ASA10: The Interview – theory, practice, society

13th-16th April 2010, Queen's University Belfast, UK


The focus of this ASA conference will be upon the interview and its connections with social anthropology.  We feel that this critical and most basic of elements in fieldwork and the production of ethnography merits careful theoretical, methodological and textual/ethnographic consideration.  We should like to host such an inquiry at the Queen’s University Belfast where there are academics with specialist interests in the interview in Anthropology, History, Psychology and Sociology; and in interviewing circumstances in Northern Ireland and on the borders.

The interview – formal, informal, structured, semi-structured and unstructured – is integral to anthropology as a constituent part of ethnographic practice.  We meet and talk with our subjects, informants, respondents.  Their answers and our subsequent actions and further questions inform our anthropological writings and guide our research.  But just what exactly is the relationship between the interview and the anthropological text?  How explicit are we as to our interview techniques and methods, and to what extent do they feed into our actions and writings?  How ‘experienced’ are we as interviewers and interviewees in this ‘interview society’ of ours?  What, then, is the relationship between anthropology and the interview?

This conference seeks to consider questions, issues and examples concerning the nature of the interview from the theory of the interview, to the practice of the interview, and to the use of the interview in ethnography.  We therefore encourage panels and abstracts in areas such as the following:

  • Interview Theory
  • Ethnography and the Interview
  • Interviewing and Anthropology
  • The Interview Society
  • The Interview as Research Method
  • Gender, Ethics, Risk and the Interview
  • Interview Case Studies
  • From Interview to Text
  • Life History and Oral History Interviews
  • Biography, Memory (Remembering) and Subject Construction

This conference will be smaller than previous ASA conferences with 4 plenary sessions and only 12 scheduled additional panels in total – with no double sessions.  We therefore recommend liaison with the conference organisers to develop your panels.

Ethnographic films will be invited to be shown throughout the conference; and there will also be scope for poster presentations. Film-makers and poster-makers must attend the conference for their work to be put on show.

Initial reflections on the theme

The Interview - opening thoughts

‘Nowadays participant observation and interview techniques are paired as the “dynamic duo” of field research’ (Sperschneider 2007: 275).  Whilst we might not go so far as this statement, we do believe that interviewing can now be found extensively in anthropology as a practice … alongside/subsumed within /instead of … ethnographic fieldwork.  We also believe, after Robson (1993: 228) and others before him, that the interview is ‘a conversation with a purpose’.  It is ‘a professional conversation’ (Kvale 1996: 5) between two or more people that can range from the informal unstructured exchange at one end of the continuum to the formal structured event at the other.  For Kvale (1996: 6-7), the interview’s purpose is ‘to obtain descriptions of the life world of the interviewee with respect to interpreting the meaning of the described phenomena’.  Ideally, the interview is a mutual ‘inter-view’ (Finch 1984), and not ‘a one-way pseudoconversation’ (Fontana and Frey 2003: 82) in which the researcher elicits research information by acting out a relationship but without really relating to the speaker (Benney and Hughes 1956).  It is possible, so Sparkes (1997) suggests, that ‘a symbiotic relationship’ can develop during the successful interview: that it becomes an edifying, therapeutic, intersubjective experience for those involved.  But is this just of the biographical interview?  What constitutes a successful interview?  Are not all interviews asymmetrical in terms of power and control?  And just how comparative are such personal worldviews?

‘Ethnography without questions would be impossible’ Agar (1996: 95) contends. Moreover, interviewing in ethnographic work introduces respect and efficiency into the fieldwork and relations in the field, Wolcott (2005: 98-99) suggests, in that it provides focus to encounters, and conveys upfront responsibility to one’s respondents’ data.  But yet, as Jenny Hockey (2002) notes, for many anthropologists the interview remains a second choice method in comparison to participant observation.  It is considered to occupy the methodological low ground: fieldwork on the cheap, stand alone, divorced and disembodied from real life, lacking in sensory experience, a ‘punctuation point’ (214) in an informant’s life.  Is this a fair assessment of the interview and its place in anthropology?  Is it valid, particularly in the Western world - now characterized as an ‘interview society’ (Atkinson and Silverman 1997; see Gubrium and Holstein 2002 for a comprehensive overview)? And what assumptions are we making - and boundaries are we maintaining - in doing this?  Hockey (2002: 220) suggests that the interviewing ‘experience-far method’ might in fact be more ‘experience-near’ in Western settings.  Is the interview a more valid practice, then, in the West where so many people are considered to be familiar or experienced with the interview as a research tool or media - (or interrogation [see Feldman 1991: 128-136]) – practice and, indeed, might expect to be interviewed as a research respondent in our fieldwork.  How, then, does this general interview experience and knowledge impact upon the questions and answers we give and take in our research practice; the performance and ritual surrounding and incorporating the interview; and other expectations coming to play a part in the interview?

