Two weeks ago I was part of an interview where the interviewee was myself. This encounter made me realise how (from my perspective) it feels to be assuming the role of the person who is asked questions. Just before the interview I felt a little nervous, wondering whether I was the right person for the study, why I had been asked to participate, and if I can give ‘good answers’. Of course, I also knew (with my ‘researcher hat’ on) that there is no such thing as a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ answer in a qualitative research interview, and that the researcher had very well thought-through reasons for wanting to invite me to participate. What mattered was the particularity of my experience, the story I had to tell, the perspectives I brought to the discussion, and the links I made to other matters (some of which may not have been anticipated by the interviewer). All of the above are elements of a good conversation in general, with a colleague, friend or acquaintance over a cup of coffee (although, of course, the context is different).
I mentioned the thoughts above to the interviewer immediately after we introduced ourselves, just so they were aware of what was going through my mind before we turned our Skype app on (this was a remote interview). Soon afterwards we both felt at ease and, once I had given my consent for the interview and agreed upon how the information would be used, we started the interview/discussion. The interview itself was semi-structured, i.e. I was asked a few questions that had already been prepared, but the interviewer sought to primarily listen to what I had to say, and ask questions based on my answers. A completely structured interview is one that feels more like an interrogation. Thus, this conversation felt pleasant and natural, although I was aware that the main contributor would be me and that the interviewer would not be able to contribute as much.
Some of the questions were around matters that I had considered/thought about before, and as such my answers were given straightaway with events-based examples, definitions, recalling of past processes and sequences of events, and so on. I wondered if the fact that I had already thought about these particular issues meant that I was ‘too quick’ to give my opinion on them without allowing myself to think about the answer more carefully; it may have appeared to the interviewer that I was already ‘set’ on my ideas. But of course, there is no right or wrong answer, and the responses themselves, however (quickly or slowly) given, are of great value to the analysis done later by the interviewer.
Other questions were completely new to me; I found them fascinating as I realised that I needed to do much more thinking around them. At times, I felt that I did not have the right ‘vocabulary’ for the message I was trying to convey throughout my answer. When I say vocabulary, I mean that I would use particular terms to make myself understood, while also being unsure and critical of them (so I gesticulated square quotes a few times). In retrospect, this unease with the imagery and language we use is (once again) a highly important aspect of the interview as it shows how structured our ideas are by discourses and narratives we find around us (in the media or through other sources of information), and how we try to break out of them. Finally, we also shared short stories/examples from our own lives to exemplify the points we were trying to make.
After the interview we exchanged a few emails and ideas (based upon references to articles we mentioned during the interview), and I received the transcript of the conversation. The idea of them sharing the transcript with me was not something I thought I would need or even want. However, upon reflection I’ve realised that having access to the transcript would give me a good opportunity to re-read our conversation (in my own time, whenever I felt like it), and to continue to reflect upon the thinking that we did together. It felt that by receiving the transcript, our discussion was made more concrete; it was further materialised into this document full of interesting ideas and questions. Not often do I have focused conversations on a very specific topic for an hour, and not often have I been in the situation of sharing personal views and experiences with someone who has an interest in them for writing and research purposes. I am now looking forward to reading their future publication, and seeing what stories others have brought to that project.
Back to thinking about my own study..
Reflecting upon that interview experience, I’ve realised that there are even more aspects of my empirical research that I need to think about, one of them being how to make sure that the participants feel at ease before, during and after our encounter; or in other words, how to do justice to the efforts that the participants are making while participating in the project. I also wonder about where the interview (as an event) sits within your day – whether it is before or after a work shift, what time it takes you away from – unpaid of paid work, resting, caring etc. I’ve also realised that while the interview is a great research ‘instrument’, it is a useful but ultimately a short encounter, and one that relies on our immediate memories, thoughts and bodily experiences on the day.
The diary as a research method is an excellent way of complementing the interview for studies such as mine (though diaries are of course not necessary for all projects). On the one hand, it offers the chance for the participant to create entries during or immediately after something happens/is thought of, thus highlighting (bodily, sensory, emotional, perceptive, factual) experiences much more authentically. On the other hand, it also gives the chance to revisit thoughts, memories, and reflections at the participant’s own leisure. We sometimes change our mind and perspective on a matter that we experienced a few days ago – once the dust has settled and once we have had the chance to get a clearer picture of what happened and why. All of these aspects are part of everyday life and it is difficult to convey their complexity and fluctuation during a short interview.
I therefore encourage future participants to keep a diary for approx. 8 weeks, if possible (although it is not a requirement for participation; interviews-only participation is possible as well). If you have any thoughts on the process and experience of being part of the project (and how it could be improved for yourself or others), contributing to the diary, preparing for the interview, or anything else, I would be very interested to hear them.
A week later, I held my first interview for this project! My intention is to hold a few more interviews during the Spring of 2020 (while also following the University’s PhD assessment/review for my first year, reading and writing draft chapters), and undertake most of the other interviews during the latter part of the year – once I have had the chance to review the research questions and diary structure.
For now, I am looking through some of the project’s newly acquired notebooks to see how I could structure them.