Author: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.
The interview: form, translation and transformation