Thoughts, writing & snippets

Marguerite Koole, PhD

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

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

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 . . .

Explorations into qualitative interviewing techniques & issues

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

Essentials of Qualitative InterviewingOlson, K. (2011). Essentials of Qualitative Interviewing (Qualitative Essentials) (p. 112). Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press. Retrieved June 29, 2011, from

I recently attended an excellent week of workshops at the University of Alberta: Thinking Qualitatively Workshop Series offered through the International Institute for Qualitative Methodology. I took three workshops on various aspects of qualitative interviewing for a total of 9 hours.

One of the facilitators was Karen Olson whose book is the subject of this blog. I’m not going to quote too much from her book. But, I will say that it is a concise and easy-to-read book. I will only highlight out some of the ideas that are most important to me in my work.

The first chapter cautions the researcher to understand his/her perspective, particularly as it pertains to the field of research and its history and traditions. At the simplest level, one’s choice of interview format, selection of questions, delivery of questions, and analysis will be very tightly bound alongside the given perspective.

A clear idea of the research question is necessary to select participants. Olson suggests that the best participants are those with sufficient, current, and extensive knowledge/experience of the phenomena or concepts being investigated (pp. 26-27). This, of course raises a concern about how a researcher can judge whether or not certain participants have that level of experience. The answer to that will depend on the context, the question, etc.

This book (and presentation) introduced me to the concept of shadowed data: “data obtained by interviewing someone who knows the participant well” (p. 32). It is easy to pooh-pooh this idea straight off decrying the potential validity issues from gathering second-hand information. However, there are times when it is not possible to interview someone directly. If in that situation, I would recommend that the researcher openly discuss it in the final report.

The most common phrase that I hear amongst my fellow students is semi-structured interviews. However, I now wonder if they really mean guided interviews (p. 41-41). Guided interviews allow the interviewer to start an interview by asking a set of open questions as a starting point. The interview slowly takes shape as the conversation is co-constructed. Semi-structured interviews, according to Olson, are more common as follow-up interviews. Questions are drafted in accordance with data already uncovered in previous interviews. Whilst an interviewer conducting a semi-structured interview might open by prompting a participant if they wish to add to what they have previously offered, the rest of the questions are designed to clarify or probe further into some issues.

I won’t say too much about focus groups except for one general comment. Focus groups are often used when the researcher wishes to elicit answers to a set of questions, AND also wishes to observe reactions and interactions amongst a group of people discussing the questions (p. 41).

The interesting stuff:

When beginning the early interviews, the researcher should remember that although he or she may have developed some “guiding” questions, the objective is not to “guide” an interview. Indeed, the interviewer should avoid all subtle indications that this is intended, since this would be a major threat to the validity of the data. Rather one wishes to open a conversation with the participant. (p. 45)

This is one of the reasons I chose to take the 9 hours of workshops on interviewing. How does one conduct oneself in such as way so as to elicit information about a particular topic? How does one not contaminate the conversation by prompting and directing the participant too much? Olson’s book provides some examples of opening the conversation in a neutral, but directed way. Basically, the task is to create a comfortable space (p. 49) for communication in which the participants should have an opportunity to tell their stories rather than just answering a series of questions (p. 46).

Do not be afraid of silence. A lull in the conversation can allow the participant to reflect. And, in some cultures, patiently awaiting a response is respectful.

Something that I hadn’t thought of before (but sometimes do by accident) is ending the interview with a re-grounding question(s). In Olson’s work in healthcare, re-grounding is highly recommended. Some interviews can be very emotional experiences. The participants need some time to wrap up their thoughts and re-enter the world. I don’t think it is all that much different with less sensitive topics nor is it much different with online (distance) interviews.

Olson’s book touches upon interview modes. She discusses briefly some of the findings of researchers who contend that there are/are no differences in the results from face-to-face and mediated interviews. As with many other studies of the effects of modes on human activity (see the Clark and Kozma debate in distance education as an example), the opinions span the range of possibilities. In any case, all modes will allow data collection. But, I would suggest that researchers are transparent about which mode they used and that they openly discuss the limits and possibilities of these modes.

Finally, this short monologue is most useful because of its list of references . . . I am now off to locate some of Olson’s references in the databases . . . .

Summertime MOOC and (non-alcoholic) mojitos on the backyard deck

mkoole, · Categories: Events, Research · Tags: ,

Now, this is the life. I’ve decided to try the MOOC experience. I am literally sitting in the shade of my umbrella on my deck sipping mint-lime juice (Damascus-style) all the while listening to Dave Cormier’s and Jason Rhode’s intro videos to eduMOOC 2011. I can hear the birds crunching on the birdseed in the feeder not 20 feet away whilst my own reflection is glaring back at me in my shiny monitor. (Shiny monitor = a bit of an oversight in my last computer purchasing experience.)

