Thoughts, writing & snippets

Marguerite Koole, PhD

Conducting interviews with the not-so-disembodied

mkoole, · Categories: Identity, PhD Studies, Research · Tags: , , ,

Online Interviewing
James, N., & Busher, H. (2009). Online interviewing. See:

I finished this book yesterday at my favourite coffee shop. Lo and behold, I had neither computer nor paper to jot down my notes. So, I pulled out my HTC TYTN II and hand-wrote some notes [I have not yet succumbed to the i-Revolution of the evil geniuses at Apple]. I sometimes carry a little fold-out Bluetooth keyboard and type notes in mobile Word, but alas I was completely unprepared.

James and Busher’s (J&B’s) book did not treat interviews in the same ways as Olson and Fontanas & Prokos did. There were some similar themes regarding ethics and the balance of power between the interviewer and the participants. And, J&B discussed the importance of the researcher understanding his/her ontological and epistemological stance. But, the main focus of this book, in my opinion, on the nature of the online environment and how it affects the construction and understanding of discourse in online interviewing. As such, the book is ideal for those of us who are studying online identity formation and maintenance. Including this book amongst my readings of interview methods was a good way to round out my investigation.

The authors regularly use the word disembodied in referring to the human experience online. The word crept into much of their text in each chapter possibly indicating their own private orientation towards online interaction. For example, J&B write:

This chapter [four] therefore discusses how knowledge is constructed in a disembodied, anonymous and textual environment . . . (p. 43)

Further, the body itself is discussed:

The centrality of the body plays a critical part in developing and maintaining social encounters. It influences the ways in which researchers and participants construct their identities and those of the other (Giddens, 1991) and how they assert their agency to make sense of the ‘territory’ (social space) of the social interaction in the face-to-face encounter. (p. 32)

I do not disagree with the importance of the body as we are all physical beings “thrown” into a physical world. Interaction within the physical world shapes how we understand life. However, I grow concerned when social scientists suggest that the ways humans interact online is fundamentally different from how they interact in other environments. Interaction in any environment is mediated—in a face-to-face milieu, this might be through light and sound waves. Mediation will affect the cues people perceive and their sense of time and space (p. 10). Sense of time and space will alter how they interact: what people say, how they say it, and why they say it—when, where . . . The meanings of interaction will shift for the actors as they send and receive cues through different times and spaces. These factors are of much interest to qualitative researchers (p. 23).

So, normally, I would take the repetition of the word disembodiment as a warning sign. Gladly, I found that the authors also offer different perspectives of the online experience:

. . . if researchers are to understand life online, they have to understand that participants’ experiences are connected and shaped by cultural and social elements that are both real and virtual, public and private and online and offline. (p. 11)

Some online researchers have argued that to understand life online you need to understand the broader context because ‘being online and being offline are intersecting and interweaving experiences’ that are influenced and shaped by cultural and social elements (Rybas and Gajjala, 2007 cited in J&B, 2009, p. 34). Identity is fluid and potentially multiple on the Internet, but people similarly engage in these practices in other areas of their lives and did so prior to the existence of the Internet. In other words there is a ‘connected space’ in which individuals exist online and offline simultaneously (Kendall, 1999, p. 6 cited in J&B, 2009, p. 34).

Why is it important to avoid (or acknowledge) the online-interaction-is-disembodied-bandwagon? Because it has significant underlying implications for the way researchers and practitioners shape their online research and online learning environments. By recognizing that the humans-behind-the-screen are actual beings with continuous identities rooted in physical, cultural, and social environments, we can begin to understand why they might react to given situations the way they do. (Note: I do not suggest that we can ever fully understand the intentionality of others.) J&B warn researchers about the “false notion of sameness”, the idea that because people share time and space online they also share values and understanding (p. 47).

. . . participants are likely to assign different valences (strengths) of power to each other, possibly incorrectly. This is because the valence they assign will depend on the cultures from which they come, not the culture in which the others are located. (p. 45)

Further, (and I love the terminology):


But, one should not forget that the lived reality of a person is also supplemented by ‘there and then’. Everyone carries with him/her a physical, cultural, and social history.

A related, but equally important and oft-abused word is fragmented. The disembodied folks often also suggest that people interacting online have fragmented identities:

The identities that emerge from these interactions—fragmented, complex, diffracted through the lenses of technology, culture and new technocultural formations—seem to be . . . more visible as the critters we ourselves are in the process of becoming, here at the close of the mechanical age. (Stone, 1996, p. 36 cited in J&B, 2009, p.72)

Fragmentation is a notion that I would also flag as problematic. The fragmentation is really only from the perspective of an audience for a given performance—not that of the actual individual typing on his/her keyboard. As I write this, I assure you, I have a very integrated sense of identity; my whole history is at my disposal. Just because I don’t share all of my history does not mean I am in any way fragmented. But, I do acknowledge that your computer monitor might show me as somehow diffracted.

Thankfully, J&B offer alternative views from that of Stone (1996, above). In referring to Kendall (1999), they indicate that identity is “stable and unified” and that “This stability is constructed through the ongoing dialogues and discourses emerging online” (p. 73). And, that whilst people can create different online personas, they can and do integrate these personas into their unified selves. In my view, this suggests support for a constructionist perspective of how online and offline presentations of self integrate and influence each other in a constant movement towards becoming.

How is this relevant to interviewing methodologies?

It is relevant because it suggests that there is authenticity in data collected through online interviews (synchronous and asynchronous). The concern we have with demonstrating the validity/authenticity/truthfulness of this form of data collection is similar to the validity of interview data collected in face-to-face interviews”

Individuals do not leave the body, and all its material inequalities behind when they enter cyberspace (O’Connor and Madge, 2003 referred to in J&B, 2009, p. 78).

Oh, and this is an interesting comment (great quotes in this book):

. . . we may underestimate the presence of the body in electronic communication, and over estimate the power of the body to facilitate the fact-to-face situation (Seymore, 2001, p. 162, cited in J&B, 2009, p 108).

So what have I learned?

Similar rules-of-thumb apply to both online and offline interviewing:

So, why am I still grinding on about interview methods?

These were my main concerns prompting my investigation about interview methods:

To what extend would I contaminate the interviews by expressing opinions?

Do I want pre-reflective responses?
(See p. 26)


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *