Wednesday, 2 April 2008

PhD Methods: Decisions, Decisions

At the start of the project I envisaged employing a methodological strategy using three different kinds of research tools. The first was interviewing volunteers about their time in the Trotskyist movement. The second would be a degree of participant observation, with the aim of capturing a sense of how Socialist Party and Socialist Workers' Party activists behave in particular settings, such as the demonstration, the paper sale, the picket line and the branch meeting. Thirdly I thought a small-scale survey of SP and SWP members would be useful in establishing how representative my interview sample was.

Unfortunately it quickly became apparent that, for a variety of reasons, it would prove to be very difficult getting hold of SWP volunteers for the project. Certainly being members of rival organisations was a factor - a number of SP comrades stated they wouldn't have participated if I wasn't a member. But what I think was the overriding key factor was a lack of acquaintances with active SWP comrades. This lack of a prior relationship led me to conclude that an attempt to do a survey standing on the steps outside Marxism or Socialism would not be very successful. It meant abandoning the claim to having a representative sample beyond what the respondents themselves say about their perception of being a typical member of their organisation. But it also didn't really matter. My concern was establishing a case study showing how a sample of activists got into socialist politics and remain committed to them, as a means of intervening in existing academic debates in social movement research.

I'm more ambiguous regarding participant observation. In the first place it was, like the survey, a bolt-on extra. The interview was always going to be my primary means of data collection. The role of ethnography was to brighten up the finished work as a presentational flourish and not really be treated as data to be analysed. However, because this is a project inspired by Bourdieu's work on fields, strategy and cultural capital I have to be aware of how my own political and academic interests impacted on the structuring and framing of the research. Perhaps an auto-ethnography exploring my experience of being an active member of the SP could be useful for uncovering the biases and assumptions that meant certain questions were asked and remained unasked.

The interview in social research, as we have seen, has had to move on from the traditional hierarchical arrangement to acknowledging it as a co-constructed interaction process. Again, this calls for more reflexivity on the part of the researcher, but in my opinion the interview remains the best way for a respondent to tell their story, albeit one bounded by the concerns of the researcher. I decided upon a modified version of what I.E. Seidman (1991) called 'in-depth phenomenological interviewing'. This requires three interviews with each participant. The first is focused life history, which establishes the lived context of the experiences the researcher is interested in. In other words, it establishes a narrative of their life up to that point. The second is the detail of the experiences themselves. The final session is a reflection upon their meaning and how they understand them within their own biographical narrative. For the interview sequence to be set up in this manner each of them need some sort of structure to make sure the co-constructed narrative stays on course.

This does have a certain advantage when it comes to validity. It's true one cannot generalise findings beyond the sample, but the interview sequence provides comments with a certain consistency and enhances the truth claims of a respondent's story.

However once my interviews were underway experience suggested I change my 'model' of interviewing. I found the three-step model extremely useful. It gave myself and the interviewees plenty of time to explore certain issues. But what I did to enhance the "meaning making" of the third interview was to return the transcripts to the respondents and ask them to read it before it took place. This was for a number of reasons.

1) It allowed them to go over the transcript for typographical errors and make corrections.

2) Afforded them an opportunity to take out information they may regard as sensitive or mistaken.

3) Reinforce the sense of co-construction, of seeing the transcripts as something belonging to them rather than something dragged out of them.

In addition the third interview became the place where "tougher" questions were asked, such as what criticisms or differences did they have with their organisation, and what they would likely do if they ever found themselves outside of its ranks. I also asked a series of methodological questions about the interview process, how they felt reading themselves back, my "bedside manner", the fate of the PhD research and so on. These responses were very interesting and hopefully I'll be able to write more substantially about them in the future.

The other major change I made was extend the life history approach across the two interviews. Typically the first interview would end at the point my volunteer joined their organisation or when they started seeing themselves as a socialist. The second interview would run from then up to the present day, looking at how their commitment to socialist politics were progressively assimilated into everyday life and, in some cases, how the latter came to be subordinated to the former. I found the interviews flowed better and made easier reading when the transcripts were handed back.

The big draw back I found with the three-step process was finding the time to transcribe in between data collection and pinning people down for follow up interviews. Seidman suggested they should take place within a relatively short period of time of one another. In some cases that didn't happen with me. The other problem was incomplete interview schedules - after two interviews a few comrades dropped off the radar completely. But all told I was left with 50+ hours of data to sift through, so these problems proved to be an inconvenience rather than a major issue.

This is why I ended up doing what I did. But there are alternatives not discussed here, which I shall look at in a future post.


Anonymous said...


this is fascinating stuff. I look forward to reading more.

I remember reading Kenneth Newton's Sociology of British Communism when I was writing up an MPhil on the CP in Wales and thinking: I wish this book was better.

Lawrence Parker

Leftwing Criminologist said...

very interesting

I happen to be doing an ethnography on stalls for one of my assignments for my course.

thinking about difference said...

i'd include an autoethnographic chapter for sure. and i'd place the three interviews in a wider context (any data hard copy or online which could shed light on the context?). interesting that people won't talk to you if you do not 'belong' to their group or espouse their values. i think this says a lot about their position. maybe some anthropological work about doing research in indigenous communities when you are an outsider might be of interest? (no suggestions for titles, unfortunately...)