Interviews as situated practices: places, contexts, and experiences 
Sophie Elixhauser (University of Augsburg)
Franz Krause (University of Cologne)
Stranmillis Conference Hall
Start time:
15 April, 2010 at 14:30 (UTC+0)
Session slots:

Short Abstract:

This panel will discuss the situated character of an interview, and will direct attention to the varying contexts it is embedded in. We invite papers exploring the role of an interview's location and the impact of certain artefacts, media or experiences on the creation of knowledge in an interview.

Long Abstract

This panel discusses the importance of an interview's context. Interviews always happen somewhere, at certain places, amongst people, and including artefacts and experiences. These contexts fundamentally shape their outcome, and their success or sometimes failure. An interview is not a dialogue of merely an interviewer and a respondent, but must be regarded as a situated practice more broadly.

The presence or absence of things, persons, views, smells or sounds, greatly influences both what persons communicate to the interviewer and how this happens. Conjointly passing through particular landscapes may prompt stories, memories of the past, or outlooks on the future. Holding an interview at a home or office, next to a framed picture, or whilst watching a video, may evoke associations of a different kind and suggest different ways of communication. Rather than a methodological tool focussed on speech only and transposable to any fieldwork situation, the interview must be conceptualised as a multi-dimensional evocation of "knowledge" prompted by interviewer, respondent and the context of their encounter.

Questions discussed may include: What is the difference between speaking about something present or absent in the interview situation? How are 'interview' and 'non-interview' situations differentiated, and what devices are used to signal beginning or end? How can the interplay of context and interview be better accounted for in research preparation, practice, and analysis? How do we have to re-evaluate this method in order to account for its situated character? How can the interview be made receptive to inherently different forms of communication?

Accepted papers:


Gracia Clark (Indiana University)

Paper short abstract:

This paper contextualizes the distinctive format and circumstances of three sets of interviews spaced across thirty years with women traders in a West African city. As the relationships between participants and their respective positioning in the political economy changed over time, each set created a specific kind of knowledge.

Paper long abstract:

The growing acknowledgement of the relational construction of all knowledge calls for deep contextualization of that relational process through the qualitative, interactional methods that mark ethnography for better or worse. Careful unflinching attention to contextual dynamics in interviews generates more information through rapport and better knowledge through more accurate interpretation. The performative side of interviews challenges researchers to interrogate the kind of performance each interview represents, by assessing the characters of the participants (who we are and who they are), their motivations and their roles in the larger plot and subplots that include characters currently offstage. Negotiations over the timing, setting and procedures of interviews express authentic life agendas of both researchers and research subjects.

The three distinct sets of interviews compared here were conducted by the author over a period of thirty years with women traders in Kumasi, Ghana. Initial fieldwork in Kumasi Central Market from 1978-80, emphasized participant observation, but also interviews with all active commodity group leaders. In 1994-5, more formal sessions recorded life histories from older traders, who had experienced dramatic economic changes. The pseudo-genteel atmosphere at the researcher's home let them speak more expansively, with confidence in onsite transcription and translation. Recent video interviews moved to the verandahs of Kumasi Muslim women and men, contributing to a website countering stereotypes of Muslims as all Arab terrorists. This shared agenda let them express their personal concerns directly while addressing an imagined US audience already present and active in their everyday lives.


Lucy Pickering (The University of Glasgow)
Joanne Neale

Paper short abstract:

In this paper I use Timothy Leary's 'set and setting' as an analytical lens through which to view interviews with recovering heroin users in the UK. Through drawing out intrinsic and extrinsic elements which contribute to the journey of both interviewer and interviewee, I explore the implications of interviewer and interviewee meeting at a particular moment in an asymmetric but intertwined pair of journeys: one of learning about recovery through others; one of learning about recovery through oneself.