I am most impressed with the videos so far. The audio is very clear, and the videos are nicely scripted. It is fun to watch the animated drawings. Engaging. I need engaging. To tell you the truth they are just what I needed to get oriented—as well as a stimulus to my starting to write blog messages about the experience.

Now, what might interfere with my blogging about eduMOOC?

  1. My normal inclination to stop part-way through a MOOC. I half-heartedly tried it before, and came up with numerous reasons why I didn’t pursue it more steadily. (These reasons will be listed here—in this very same list—a bit self-referential, no?)

  2. I am a bit busy. My research ethics is pretty much approved at all research locations. I must start soliciting participants for my initial pilot study. And, I must re-examine my survey and interview questions. This is a big deal and takes priority over the MOOC.

  3. I have at least 10 brand new books piled on my desk. I am dying to crack the spines and render them un-returnable.

  4. I have countless journal articles piled up *everywhere*.

  5. I have to manage contractors at the house.

  6. I want to enjoy the non-academic aspects of my life—my not-yet-neglected husband being one of them.

  7. I am going to have quite a lot of marking for the course I am teaching this summer, MDDE 615. Final assignments will be coming towards the end of July.

  8. I’m sure there are more reasons. With more time, I could write a litany of reasons why I could drop out of the MOOC.

So, the videos suggest that I focus. What is it I want to accomplish? I want to experience the MOOC. Hmmm. Yes, sounds a wee bit general. Well, at the very least I want to be present for the presentations. I plan to take notes during the presentations and blog about them.

Notoriously, I get bored during online presentations. When that happens, I start checking email, doing other work, and by the end of the presentation, I have no idea what was said. Sometimes I don’t even realize that the presentation is over. (Yes, people, if your name does not disappear from the interface when the synchronous session is over, they’re on to you!) But, taking notes forces me to focus. Blogging, forces me to think about the notes. Comments posted to my blog help me consider different perspectives.

Before blogging more, I’m going to surf the eduMOOC site a little more to see if there are other things that I will want to accomplish through participation.

Must go crush more mint for my lime juice.

Free online courses with world-renown researchers

mkoole, · Categories: Events, PhD Studies · Tags: , , , ,

Free /open opportunities that might be of interest to PhD students:

1. In fall, TEKRI is sponsoring a open online learning event (starting September and running until May 2012) with some of the most notable and accomplished international learning technology researchers and theorists–including several from AU! More info is here:, speaker list is here:

2. University of Illinois is offering an open course on “online learning today…and tomorrow” that starts next week: (scroll to the bottom of the page to see speakers – including Curt Bonk, Karen Swan, Phil Ice, Cable Green, etc.)

(Received from George Siemens, Athabasca University)

Vancouver: Kissing Couple

mkoole, · Categories: Uncategorized

Favourite picture

Were they taking part in the riots? Were they innocent bystanders? I don’t care about the speculation. The kissing couple is the most fabulous picture of the last 5 years:

At least something good came of the riots–otherwise a national embarrassment.

Second favourite picture

My second favourite picture of the last 5 years is the curious squirrel. (I thought it was a gopher).

42 Questions in Discourse Analysis

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

Gee lists 42 questions that a researcher can ask when conducting analysis on a given text or set of texts (p. 121). I will put them into a simple table.

Tools of Inquiry

Building Tasks








Sign systems & knowledge

Situated meanings

Social languages

Figured worlds





In the table, each row represents what he calls a tool of inquiry. The columns represent the building tasks. To understand how to ask the questions, first one must understand the terminology:

Tools of inquiry

Gee refers to tools of inquiry as thinking devices.

Situated meanings – may also be referred to as utterance-token meanings (p. 63). Form = “morphemes, words, phrases, or other syntactic structures” (p. 64). Function = what the utterance is intended to say or cause. If form and function are not in balance, then we might question what is happening. “Situated meanings arise because particular language forms take on specific or situated meanings in specific different contexts of use” (p. 65). Gee notes that analysis is complex because context is always changing. But, we can view an utterance from the viewpoint of different contexts and potentially gain insights into the meaning of the interaction (p. 68).

Social languages – “different styles of varieties of language for different purposes” or different social situations (p. 28). Social languages can have their own “distinctive grammars” (p. 50). They help people recognize and create their social contexts.

Figured worlds – typical, often taken-for-granted, stories or simplified pictures of situations with “typical participants, activities, forms of language, and objects and environments” (p. 71). Holland (1998) defines them as “socially constructed realm[s] of interpretation” (cited in Gee, 2001, p. 71). They are not static. Figured worlds “mediate between the ‘micro’ (small) level of interaction and the ‘macro’ (large) level of institutions” (p. 76). People can use figured worlds to construct simulations of situations to help them understand or act in the given situation(s). People also use figured worlds to evaluate appropriateness of social activity in the world (p. 90). They can be nested, incomplete, inconsistent, and changing. (An examination of figured worlds can help to uncover taken-for-granted assumptions that guide social behaviours—review previous blog posting on Ian Hacking’s book, The social construction of what?”)

