Roundtable - Situating the interview 
Joy Hendry (Oxford Brookes University)
Mary Patterson (University of Melbourne)
Lecture Theatre LT5
Start time:
14 April, 2010 at 18:15 (UTC+0)
Session slots:

Short Abstract:

This roundtable offers critical evaluation of the way in which the spatial, ethical and epistemological context frames the interview as method.

Long Abstract

From the nineteenth century ethnographer on the verandah with the missionary interpreter at his elbow, to the targeted data collection of the multi sited fieldwork setting, the interview has always been situated by its spatial and ethical context and troubled by its epistemological status.

This roundtable examines the interview through the politics and ethics of specific ethnographic and pedagogical engagements, as a frequently unacknowledged site of contestation for interviewer and interviewee alike, with a final suggestion that a critical assessment of the 'grammar' of the method may provide some solutions to our epistemological perturbation.

Accepted papers:


Mary-Kathryn Rallings (Queen's University Belfast)

Paper short abstract:

Different events occurring within the same space can quite literally change the very nature of the space itself as well as the context of the interview site. This paper will explore whether more objective ethnographic knowledge can be obtained whilst interviewees are surrounded by familiar contexts.

Paper long abstract:

This paper will explore different events occurring within the same space as they quite literally change the very nature of that space, along with the behaviour and attitudes of those within it. Thus, the context of the space as an interview site also changes. The context of an interview may then have a considerable impact on the knowledge tendered by informants as well as the outcome of the interview itself.

Belfast city centre hosts a variety of very different events - 'green' parades, 'orange' parades, gay pride events, the Lord Mayor's show - some of which attract a certain crowd according to the context of the event. Those who identify with the theme (political, religious, ethno-nationalist, etc) of the event will generally feel comfortable surrounded by symbols, flags and people with whom they personally associate. When observing and interviewing informants in this context, how do people behave, what do they say (or sing, or shout), and how do they respond to questions about the 'other' - those not present at the event?

This paper will question whether there is a more raw indication of true behaviours and opinions within this familiar context. Conducting interviews within this environment, are biases in fact more obvious, therefore rendering accounts more objective - and providing the context for people to say and do things they would not do if surrounded by those to whom they are ideologically opposed? Further, how do we determine the impact of context on the work of ethnography itself and on the validity and objectivity of information presented by our informants?


Kristine Harris

Paper short abstract:

This paper argues that control and vulnerability are important, though frequently unacknowledged, factors in interview interactions. Perhaps, in order to appreciate the interviewee's sense of vulnerability we, as researchers, must first be willing to experience our own vulnerability.

Paper long abstract:

This paper explores issues of ethics, control and vulnerability in the interview process. The paper draws on my PhD research conducted with frontline health workers in an Indian NGO. The research combined participant observation and in-depth interviews. As the interviews were conducted midway through the research they naturally drew on pre-established relationships between researcher and interviewee. These relationships were introduced into an interview situation governed by distinct power relations and a novel ethical context. The formal nature of the interview, and particularly the presence of a recording device, changed the nature of my interaction with the health workers and raises question about what constitutes 'research' and how interviews fit into a larger research and ethical context.

These are uncertain times in leprosy work and the health workers I worked with faced redundancies and organisational restructuring. The existence of a tangible recording made them feel vulnerable and they worried what would happen if the recording was to fall into the 'wrong' hands. In interviews we ask the interviewee to entrust something of themselves to us, as researchers. This exposure, and potential sense of vulnerability, is an important, though rarely recognised factor in interview interactions.

Anthropology recognises that information is the product of a relational process. In interviews we utilise a variety of techniques aimed at establishing rapport, eliciting responses and accessing information.

These techniques, our responses and our participation in the interview makes us part of the knowledge created. As researchers we cannot always control the research process but we tend to retain the tangible data produced (notebooks, recording) which can play a role in maintaining a sense of insulation from, and control over, the research process. It was not until I relinquished control over 'my' interview recordings that I truly came to appreciate the health workers sense of vulnerability.


Adrian Davis (University of Wales Trinity Saint David)

Paper short abstract:

For those disciplinary stakeholders involved in realigning the epistemological framework of ‘the interview’, one could do far worse than reprise the illuminating ‘clinical’ experiences of the maverick anti-psychiatrist R D Laing. In particular, his crucial insight that ‘The 'data' (given) of research are not so much given as taken out of a constantly elusive matrix of happenings. We should speak of capta rather than data’ (Laing 1973).

Paper long abstract:

This paper will draw for its critical import on what it takes to be the central epistemological difficulties that it finds implicit in Laing's otherwise insightful remark. The author holds that for the most part, in some form or other, these difficulties are endemic to most approaches to 'the interview'. My preliminary interests are to make these difficulties explicit, and then assessing what that entails for a more devolved and contemporaneous discussion on the merits of 'the interview' conceived of as an 'imagined space'. In essence, the author will aver that whilst Laing's constructivist epistemology is now typically commonplace and readily understood, in the 'Diaspora' of eclectic and normative approaches in the social sciences; serious difficulties still persist. In short, these methodological insights have done little to unburden the interviewer and interviewee of the perennial problems of what is typically viewed as the inevitable subjectivities or objectivities of testimony. In short, the invidious 'outer' and 'inner' of anthropological discourse continues to evade proper philosophical closure to the overall detriment of the discipline as a whole. My paper address this difficulty of the 'objective' and the 'subjective' intruding on our methodologies, through considering its continuing grip on our thinking, as arising very much out of our ordinary language, and as such, being very much a grammatical problem that is readily enough 'dissolved' if one takes certain practical steps .