Using the interview as a data gathering tool seemed to be an easy thing to do until I did my fieldwork. Manuals say that you must define what kind of interview you want to do and how to adapt: you need to be prepared (so your questions will directly relate to your problematic), be a good listener, and avoid inducing answers from your informants. When it comes to ethnographical interviews, boundaries are blurred since you try to break the artificial position that normally emerges when you conduct a discussion within a sterile context.
In this post, I would like to propose a perspective which comes directly from epistemology and is rarely found in qualitative method manuals. By epistemology, I’m not talking about the English philosophy of science but the study about the nature of knowledge that we can find in any discipline. In my work, I try to gather phenomenological data, which means that I want my informants to share with me their own vision of life, work, games, etc. This is an important piece of ethnographical work since you want to represent the people’s reality and to achieve it, you must be sensitive to your own bias.
A missing aspect of many methodological works is situation bias. The situation may be anything that can affect the interview (e.g., what happened the same day, what the informant has in mind, space, etc.), but I want to focus on the encounter of the two persons (interviewer & interviewee). This encounter is about two subjectivities who both have their own bias and ideas about what this interview means, and studying this perspective may bring some methodological insight about the nature of data. Hermeneutics made this statement with authors like Heidegger, Bultmann, and Gadamer who thought that we should not put aside anticipations but try to understand how they interact with our interpretation of the world.
Concretely, I think we should be more sensitive about our position as an interviewer since it may shift rapidly, depending on the position you take or the one your informant gives you. Since I made my fieldwork in an enterprise and made participant observation (in management they use the term “shadowing”), I had the chance to experience different approaches to the interview. Let me explain:
I think there are three different positions the interviewer may adopt:
Upper interviewer position: Happens when he has the control of the interview, a position that we often see in sociological works.
Example: You make an interview with a newcomer employee who occupies a “less prestigious” function in the company. He respects you and will let you take the control of the meeting since he’s not yet comfortable with his own position within the organization.
Advantages: Informant will directly answer to what you ask since you control the course of the interview. One great advantage is that you can easily test your hypothesis if your questions are well defined, because answers will be straight through.
Disadvantages: First, you have to be firm about your position and have good self-confidence, which can be difficult if you want to gather phenomenological data. The link between you and the interviewee is often cold and formal. It directly brings the question of the induction: being in control of the discussion may lead you to self-confirmation of your hypothesis since informants won’t have the necessary latitude to explain themselves about a phenomenon.
Middle interviewer position: happens when he gets along well with the informant so the researcher’s artificial stance disappear.
Example: The employee you question has an intermediate position in the company and is comfortable with it (he doesn’t have to prove himself). The discussions you have becomes more emotive: you can both talk about what you like in mutual respect.
Advantages: This is a wayyyy more comfortable position for the anthropologist, you now feel that you can be yourself while being respected. Discussions are more informal and you can have a great information flow, information that seems more natural and honest.
Disadvantages: You may lose your detached observer point of view, which is good if you want to achieve the glamour “going native” of fieldwork and get a more “common” view of the situation. However, we must not forget that the bread and butter of the academic researcher is the position he adopts and the enlightenment he brings on a specific subject. He must keep a theoretical distance from his subject, otherwise, he will sink in what Bourdieu called the common sense.
Lower interviewer position: happens when the informant takes control of the interview and shows the researcher that he’s the one who knows.
Example: You make an interview with a company director or president who has a prestigious position in the company (even society) and has a lot of confidence. The informant has a solid discourse and takes control of the discussion to share his knowledge with you.
Advantages: You obtain a really consistent discourse and learn a lot about what may seem to be the way how things work. Thanks to the purpose’s coherence, you get a lot of data and even theoretical perspectives, since most of these informants are educated and share the same language as yours (I said language, not sense! :-P).
Disadvantages: Your informants remind you that you are a student and will ask you what you want to learn and it can effectively be uncomfortable to be associated with a juvenile schoolboy. Moreover, what they present to you is a well formulated and recurrent discourse that you have to make sense of. One goal here is to push your informant to take other directions because he will always try to stay in his comfort zone and if you achieve it, you will obtain a more personal point of view. You also need to be cautious about data analysis: you don’t want your academic paper to look like an ideological pamphlet.
I know that these categories may interweave each other’s, but I think it is essential to be aware and think about how the situation may influence data gathering. It doesn’t mean that there is a better position, it always depends on the researcher’s initial perspective but I think these three perspectives are equally important to have a large portrait of the studied phenomenon.
Moreover, the relation with your informant is the most important variable, regardless of each other’s position: it may click or not and this is a thing you can’t control. Social skills come with practice and can’t be learned on school’s benches, but one should always be attentive to the relation itself that emerge from the interview.