The relationship between interviewer/interviewee and the context of the interview are also important considerations in our examination of the interview -- the theories underpinning and ring-fencing it, its various techniques of practice, and its place in society and our profession.  Might there be a bias in the questions put, and in the construction of the interview?  Is the data skewed by virtue of the participants; their relationship – or lack of relationship - with each other; the context and media of the interview; and the techniques of elicitation used whilst sitting, standing, walking or even dancing through the interview (Irving 2005; Skinner 2010; see also Less 2004)?  What are the ‘vulnerabilities and dilemmas’ of gendered interview dynamics, Deborah Lee (1997) poses in her examination of woman-to-woman interviews and woman-to-man interviews in the field?  Furthermore, what are the pros and cons of various interviewing techniques (Biographical Narrative Interpretive Method; Rogerian non-directive; Responsive [Rubin and Rubin 2005]; Barrett-Lennard congruence [1981]; open/closed questioning …) and devices (scratch notes, sound recording, telephone, video …)?  Sturges and Hanrahan (2004) suggest that there is no difference between data gathered between telephone and face-to-face interviewing.  Clearly, though, there is a difference in medium as the one ‘calls’ for particular productions of sound and interpretation, and the other relies more upon visual cues (Genovese 2004: 216).  For Sarah Pink (2004: 64) the video camera in a video interview can act as a non-human agent in the interview process of knowledge production.  It can enhance the interview and involve the interviewer and interviewee in different ways, interweaving visual and verbal representations, and eliciting additional commentary: Pink encourages her informants to video their sensory home and to give the (inter)viewer a tour which they narrate.  This is part of a growing ‘sensory methodology’ that has developed on from conventional ‘talk-based’ research (Pink 2006: 57) and in part out of the ethnographic After/Writing Culture crises of representation in the 1980s and 1990s (Marcus and Clifford 1986; James, Hockey and Dawson 1997) when oral history (‘representations of the past’ [Tonkin 1992; see also Rosenberg 1978; Finnegan 1992]), fieldwork, fieldnotes (Sanjek 1990) and ethnographic representation were all put under intense scrutiny.  The result is deconstruction and ‘postmodern sensibilities’ in interviewing according to Andrea Fontana (2003: 52).  But has this been a ‘constructive’ move forward, we can ask?  Are these developments and new techniques of interview knowledge production safe, ethical and representative?

The interview is ‘relational’ (Tietal 2000), ‘active’ (Holstein and Gubrium 1995) and transformational; in its narration, there is an inevitable change to the interviewee’s memories: healing, reinforcement, reappraisal, remembering and re-authoring in the telling of stories. To paraphrase Hertz (1997), an interview results in the interviewee retelling their past experiences whilst the interviewer lives and negotiates their present.  The interview experience can thus transform self and other – just as the anthropologist Vincent Crapanzano (1980) found during his interviews with Tuhami: a shift from an ‘I–thou’ interview relationship into a ‘we’ relationship (Seidman 1991: 73).  Interpretation, subject construction and expression also take place in the coding, transcribing and eventual writing about the interview – a translation from speech to text, a writing and re-righting of reality in ethnography (see Rapport 1994).  This movement is equally as deserving of attention as the interview proceedings and precedings.  For Paul Atkinson (1995: 12), there is an inherent tension between ‘readability and fidelity’ as the spoken word is materialized as the written text, to be subsequently interpreted, explained and contextualized.  There is no pure mode of representation, he suggests.  And yet, Atkinson (1995: 150-151) felt able to write, cite and present medical talk amongst haematologists, ‘a linguistically informed phenomenology’ of discourse as he refers to it.  Kevin Dwyer (1982) attempted to resolve his fieldwork conversations as a ‘dialogue’.  Vieda Skultans (1998: 14) ‘borrowed the pain’ of her interviewees.  Judith Okely (1992: 15) became ‘the silent therapist who triggered off fantasies and monologues’.  Hastings Donnan and Kirk Simpson (2007) helped border ‘subjects’ find a voice in troubled South Armagh (see also Angrosino [2004] amongst Benedictine monks).


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