Tag Archives: PhD 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 Reflections

This comes a little late, as #AcWriMo properly finished almost three weeks ago now. However I have been lacking the necessary reflective space via the exclusion of all else in favour of submitting my first book. This was of course the thing that loomed large and unassailable up until the beginning of November, when with the help of a virtual community of scholars and a seriously useful piece of external discipline via the Accountability Document (yet one more reason making it impossible for me to boycott Google, but hey ho) I took the proverbial bull by the horns and, well, tamed it.

Yes.

Today I am a yes person.

I submitted my book on Thursday night.

I received an email back from the publishers straight away: an out-of-office autoreply. My publishing assistant is away until the 2nd January. That’s two days after the book was due. I am free of all concern and looking forward to Christmas sans sword of Damocles. I have #AcWriMo to thank in large part for this achievement, and I’m going to try and collect some thoughts together on precisely how this occurred and what it might mean in terms of a longer term trajectory.

As I think can probably be read in the tone of my first post about #AcWriMo when I was formulating my strategy, I was a bit cynical about the attempt. I mistrust the ‘group’ thing – facebook groups: disaster, music groups: too many egos, book groups: hot air, group therapy: somebody shoot me. I am also very bad at strategising, I’m more of a nose follower than rational planner. I am also deeply suspicious of routines, and their everyday oppressions.

And so here was this thing bringing all these other things together.

However, I was nothing short of desperate.

Through a combination of circumstances some more within my control than others, I had found myself at the beginning of the academic year 2012 with three months in which to turn my first draft into a final draft. With my thesis, that was a process that had taken the best part of six months alongside the demands of a full time job. And at this point in time I was still planning to conduct new research which would need to be completed, analysed and written into a new concluding chapter.

The rest of the book could not really continue without this process coming first. It wasn’t like the thesis, which is rather like a large and unruly jigsaw puzzle for which you’ve mislaid the completed picture: you mess around with lots of pieces for a long time until they start to take some kind of sensible form, then you work at that form until the picture emerges. I found the book more like painting a picture: you need to have a decent idea of where it is ending up before you first put brush to canvas.

In retrospect I do not think I would have completed this extra research work in time, so it was perhaps fortunate that I was let down by the person who I was working with to access participants for it. At the time however, this threw me into some disarray. Re-thinking things at the 11th hour: not good.

So, I reached November and I was still only on Draft 2. Draft One had been about cutting. Draft Two was now about making sense of what I had left. I had something that looked like a Storify account: bits and pieces cut and pasted together. It needed a narrative. It needed me to start at Page One and progress: I am born. I grow up.

At this point I had about 50,000 usable words. So I figured I needed about another 20,000. My #AcWriMo strategy therefore was 15,000 for November, leaving me a little in reserve for Draft Three and beyond. I set myself a target of 2 hours per day, and 300 words per hour.

Then I discovered the Accountability document: A sublime piece of panoptic self-surveillance, of which Bentham himself would be rightfully proud. It watched over me, disciplined me; I aspired to please it. Although I only found 1 hour a day with any regularity I had found an energy which I had eluded me since handing in my thesis. I was writing words that I was happy with for the first time in 3 years, and I was producing them at a rate that far surpassed the 1000 words that was my daily PhD milestone.

Still, I felt like I was not doing enough. And I was not sure how long I could meet the demands of the routine I had set myself.

One day I was travelling in to work on the train. We were held up just outside Manchester, and as I looked at the grey November morning outside, the frustration rose up inside me like fire: how dare this train sit so close yet so far from where I need to be, getting on with things. That magic first hour of the day that I had reserved for writing was ebbing from me minute-by-minute. I tweeted something to this effect. A moment later a fellow #AcWri-ter tweeted back, asking whether I could get anything done on the train. For some considerable time I had used this 45 minute train journey to read things that were not work related: it was my space, my time. However this was to change, and this single comment prompted in me the means with which I could shake the oppressive bonds of my routine, and find a new way to ‘be’ that made something both productive and personally satisfying out of my daily occupation.

In retrospect – in the four weeks or so since I was tweeped into action, in which time I completed drafts three, four and five of my book, before spellchecking, typesetting, and submitting (oh, and submitted two papers to journals) – I have come to see my former insistence of ‘my space, my time’ as a form of escapism. It was keeping me sane in a world which was threatening to drive me in. By the very desperation through which I was prompted into action, I have shaken the bonds of my writing routines, and find I am now able to write almost anytime, anyplace, anywhere (present example: I am writing this from my sister’s house, where my wife is currently carrying my very excited 4-year-old niece around upside down).

This in turn has not only allowed me to achieve the immediate task in hand, but has also unravelled the fundamental sense of alienation from my labours that was everyday deepening my sense of doctoral nostalgia. I find that I am now suddenly very satisfied with where I am and with my future prospects. I am hopeful and ambitious again.

However, I am also physically exhausted. I have been working for 12-15 hours a day every day almost without fail for about 6 weeks; mostly this included weekends as well.

I am absolutely not going to do that in the long run.

So, first new year resolution will be a new strategy – how to chanel this spirit into a productive, satisfying, and sustainable design for the future.

Watch this space.

And, thank you to #AcWri and #AcWriMo for restoring my faith in the group thing, to @mystudiouslife for the Accountability Doc, and to @ccandhealth for the tweet that shook my writing foundations and helped me build something more solid.

Merry Christmas all, from my distractors.

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Doctoral Nostalgia

I finished my doctorate almost four years ago. It was a massive challenge. For much of the first year I felt totally at sea, and right through almost to the point where I had a complete draft I was totally unconvinced of my ability to complete it. But I did, and I was really happy with what I eventually handed in. In the four years that have followed I have stayed in the academy as a contract researcher. This means that I am employed to work on a specific project on a fixed term basis, when that project is finished it’s time to look for more work again. There are several ways in which, I realise now, that all the time I was stressing and worrying over my PhD, in reality I had never had it better, and that has been thoroughly brought home to me through my post doc experience, which in several ways has been a more difficult and less satisfying experience. Have no fear though, I do not intend this to simply be a chance to have a good moan about my job – though I might occasionally – rather I would like to explore some of the difficulties of the early post doc research career, because to my knowledge, this stuff is not talked about that much during the PhD. I would also really like anybody who has experienced similar things to add comments or posts – I’m pretty sure there would be a market for a book in this area, and the more people who can contribute their own stories the better. Perhaps this is also good reading for any PhD students out there – of course you should be stressed and struggling through you PhD, that’s the nature of the challenge, but you should also try and enjoy it, and appreciate some of the things you do have, while you still have them!

You can read the following posts in this series here:

conference papers

academic stereotypes

managing up

spread thin

the big ‘C’ of contract research