ASA10: The Interview - theory, practice, society
Queen's University, Belfast, 13/04/2010 – 16/04/2010
Interview and society
Location Stranmillis Conference Hall
Date and Start Time 13 Apr, 2010 at 16:30
This panel is closed to new paper proposals.
Applied social policy and the qualitative interview – still ‘the poor cousin’?
Historically, the relationship between applied social policy and qualitative research has been ambivalent at best – ranging from outright contempt (‘pretty little stories’) through being ignored altogether to condescension (‘useful for generating hypotheses’). Thankfully the situation has improved to the extent that qualitative research, if not recognised wholeheartedly as an equal partner in applied policy investigation, at least stands on the threshold of recognition. Some groups of policy makers are coming to an appreciation that empirical facts may provide information but, if devoid of meaning, they provide remarkably little guidance about what policy decisions to reach; furthermore, that qualitative information by its nature is meaning and that the qualitative interview is the prime source of meaning for policy issues.
At the same time, the (illusion of a) truce that is believed to have marked the end of the quant/qual ‘paradigm wars’ in the academic sphere cannot be said to have been extended to the policy sphere. Policy makers in the main remain more comfortable with numbers. What is considered to be ‘qualitative’ data can be the appendix at the end of a questionnaire where people have the option of writing in a few short statements or words, which are then categorized and toted up. The ‘qualitative’ interview tends to be a semi structured interview whose transcript is analyzed by the ingenuous categorizing routines of CADQAS systems. The true in-depth qualitative interview along with the wilder reaches of qualitative research remains as firmly ostracized as ever. The supplanting of ‘dissemination’ by ‘impact’ in the RAE/REF pantheon is a supplanting by quantitative impact.
However, it does not follow that one can blame this state of affairs on the lack of intelligence or laziness of civil servants and the venality of those who seek to service them. The crux of the uptake of policy analysis is not only meaning, but a genuine and real need for evaluation. Until the qualitative interview can develop as a means of evaluating policies as well as understanding their perception, it will continue to be relegated to a second class status.
The social life of interview material
In my earlier contribution to debates about ethnographic interviewing (Hockey 2002), I argued that interviews can resemble other bounded social encounters, making interviewing a form of participant observation in some settings. Interview material merits similar consideration. Like the anthropologist’s sound recordings, the material of our everyday lives continuously parts company from us, fragmented across application forms, CCTV images, job references, media soundbites, medical records or indeed departmental gossip. Data protection legislation highlights the vulnerability this engenders. Moreover, concerns felt about infringement of civil liberties within a surveillance society find parallels within our research practice. Anthropology at home has undercut previous ‘freedoms’ from the need to anonymise data, a pressure intensified in a political environment where enemies are imagined within as well as without, a situation compounded by the accessibility that electronic recording, storage and circulation of data bring. Moreover, the pressure to publish within restricted research hours can mean over-rapid, partial reading of data, a problem akin to the hasty marshalling of information in time-starved policy environments.
Concerns about risk and the exercise of control may not, however, be the whole story. The parallels between the social lives of different kind of material have other dimensions. For example, how might we understand processes of fragmentation that occur when elements of who we are fracture across different sites? Can we take some bearing from current debates around identification, from notions of identity as multiple, processual and yet not necessarily de-centred. What happens when the ‘fragments’ are assembled? Alongside political concerns about the integration of independent datasets giving access to multiple facets of an individual’s life, should we set theoretical awareness of the dangers of congealing separate dimensions of individuals’ lives into apparently coherent wholes?
Similarly, how might we balance taking responsibility for our data with anthropology’s commitment to responsiveness and serendipity? Does research governance risk making interviewing a safer option than participant observation, a practice more amenable to informed consent, triangulated coding and participant readings? I suggest that the social life of interview material follows a more open line than this, to draw on Ingold’s (2007) distinction between open and closed lines. Like a radio play, listening to interview material can enable more vivid insight than full-on screen/stage representations. Like poetic language, less can somehow be more. Listening to what an interviewee says takes us into the rooms or streets that ground their embodied life, a mediated journey materialising unpredictably within our imaginations. While not dismissing reflexive awareness of where our imaginations might (mis)take us, mental processes which move us beyond the particularities that bind interviewees to ‘telling it like it was’ can enable locally generalisable insights. Listening thus involves relinquishing a commitment to the closed lines of hypotheses or pre-determined publications. If interview material, like other forms of information, escapes its immediate context of telling, its unpredictable social life is not simply fraught with danger. It is also one that admits creative re-visioning of human experience via imaginative responses to its open-endedness.
Hockey, J. (2002) 'Interviews as Ethnography? Disembodied Social Interaction in Britain', in N.Rapport (ed) British Subjects. An Anthropology of Britain, Oxford: Berg.
Ingold, T. (2007) Lines. A Brief History, London: Routledge.
The interview, voice and text
My paper examines the transformative tasks of interviews as they move between the dualities of voice towards a text. Jonathan Ree in I see a voice reminds us of the dual qualities of voices: they are both expressive and symbolic /communicative (2000).
Interviews offer us the opportunity of getting closer to experience through the presence of voice. Voices are used to moan, to sigh, to yell as well as to communicate via a symbolic verbal system. Thus voice has a dual nature, at one and the same time bodily and ideological. The bodily voice can be used to subvert the explicit meaning.
Voices unfold both in time and in space. Texts exist only in space. Saussure spoke of langue and parole which we can roughly translate as language and speech. The difference can be understood in terms of a chess game. The interview is where these complex dualisms come together.
In transcribing and analyzing our interview material we both reveal and conceal. The concealment is facilitated by the readiness with which aural documents are transcribed and turned into visual documents. The oral historian Alessandro Portelli writes of "the disregard of the orality of oral sources" and compares it to doing art criticism on reproductions (1981:97). In translating oral/aural documents into visual objects we open up new possibilities for their analysis and understanding but at the expense of other more personal, embodied meanings. Indeed, in order to pass ethics committees these days researchers often have to guarantee that they will destroy aural tapes. In so doing they are of course left with a much diminished version of voice.
In creating an interpretive text on the basis of interviews the ethnographer is leaving behind the physical voice and moving into a different order of reality: one where issues to do with the democratization of creativity, the politics of quotation and the hermeneutics of suspicion dominate. According to Aristotle the basic linguistic conjunction of noun and verb mirrors human action. But of course, language is not a mirror. The idea of mirroring has long since been discarded as a misleading metaphor. The complexities of interviewing occupy this interstitial space between experience and language.
This panel is closed to new paper proposals.