressed through the 2nd and 3rd hundred miles today that the land was preparing us for it, with the hills getting steeper, bigger, greater in number and more acutely at odds with the surrounding flatness. Six hours may sound like a long drive, but, as with most driving so far, it was not stressful at all. In fact today was about as relaxing as driving gets. Outside the 3 or 4 relatively more urbanised settlements we maybe saw 10 other cars – or lorries mostly – all morning.

I’m now sitting in the RV with the night closing in around us at about 9.30pm – and I think it will get proper dark out here in hill country. Our campsite is lovely, really nice people running it, and as this is our first non-urban campsite we feel like we’re doing the whole camping thing properly for the first time – all be it wrapped in an air conditioned, irrigated box!

Tired now so will describe our first afternoon’s adventures so other time, and, I finished the Great Gatsby so now Jack Kerouac awaits.

(some time later) just read first chapter of On the Road, have feeling that everything I write is going to feel like a pale imitation of it now. Bugger.