Monday, October 13, 2003

Alas, poor Interviewee! Where be your gibes now; your gambols, your songs?

I have reviewed some highly cited papers. It seems that the first sentence of many of these papers is written in iambic pentameter (NB. I think this particular paper is off by a foot… my Grade 9 English teacher [Bruce Grandfield] would be horrified!). Shakespeare may be dead but his ghost seems to emerge in the strangest places. Using Spradley’s example (1979), I have to wonder how our scientific documentary practices can possibly capture the views and expressions of those who aren’t familiar with The Bard, Ontario’s Grade 9 English curriculum, or even the English language.

In addressing the issues of how subjects respond to the negotiation/interrogation euphemistically called an interview, we need to address an entire list of “whats”: what does the interviewee require, what is the local language, what happens to that language, what are the responsibilities of the interviewer, and what never even makes the transcript. In the tradition of iambic pentameter, the greatest English tragic hero will be our guide: Hamlet.

When the blood burns, how prodigal the soul
Lends the tongue vows.

Hamlet, 1. 3

So what is the respondent doing when they answer our questions? Based on some of my earlier readings, I am quite certain that they have their own motivations for answering our questions and their own ways of negotiating the interaction (see Poland, 2002 for discussion of postmodernism and qualitative research). Spradley, for example, introduces the concepts of “translation competence” to explain that particular groups provide answers that they think match our expectations—hardly a good way of investigating the group. What “lends the tongue vows” for our interviewees? Without this understanding, our interviews may be moot.

But to my mind, - though I am native here
And to the manner born, - it is a custom
More honoured in the breach than the observance.

Hamlet, 1. 4

Shakespeare reminds us that customs and behaviours may exist even though they don’t appear to the investigator. The absence of particularities may be more valuable to the researcher than anything that can be observed. Alfreda Chatman, for example, was particularly interested in how groups actively shut out information (Chatman, 1999). By its very definition, however, absence of something is particularly difficult to find especially when the researcher is researching a field where they are unaware of the “ground” of language and behaviour.

These are but wild and whirling words, my lord.
Hamlet, 1. 5

The words of an interview are semantically loaded and may take on different meanings to different communities. Brenner warns us that the interview itself is a negotiation process involving the worldview of the researcher and not just the perspective of the interviewee:

“Thus, we can never assume that the accounts given are simply answers to questions; they are the joint product of the questions as perceived by informants and the social situational circumstances within which the questions were put to them.” (Brenner, 1985 pg. 151)

This lack of semantic fixity persists throughout the interview and can even invade the transcription process. Poland, for example, informs us that significant “modalities” (Latour, 1987) can be introduced to the text of the interview, as it becomes a transcript. It seems that transcripts fall short of Latour’s notion of an ideal scientific document or “immutable mobile” immune to discursive interpretation (Latour & Woolgar, 1979).

I am myself indifferent honest.
Hamlet, 3. 1

After conducting the interviews, compiling the transcripts, and rendering the fat of textual analysis, we produce papers. In these papers, the original trace of the interviews is merely hinted at in the form of disembodied pull quotes and dull echoes from the methods section. The interviews are still of great use to us. We line them up as allies to support our discussion and arguments. Do these arguments really have to reflect the interviews? Or do our readings of the interviews merely support what we intended to discover? Perhaps we should take a note from the page of Hunter S. Thompson who once covered an event by imagining various encounters at different Super Bowl parties—no real interviews were required (Thompson, 1979).

The rest is silence.
Hamlet, 5. 2

In the pages of a journal article, we are limited by both maximum permissible word count and the cognitive abilities of our audience; we have to abridge (Creswell, 1994). There’s no room to include a complete analysis from all of our transcripts. So what gets left off the page? Who decides? How much gets left in silence.

Hamlet provides some great guidance on interviewing. I worry, however, that many of our interviews may end up being like Hamlet’s own interview of Yorick: decidedly one-sided.


Brenner, M. (1985). Intensive Interviewing. In M. Brenner, J. Brown & D. V. Canter (Eds.), The Research interview, uses and approaches (pp. 147-161). London: Academic Press.
Chatman, E. A. (1999). A theory of life in the round. Journal of the American Society for Information Science, 50(3), 207-217.
Creswell, J. W. (1994). A Framework for the Study. In Research Design: Qualitative and Quantitative Approaches (pp. 1-19). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Latour, B. (1987). Science in action : how to follow scientists and engineers through society. Philadelphia, PA: Open University Press.
Latour, B., & Woolgar, S. (1979). Laboratory Life : The Construction of Scientific Facts. Thousand Oaks: CA: SAGE.
Poland, B. D. (2002). Transcription Quality. In J. F. Gubrium & J. A. Holstein (Eds.), Handbook of interview research : context & method (pp. 629-649). Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage Publications.
Spradley, J. P. (1979). The ethnographic interview. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.
Thompson, H. S. (1979). The great shark hunt : strange tales from a strange time. New York: Summit Books.