Tag Archives: Representation

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?

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There’s truth in lies

Narrative writing is becoming more commonly used in the social sciences, a trend based partly on the widespread dissatisfaction with more traditional means of representation, and partly on the power of stories and storytelling as a medium for exchange, engagement, reflection, and learning.

However, this form of representation has its own critics. Some say it is dishonest, that an academic writer’s job is not to construct a narrative, but to re-tell the stories they are told through their research exactly as they are told them, in their originators own words. Others say narratives are a cloaking device with which a researcher can write themselves out of the story, making the interpretations therein appear self evident.

These are both valid concerns. The first critique is a little naive, as it imagines that stories can be re-told without the use of some kind of textual apparatus. All academic writing must have some purpose, some argument to make, and to be well received by peers and publishers academics should make arguments clearly evident, logical and coherent. Yet people do not tend to tell stories about themselves in the form of an argument, and logic and coherence are certainly not always present. Academics are expected to make contributions to knowledge through their writing, which involves the use of other stories, histories and theories. These are all appendages to the story itself. Their use involves interpreting the story told and translating it into a different language. Thus, stories re-told are always already re-created. Nevertheless this is an important critique in reminding the storyteller to remain faithful to their participants, and to attempt to tell the truth of their situation through their storytelling.

The second critique is important as it describes one of the major problems with many of the traditional tools of academic research, which have historically been used in an attempt to objectify stories in an impartial, value-free manner, and remove the ‘I’ of the researcher. The fact that narratives have emerged partly as a response to this traditional discourse, does not ensure that they achieve something better. This achievement can only be made with ongoing work on the part of the author to make clear their interpretive path; to ‘objectify the objectification’ to use Bourdieu’s phrase.

The key to narrative is activation; for a story to be believable, its characters must appear human, capable of taking an active part in their own destiny, and yet constrained in this activation. Their choices must come with conditions, their opinions must have contexts, their interests must be conflicted.

Thus, central to the construction of a good story is characterisation. This is true across many different forms of storytelling. In his introduction to The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky explains that a large part of his novel is not, in fact, a novel, as the first 300 or so pages of his 700 page book are concerned with providing the back stories to the actual novel which follows it. This is similar to the characterisation work that writers for the stage and screen have to accomplish before they can begin the script itself; detailed back stories have to be created for each character – and learned by each actor attempting to bring them to life.

Characterisation therefore presents a thorny issue to contemporary academic writing. To write a characterisation; an exhaustive account of what makes a person tick, would likely be an unjustifiable stretch of representation – for who is an academic, or anyone else, to take all the complex, conditional details of a person’s life, heart and soul, and order them into a coherent narrative? Oddly enough, such accounts are found everywhere in highly influential accounts of personality types and the like.

Are you a firefighter or a completer-finisher, a Type A or  a Type B?

So who are academic writers to take on this work? Behind this question lies a more fundamental one: What are the objectives of academic research and writing? If, as is conventionally understood, an academic writer is concerned with truth, then in the wake of several waves of critical enquiry over the past 80 years or so from such diverse disciplines as anthropology, linguistics, and psychoanalysis, then there may well be no steady ground for the academic-writer-truth-seeker on which to find footing. If, on the other hand, ‘truths’ are understood as multiple, political, conditional, dynamic and situated, then the academic-writer-truth-problematiser is liberated from such unnecessary and inappropriate mantles as objectivity, value-freedom, and truth, and is free to make temporary, cautious sketches; a particular truth of a particular situation. The characters sketched herein are best understood as such.