Intertextuality – the act of referring to or quoting texts outside of one’s immediate discourse. It is a “sort of cross-reference to another text or type of text” (p. 29). Words may be borrowed or switched from one social language and used in another (p. 58).

Discourses – linguistic and non-linguistic elements that combine into “characteristic ways of thinking, acting, interacting, valuing, feeling, and believing” (p. 28). They combine to produce a “socially recognizable identity” (p. 29). [Note: big “D” discourse.] On page35, Gee emphasizes the importance of recognizability. Discourses do not necessarily have clear boundaries; they can overlap, split, meld, die, mutate, etc. (p. 38).

Conversations – Gee uses this word with a big “C” to refer to “all the talk and writing that has gone on in a specific social group or in society at large around a major theme, debate, or motif” (p. 29). He adds later, “They are the products of historical disputes between and among different Discourses” (p. 56).


Building Tasks

For each building task, Gee suggests that a researcher can ask the following questions:

Given what the speaker has said or the writer has written, and how it has been said or written, what

  • [things, people, practices, identity(s), relationships, connections, disconnections, sign systems, languages, social languages, ways of knowing]

in this context are relevant and significantand in what ways are they significant? How is the speaker or writer trying to

  • [give significance to things, enact things, depict things, recruit things, use things, connect things, disconnect things, privilege things, disprivilege things]?

Note: From my perspective, the building tasks of identity, relationships, and connections can be very difficult to separate. In particular, I see identity as highly integrated with relationships.

Questions from combining the tools of inquiry with the building task

Here is how Gee phrases the questions from the table of 42:

Significance: “How are situated meanings, social languages, figured worlds, intertextuality, Discourses, and Conversations being used to build relevance or significance for things and people?” (p. 121).

He asks the same question for each building task.

So, my question is what elements of this do I take with me when I do my phenomenographic study? It is definitely helpful in expanding the way I will read the interview transcripts. Gee’s book is also helpful for me in developing my transcription protocols. Now onto Wetherell et. al.

Discourse analysis & a constructionist approach to phenomenography

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

Gee, J. P. (2011). An Introduction to discourse analysis: Theory and method (3rd ed., p. 224). New York, NY: Routledge.

I am exploring the use of discourse analysis (DA) alongside the constructionistt phenomenographic methodology that I will be using on my PhD thesis. So, I have started with what has turned out to be a nicely written introductory text by James Paul Gee.

As my first love in academia was languages and linguistics, I feel very comfortable with Gee’s text. In fact, it feels much like a homecoming. I now understand why social constructionist philosophy has become, quite unintentionally, so significant in my doctoral work. In this book, Gee’s own philosophies about language are made clear:

In the broadest sense, we make meaning by using language to say things that, in actual contexts of use, amount, as well, to doing things and being things. These things we do and are (identities) then come to exist in the world and they, too, bring about other things in the world. We use language to build things in the world and to engage in the world building. (p. 16)

To an extent, I try to contain my excitement upon reading this until I can fully ascertain that Gee does not cross the line into critical realism—the idea that there is a reality out there, but we can only see it from our own limited perspective. (I know that this is an oversimplification.) The danger of this crossing could have been perpetrated in Gee’s treatment of the other “stuff” related to language such as non-vocalized behavours, appearances, enactments, social institutions, and props—the context of language (p. 35).  However, Gee appears firmly rooted in the social constructionist camp. Consider, for example, how he refers to knowledge:

. . . the physics that the experimental physicists “know” is, in large part, not in their heads. Rather, it is spread out (distributed), inscribed in (and often trapped in) scientific apparatus, symbolic systems, books, papers, and  journal, institutions, habits of bodies, routines of practice, and other people. Each domain of practice, each scientific Discourse . . . attunes actions, expressions, objects, and people (the scientists themselves) so that they become “workable” in relation to each other and in relation to tools, technologies, symbols, texts,  and the objects they study in the world. They are in sync. (p. 36)

In this example, a given discourse exists and creates and recreates itself including the scientists who engage in the discourse. This recognition of the cyclical relationship between language and perceptions of reality is, in my opinion, a cornerstone of social constructionism.  Later on the same page, Gee uses the word instantiation with reference to the power of language to create a constantly shifting and abstract world. This, too, dramatically buoys a social constructionist position. (Interestingly, Gee suggests reading Bourdieu, Clark, Engeström, Foucault, Hacking, Hutchins, Latour, Lave & Wenger, and Wittgenstein—all of whom have constructionist leanings or whose work has been foundational to constructionism.)

Before I outline how I will use DA to support my phenomenographic research, I will first post my notes on the main concepts of Gee’s book. But, that is for tomorrow.