Thoughts, writing & snippets

Marguerite Koole, PhD

More on the qualitative interview: “One might have to disrobe and casually stroll in the nude . . .”

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Fontana, A., & Prokos, A. H. (2007). The Interview: From Formal to Postmodern (p. 148). Left Coast Press, Inc.

In referring to the setting of some interviews: “One might have to disrobe and casually stroll in the nude if one is doing a study of nude beaches.” (Douglas and Rasmussen, 1977 cited in Fontana & Prokos, 2007, p. 43)

It was the perfect day to spend reading on the deck. I sat in the shade of my umbrella with my kettle, teapot, silver tea strainer I purchased at the Mittal tea shop in Sunder Nagar Market in New Delhi in 2003, and a fresh book on interviewing. Fontana and Prokos’ (F&P) book is really only 113 pages in length. It’s a pleasant read replete with interesting examples.

I appreciated their quick highlights of the history of interviewing. The historic background can help readers understand some of the philosophical issues behind the selection of interview types and how a given researcher believes she must conduct her interviews and her analysis of them.

As I continue to explore the literature on interviews, I am becoming more and more comfortable with my own style. My concern for contaminating my results by inadvertently “participating” in the interview whilst playing the researcher role is dissipating. The domain of the structured interview seems to rest with those taking a more realist ontology and objectivist epistemology. Locating “pure” responses from participants to pre-formed questions and limiting the interviewer from co-constructing the conversation seem to be of greater concern in structured interviews. (Hmmm . . . The post-modern unstructured polyphonic interview (p. 53) also attempts to minimize the influence of the interviewer, but involves recording multiple participants speaking freely to a topic. According to an example, the participants seem to be recorded separately. The researcher is expected to avoid using her own words and interpretations. The reader must do his/her own interpretations.)

I am more of a relativist and constructionist. As such, I am comfortable with the notion that my very presence is a valid part of the process. The important thing is to recognize it, acknowledge it, and document it. The researcher must be reflexive (p. 63) and transparently so. F&P in referring to the work of Hertz (1997) note that “we (as authors) express and write our stories, which data we include and which data we exclude, whose voices we choose to represent and whose voices we choose not to represent” (p. 63).

Whilst Hertz (1997 referred to in F&P) acknowledges that the researcher brings many selves to the field of research, Behar (1996 referred to in F&P) “made us see that interviewer, writer, respondent, and the interview itself are not clearly distinct entities” (p. 64). (Pardon my poor citations, but I’m a little tired tonight.) The researcher must decide how to present herself knowing that the self she shows will impact upon the relationship and the co-creation of the dialogue. Then, she must reflexively work through sorting out (or accepting) the hopelessly intertwined entities that formed the discourse—and which continue to shape the discourse well after the contact between the interviewer and the participant has ended. These notions suggest a complexity to the qualitative interview that, again, must be reflected in the final report.

F&P do a clean sweep of structured, group, and unstructured interviews. F&P do not make the same distinction between semi-structured and guided interviews as Olson does (see previous entry). They simply refer to them generally as unstructured and list a number of different types. These types are listed within the categories of creative and post-modern. Within the post-modern category of unstructured interviews, one type really caught my eye: interpretive interactionism (p. 54). F&P suggest that interpretive interactionism is related to polyphonic interviews (see paragraph above), but focuses on “epiphanies” derived from transformational experiences: “Thus, the topic of inquiry becomes dramatized by the focus on existential moments in people’s lives, possibly producing richer and more meaningful data” (p. 54). What is of interest to me here is whether or not this form of interviewing would be useful in studies involving threshold concepts and liminality (see Meyer & Land’s work). In my own PhD thesis, I will be exploring identity positioning thresholds (coined this phrase for my study) experienced by doctoral students.

Moving to the online interview

As I near the first of my pilot interviews, I am wondering how the following non-verbal factors will play out online:

Proxemic communication is the use of interpersonal space to communicate attitudes, chronemic communication is the use of pacing of speech and length and of silence in conversation, kinesic communication includes any body movements or postures, and paralinguistic communication includes all the variations in volume, pitch and quality of voice. (Gordon, 1980, p. 335 cited in F&P, 2007, p. 71)

Next blog entry will focus on the online interview . . .

5 Responses to “More on the qualitative interview: “One might have to disrobe and casually stroll in the nude . . .””

  1. lizit says:

    Another interesting post! Lots to think about and reflect on. Your final paragraph caught my eye – wonder if this could relate to ‘critical incidents’ as well – see Flanagan, J. C. 1954. The critical incident technique. Psychological bulletin, 51, 327-358 and Fivars, G. & Fitzpatrick, R. 1980. The critical incident technique: A bibliography, American Institutes for Research Palo Alto, Calif.

    • em says:


      Great tip! I will look up Flanagan to see what this is about. I’m not sure I want to use a very unstructured approach. I kind a like the “guided” approach as Olson described it. How have you done/are doing your interviews?


  2. Michael says:

    Thanks for the great post. I’ve just come off a loosely structured (in-depth/semi-structured – not sure what to call it) interview where I was accused of steering the interviewee in a certain direction by the interviewee himself. It was true – I wanted the person to talk about something sensitive and dangerous (‘the elephant in the room’). I’ve taken deliberately an active interviewing approach and I’m on purpose trying to scratch below the organisational veneer of bland meaningless responses. For me that is where the real interesting data resides. I’m happy to get close during the interview (using my being close to the tribe) and later create the intellectual distance in the data analysis stage. Your point above ‘The important thing is to recognize it [my presence], acknowledge it, and document it. The researcher must be reflexive (p. 63) and transparently so.’ is my take away :o)

    • em says:

      Hi Michael,

      That’s exactly what I’ve been worried about in my own work. As researchers, we seek responses on certain topics. Is it possible that you might be able to hone your questions so as to elicit comments on the ‘elephant in the room’ without influencing the direction of the comments? Do you know what I mean?

      • Michael says:

        Yes, I’ve been trying and since interview 1 (I’m now ready fir interview 13) to be more “clever” but because I’m also a Project manager (like those I’m interviewing) – who knows the organization its kind of hard to dance around the subtlety!

        My interview last evening was much smoother and I think the difference maybe whether the interviewer can establish trust and safety with the interviewee. What was interesting to me was how the interviewee body language gives off (what Goffman calls) unwanted expressions and matches the content I’m getting e.g. open or closed.

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