Tag Archives: Truth

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.


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.