Sunday, 30 March 2008

Interviewing in the Interview Society

As I'm writing up the methods section of my PhD, I hope this and future posts on my research will help clarify a few thoughts. In this post I'll be looking at some ideas carried in Jaber Gubrium and James Holstein's 2003 edited collection, Postmodern Interviewing. These have raised some problems my research on Trotskyist life histories need to address, and briefly, how I aim to manage these difficulties. I will discuss possible alternatives to the three-step life history interview strategy I used here in a future post.

The editors' own paper, 'From the Individual Interview to the Interview Society', argue we live in a society permeated by the interview form. It is the primary source of news as well as the favoured means of gathering it. Celebrity is dependent on the interview and the bulk of everyday life would be impossible without interview encounters lubricating the untold myriad of encounters between strangers circulating around the social metabolism.

Gubrium and Holstein argue the role played by the interview is a distinctly modern phenomena. Historically, micro-level social processes have been negotiated through close relationships between individuals familiar with one another. For example, the exploitation of serfs by landlords were cloaked in discourses of fealty, responsibility, obedience and protection. What made these possible was the immediacy of the relationship. The serfs were legally bound to their lords by their ties to the land. They had no freedom of movement and required the lord's permission to leave their immediate locality. Strangers coming into these closely-bounded social settings would likely be met with suspicion and fear.

With the development of capitalist modernity people were thrown together in huge numbers. The dissolution of feudal ties and its displacement by exchange relationships meant 'strangeness' became the norm. Talk and interaction between strangers was necessary and the interview, understood in its modern form, was developed as the formal vehicle through which the exchange of personal information between strangers could be established. Crucially for modern individualist sensibilities it accepted the individual as the authority to talk about their experiences. In the post-war period, this coincided with other individuating 'technologies of the self' where "the concrete, socially and historically located institutional practices through which a relatively new sense of who and what we are as human beings was constructed" (p.24).

What this has given us is a society where the interview is the technology par excellence of the confessional apparatus. Through the mass media and its prevalence in the everyday, there is a widespread knowledge of interviewing conventions. In short, everyone knows how to be interviewed. But not only that. In the development of the 'interview society' argument, Atkinson and Silverman's 1997 paper suggest the interview can be a means of uncovering the authentic self; an operation putting the interviewee's subjectivity and experience centre stage. However, one should avoid essentialising the information elicited from the subject. Their truth is the product of a self reflecting on socially mediated experience reacting to the interview situation in which they find themselves. Hence the interview is not innocent - it is a constitutive practice of self-presentation.

This understanding of the interview cuts against traditional conceptualisation of the process. Typically interviewing is understood as an encounter where one extracts information from the other, while they sit in a passive/subordinate relation to their interlocutor. The subject then is but raw material of experiential data and opinion. Interview practice therefore is concerned with developing questions that can mine and yield information uncontaminated by the process of its refinement.

However, though this traditional model may be demanded by employers and journalists, sociology has long consigned its naïveté to the dustbin of discredited concepts. The wide dissemination of technique requires a reconceptualisation of the interview, one where both parties are seen as co-constructors of a narrative ostensibly about only one of them. This is where the question of validity is seriously problematic. Stories told by an interviewee are always uniquely theirs, but to what extent is it inflected by the interviewer's voice? In other words, to what extent are a respondent's replies overdetermined by the researcher's objectives? Do they say what they think the other wants to hear?

These are difficulties any piece of social research based on interview data has to negotiate. Especially mine - most of my respondents underwent two interviews approximately 90 minutes in length. These were transcribed and returned to my volunteers, and were reflected upon in the third session, which lasted around 45 minutes. All three were in-depth and semi-structured around the kinds of stories I was interested in. The study's participants are all activists and militants, and the bulk are members of the Socialist Party. Someone, like a PhD examiner for example, may ask how valid can the data be, given its validity is made all the more precarious by the fact interviewer and interviewee are members of the same political party? What's to say a respondent didn't massage one's militant credentials to emphasise their standing, or, give a story a certain gloss to present the party in a more favourable light?

Perhaps posing the validity question in terms of true and false is too simplistic. Though it is right attention be drawn to the conditions under which an interview is produced, one must avoid the temptation of lapsing back into the concerns that animated the traditional model of interviewing. Instead it is better one abandons the pretense of being a disinterested observer of the social world. It is not enough to situate the interviewee as a product of the interview society; the researcher themselves must be so positioned too. Hence, to avoid the creep of hidden bias and to fulfill my project’s claim to authenticity and validity, the interests bound up with one’s position taking must be openly acknowledged and investigated. As Bourdieu puts it in his Sociology in Question, this “sociology of sociology is not one ‘specialism’ among others, but one of the primary conditions for a scientific sociology” (p.10).


Jim Jepps said...

I think it's an interesting point about emphasising their standing - or not wanting to say something "wrong". There are shared credentials at stake.

Of course there is no neutral interviewer in this context.

If interviewed by someone outside the magic circle then respondents are unlikely to be critical - not wanting to voice problems that they regard as matters for the movement. This may be why you had problems finding members of other groups to interview - who would be happy to give candid responses to a comrade, but less willing to divulge problems to someone outside their grouping.

In one sense you can get more honest responses - but only at the price of cutting off some potential interviewees

Unknown said...

this is a very inspiring post. What does it imply when you say 'the interests bound up with one’s position taking must be openly acknowledged and investigated'?

I am also thinking if the self-representaion on the part of interviewees is indeed a problem. Maybe there is a possibility that the pursue of authenticity and validity is itself problematic, eh?

Phil said...

Wei, sorry for not replying sooner, I was too busy mucking about with the April Fool during my free time yesterday.

Seeing as I'm using Bourdieu as the main theoretical anchor for my PhD, this means acknowledging that I am someone who occupies a set of coordinates in the social field. This position as a socialist activist who's undertaking a project to get a PhD and hopefully a career in academia influences my research in a number of ways. It impinges upon the sorts of questions I ask, the means by which my findings will be disseminated, the theoretical framework and academic debates I address and so on. By being up front about this one can minimise or at least explain bias-related deficiencies in the PhD itself.

I've got more about what I'm doing here , here , here and here