The interview: form, translation and transformation 
Jonathan Skinner (University of Roehampton)
Dominic Bryan (Queen's University Belfast)
Stranmillis Conference Hall
Start time:
14 April, 2010 at 11:00 (UTC+0)
Session slots:

Short Abstract:

Long Abstract

Accepted papers:


Nigel Rapport (St. Andrews University)

Paper long abstract:

The article is in three main sections. In the first, ‘The ideal types of interaction’, I explore the consequences of verbal exchange or zigzag. When the utterances of talking-partners in a conversation meet each other, I suggest, there is the potential for their words to have ‘reciprocal’, ‘complementary’, ‘collaborative’, ‘emergent’ or ‘distorted’ relations to one another.

The second part of the article, ‘Conversation and interview’ begins with the observation that here are two kinds of verbal exchange both of which are founded upon a dialectic or zigzag, a give-and-take. But one can also distinguish between them: An interview is a non-routine conversation, with a purpose or design which at least one of the talking-partners has previously determined, and which need not be repeated (the talking-partnership might extend to this one exchange alone). There are three significant elements here, then: the non-routine, purposiveness and boundedness. As an ideal-type, the interview is also a thing-in-itself: a mini-relationship, a micro-institution, potentially distinct from the routines around it, from the social classifications and the cultural conventions.

Being non-routine, bounded and purposive sets up an investigative situation: not only is a researcher taken beyond the everyday but all the talking-partners who are aware that this is an interview not merely a naturally occurring exchange. And what will be the outcome? Reciprocity, complementarity, collaboration, emergence, distortion: the range is limited but among this range there is an imponderability. Interview combines idiosyncrasy, self-consciousness, a logically formal set of outcomes and imponderability.

The third part of the article examines these propositions in the context of an interview conducted by me at Constance Hospital, Easterneuk, Scotland, with a consultant surgeon, ‘Mr J. L. Taylor’.


Madalina Florescu (CEBRAP)

Paper long abstract:

It is generally assumed that no matter how unusual and transformative, the interviewer has more contextual knowledge than the interviewee and that the role of the ethnographer invariably coincides with the former, thus remaining somehow 'outside' the interview. It is assumed that questions do not yield the power of ritual and that an interview will not transgress the limits of a mundane setting; if transformative at all, an interview can be so only at a personal level. But what happens when the interview encompasses not only individuals but institutions as well? Or when the interview becomes a ritual for the unmaking and re-making of context the ethnographer cannot control? The purpose of this paper is to address the epistemological assumptions underpinning expectations that 'the interview' is a technique of knowledge production that is detachable from and transferable across cultural contexts by looking at what happens to the ethnographer`s questions as they travel from their context of production to their context of reception and back via 'the discipline of anthropology'. In sum, this paper examines the epistemological challenges posed by “the interview” as a transferable technique of knowledge production.


Elizabeth Tonkin (Queen's University, Belfast)

Paper long abstract:

'Participant observation' typically includes a range of social encounters, some of which we may wish to define as interviews. Although some have claimed 'the interview' as a defining form of encounter in the contemporary world, it must both share basic features with other communicative acts and itself have a variable span. The term as often defined, for example as formal, semi-structured, or open-ended, and used increasingly by anthropologists in this way, assumes an acceptance of Western bureaucratic rules and social relations that include the interviewer as superior. Knowledge of these conventions may not be shared by interviewees, although they may have learned to expect them or indeed to manipulate them (an example is the 'victimcy' projected by some would-be recipients of international aid). Interviews therefore, even those within specifically circumscribed definitions, are encounters that share features with other experiences that range from the fleeting to the formal. All encounters are, like the 'field' itself, dynamically temporal. They have both verbal and non-verbal features and they incur feelings, both in the investigator and interlocutors, that can both last and change over successive occasions. The temporality and the emotions outlast the encounters and indeed the fieldwork itself. They therefore need to be accounted for when writing up, when we need to communicate our findings, and should not be confined in any anthropological analysis to the communicative conventions of official reports. I will therefore discuss some of the issues of representation that ensue, given for instance the familiar need to encompass the significance of the non verbal, but also the shifting, often unarticulated movements of feeling involved. I wish also to show how important it is not to be limited by the assumption that an interview is especially valuable because it is a form of contemporaneous interaction, testifying to actuality here and now. That is an error of presentism, because no testimony is just interactive activity; it looks forward, and backward, in ways that are valuable to unravel, and have accompanying theoretical significance for any anthropological account.