Accepted Paper:

Not being there: interviews and the anthropological imagination  


Allison James (Sheffield University)

Paper short abstract:

Paper long abstract:

The necessary presence of the anthropologist in the field is fundamental to anthropology’s fieldwork tradition such that reflexive explorations of ‘being there’ (Watson 1999) – understanding the self in the field - are now entrenched as a core part of anthropological praxis. Narrative accounts of fieldwork, even if not explicit in their articulation about the role of the anthropologist as a research ‘ instrument’, nonetheless often acknowledge the limitations or opportunities that the researcher’s gender, class or ethnicity has created in respect of the field data gathered. And, now that the interview (whether formal or informal) has become recognised as also part of the armoury of anthropological fieldwork methods, the being-there-ness of the interviewer and his or her relationship with the interviewee has been opened up to scrutiny. Thus, while conversational analysis and life history techniques have, for example, allowed the turn taking of conversations to be examined for the ways in which issues of power and authority might direct conversations, the actual embodied experience of doing interviews permits additional powerful data to be added to the interview transcript as Hockey (2000) has described.

It is against this background, therefore that this paper asks what happens when the anthropologist is not there? As anthropologists, how can, and do, we work with data that have been collected by other people – by our research assistants or, increasingly, by other researchers who have deposited their interview transcripts for secondary analysis? With research funding pressures making it increasingly difficult for many of us to continue to go ‘ to the field’ in person to collect our data, we are not only relying more and more on interviews as a data gathering technique but also on other people gathering the data for us. This paper considers, first, therefore, how we might reinvent that sense of being there when we have in fact been absent; and second, whether new kinds of opportunities are opened up by not being there. It argues, in short, for the development of an anthropological imagination that can, through drawing on the lessons learned from other disciplinary traditions, transcend the apparent limitations imposed on us, as anthropologists, when dealing with second-hand interviews as a method of data collection.


Hockey, J. (2000) ‘Interviews as ethnography: Disembodied social interaction’, in N. Rapport ed. British Subjects; an anthropology of Britain. Oxford: Berg.

Watson, C.W. (ed) (1999) Being There: Fieldwork in Anthropology. London: Pluto Press.

Panel Plen4
Imagination, inspiration and the interview