Paper long abstract:

Timothy Leary, in The Psychedelic Experience (1964), coined the phrase 'set and setting' to describe the context for psychoactive drug experiences. 'Set' referred to factors such as mood or personality influencing the person taking the drug, and 'setting', the physical, social and cultural setting for the encounter. In this paper I draw on Leary's notion of 'set and setting' to explore the significance of context for interviewing recovering heroin users, but also to unpack what we mean by 'context' in an interview encounter. While for Leary, the presence of other people was just one aspect of 'setting', in an interview both interviewer and interviewee form part of one another's 'setting', each are influenced by 'set'.

It is possible, however, to view 'set' as more than a collection of attributes, but as part of a developmental journey. Interviewer and interviewee meet at a particular moment in an asymmetric but intertwined pair of journeys: one of learning about recovery through others; one of learning about recovery through oneself. The aspects which contribute to 'setting' - cultural context, social relations, physical environment - shape and are shaped by the priorities of interviewer (such as researcher safety or meeting participants' families) and interviewee (such as privacy or feeling safe in a treatment setting). Thus, 'set' and 'setting' feed into one another, and Leary's provides us with a powerful lens through which to view the unique and irreproducible event than is an interview.


Francois Guindon (University of Aberdeen)

Paper short abstract:

The Archaeology and Cultural Heritage Program (ACHP) generated hours of taped interviews. Various elements interacted in the interview process to influence the content of the accounts. The various lessons learned from my collaboration with the Cree will be discussed.

Paper long abstract:

From 2006 to 2009, the Cree Regional Authority - the administrative body of the James Bay Cree Territory - conducted large scale archaeological and heritage works on the land that the Hydro-Québec has now flooded for the Rupert River Diversion. This unique Cree project was called the Archaeology and Cultural Heritage Program (ACHP). Over one hundred sites documenting the Cree occupation of this land were visited and recorded. Hours of taped and filmed interviews with Cree elders and land-users were also collected.

The interviewing process involved the interaction of various individuals, artefacts, places and other contextual elements which strongly influenced the content of the accounts. Archaeologists, anthropologists and Cree interviewers collaborated with Cree informants by gradually adapting their interviewing strategies as everyone learned from these interactions. This collaborative process resulted in the creation of a rich historical past centered on places that were about to disappear.

The entire landscape under study at the time of the ACHP is now underwater, but interviews connecting people to places are still necessary and crucial for my PhD research. The lessons learned during the ACHP can now help me developing interviewing strategies better adapted to this new context. The lessons learned from the collaboration with the Cree may also help in designing original strategies for oral history interviews with Canada's other First Nations.


Antonia Schneider (LMU Munich and others)

Paper short abstract:

This paper will present the interview as a particular kind of speech act by discussing culturally shaped ways of asking for information, including metapragmatic awareness, linguistic ideology and and indexical meaning in setting and utterances.

Paper long abstract:

Departing from examples of interview situations during linguistic and anthropological fieldwork in Huancavelica/ Peru (2004) the role of context in interviewing will be approached from three perspectives.

First, as interviews - including those of the ethnographer - are in many contexts "Western" kinds of eliciting information it will be asked in what ways the idea of interviewing as a scientific method contrasts to Andean concepts of getting information based on reciprocal dialogical processes and culturally specific ways of speaking, arguing and organizing conversations. It will be then discussed how such specific Andean ways of asking may be adequately used for the ethnographic interview.

The second perspective is related to the metapragmatic/-linguistic awareness of the informants as "translators" between languages and cultures. In a multilingual and multicultural setting as in the surroundings of an Andean rural city , an interview situation even may contain translations of bilingual informants, narratives or even speech about language. Utterances about their cultural practices or those of others are based on particular -sometimes very individual, ideological or even ambivalent - perspectives.

Finally, not only the surrounding setting, but also the contents of an interview are full of indexical and situated meanings beyond any literal value of words and statistics. Exactly such forms of reading "between the lines" departing from individual interview situations will open new ways of interpreting linguistic and anthropological data