Accepted Paper:

Interviews and Focus Groups as Ethnographic Sites for Studying the Enactment of Bodies and Selves  


Michael Penkler (Technical University of Munich)

Paper short abstract:

Arguing for a performative reading of interviews and focus groups, I show how they can be analyzed as experimental sites for ethnographic studies of the enactment of bodies and selves. As model public spaces they offer insights into how such processes play out in public settings more generally.

Paper long abstract:

Traditionally, interviews have been regarded as a method that can - avoiding bias - give unproblematic and transparent insights into informants' genuine and authentic experiences. This view on the interview as a method for 'harvesting' knowledge on what people do and feel has been also increasingly problematized in the past decades, especially through and within STS. Critics have argued that interviews and their derivatives like focus groups do not report on a separate reality, but constitute their own objects and realities. This has led some scholars to discard interviews as a research method altogether. In this paper, I propose a different methodological strategy. Drawing on a study of bodyweight and obesity practices, I show how interviews and focus groups can be understood as ethnographic sites for studying how bodies and selves are performed. We can view them as model public spaces where social realities are enacted according to specific rules. Observing these processes in action we might gain insights into how such processes play out in public settings more generally. As contemporary societies have become saturated by interviews, these methods can be regarded as privileged situations where subjects and bodies are not only performed, but where these performances are also negotiated, reinforced, contested, and resisted. Analyzing interviews and focus groups as ethnographic sites thus allows studying widely dispersed practices that are otherwise difficult to observe. It also allows raising the question of the ontological politics of interviews and group discussions and the realities we enact as researchers.

Panel T014
Considering the performativity of our own research practices