Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1997


Puwar, N. (1997) 'Reflections on Interviewing Women MPs'
Sociological Research Online, vol. 2, no. 1, <>

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Received: 11/6/96      Accepted: 6/3/97      Published: 31/3/97


This paper reflects on the recent experience of interviewing women MPs. The research process is analyzed in terms of the micro-politics of the relationship between the researcher and the researched. Relevant methodological debates from two areas of sociology which are rarely brought together have been incorporated. Elite Studies and Gender Studies. Both of these fields have discussed the politics of space within the process of interviewing. However, the research experience of interviewing female MPs does not neatly fit in with the descriptions of interviewing to be found in either of these fields. This paper will discuss how the experience meets, criss-crosses and contradicts research reflections that are to be found in both of the above fields. So at times my experience echoed Ann Oakley's description of interviewing women as a cosy, friendly and sisterly exchange of information (Oakley, 1982: p. 55). Whilst at other times I could relate to Stephen Ball's description of interviews with MPs as ' of struggle, as a complex interplay of dominance/resistance and chaos/freedom.' (Ball, 1994: p. 113). Often the same interview shifted between these two types of scenarios. After a short introduction to the debates on space and power within Elite Studies and Gender Studies this paper will go on to detail some of the complexities of interviewing women MPs for a feminist project.

Access; Elite Studies; Gender Studies; Interviewing; Power; Rapport; Women MPs

Research Reflections: Elites, Women, Elite Women
Research Reflections in Elite Studies

Very few research reflections on the experience of interviewing Members of Parliament (MPs) actually exist. In the few published accounts that can be found, often the whole process is presented as a potential struggle for the interviewer (Williams, 1980; Seldon & Pappworth, 1983; Moyser & Wagstaffe, 1987; Walford, 1994; Hertz & Imber, 1995). Discussions centre around the difficulties of access, time and control of the agenda. The status differentials between the interviewer and interviewee are often seen to affect rapport. Much of the commentary also discusses the difficulty of dealing with interviewees who are used to being interviewed by journalists. Phillip Williams', further elucidates this point when he notes that the '...habits bred in their daily conversations with constituents, journalists or lobbyists seem to persist in these quite different circumstances' (Williams, 1980: p. 310) and can therefore shape the format of the interview by the very style of their talk. These range from monologues of speech, highly defensive off-hand behaviour, to a delivery of pre-scripted official speech. So the collection of field notes within elite studies quite often portray the researcher as having to spend a lot of energy on trying to maintain some control over the interview as the management of the whole interview can become quite slippery and problematic.

Stephen Ball conducted forty-nine interviews with members of the political elite in Britain (including members of both Houses of Parliament and senior civil servants) who played a major part in the decision making of educational policy. He found that '...political interviews are themselves highly political' (Ball, 1994: p. 97). Ball supports Scheurich's point that: 'Interviewees do not simply go along with the researcher's program. I find that they carve out space of their own, that they push against or resist my goals, my intentions, my questions, my meanings.' (Quoted in Ball, 1994: pp. 96 - 97). So, within elite studies it has been accepted, although rarely illustrated, that the research relationship ' also a power relationship between the researcher and subject. In the actual act of studying elites the ethnographer cannot ignore the elite's power and he must not ignore his or her own power in the relationship' (Hunter, 1995: p. 151). Hence researchers are often trying to retain some leverage over the direction of the interview in the face of a domineering interviewee. Interviewers have tried to contest this domination of space, by constructing interview strategies that enable the interviewer to have some control.

Research Reflections in Feminism

Whilst in elite studies many of the research encounters reflect an imbalance of power in favour of the interviewee in most feminist research relations the power asymmetry is usually reversed, with the researcher having much of the control. Therefore, although feminists have also widely acknowledged the existence of power in research relationships, they have largely been concerned with the female researcher rather than the female interviewee as having too much power and control over the interview. Hence conversely much of the feminist discourse on the issue of research space during the process of interviewing women has quite a different slant to the debates in elite studies. Feminists have attempted to share the space. They have not been so concerned with trying to maintain control over the research process. Rather, they have been involved in trying to minimize the researchers input and to maximize the contribution of the researched. Instead of pulling back the research space from the interviewees, the researchers have attempted to give away the maximum level of the space to the interviewee. The interview space has been orientated towards making it an empowering experience for the researched.

Feminists have regarded the interview as a situation in which women should be able to feel comfortable enough to tell their own story as they see it. The interviewer should not dominate the direction and the agenda of the interview. Instead, one should encourage the interviewee to participate as much as possible. With the aid of an 'interactive methodology' many have tried to do research with women rather than on women (Kleiber and Light, 1978). A non-hierarchical friendly interview relationship has been considered as conducive to hearing herstory and getting a fuller and closer picture of women's experiences (Acker et al, 1983).

Debates in the area of feminist methods have moved on from postulating principles about research space to discussing the problematic and complex nature of making these principles practical (Patai, 1991; Stacey, 1988). The difficulty of translating these principles into situations where power asymmetrys are incredibly invasive can make the scenario of the friendly non-hierarchical research relationship seem rather idealistic (Maynard and Purvis, 1994). Indeed, the notion of empowering research has been recently viewed with a degree of scepticism (Bowes, 1996). Despite this, the principle of sharing rather than competing for the research space with the interviewee is still highly valued within feminist research on women.

While the principle of sharing research space has become absolutely central to feminist methodology, the contexts it has been conceptualized within have been rather limited. Very little consideration has been given to feminist research situations where the researcher lacks control over the interview. Some field notes can be found on the female researcher feeling vulnerable and dominated when interviewing men (Stanley and Wise, 1983; Scott, 1984; Gurney, 1985) but the feminist researcher has rarely been perceived to be in a woman to woman interview situation, where she is trying to negotiate control of the situation for herself, rather than for her interviewees. This has a lot to do with the fact that the bulk of feminist research and sociological research in general, has largely involved analyzing the powerless. Hence they have been concerned with researching down, rather than researching up. We can find a rich source of research reflections on the asymmetrical power relations implicit in researching down but very few expositions on researching up. In fact there isn't any commentary on the negotiation of space whilst conducting interviews with female political elites.

Interviewing Women MPs

In the rest of this paper I will look at my experience of interviewing women MPs and how this echoed or contradicted the research reflections discussed above. As background data it may be useful to bear in mind that I am a researcher, twenty-nine years of age, female, Indian, born in Britian, from a working class family in Coventry with a Coventry accent.

Mixed Expectations

In September 1995, I started to contact all sixty-three of the women Members of Parliament for a project aimed at understanding the experience(s) of being a female MP. The project attempted to break with traditional elite studies by shifting the focus away from the 'old boy network' and towards a more sophisticated awareness of gender as a crucial dimension of social background. The interviews were intended to explore the women's own perceptions of what it is like to be a female MP. Letters were sent to them at the House of Commons explaining the purposes of the research. The topics in the schedule covered social background, the negotiation of the public and private domains, feminist politics, discrimination and identities. Broadly speaking, the concern was with the subjective aspects of equal opportunities. The project could be described as a feminist project because it was sympathetically interested in the experiences of being a female MP. Indeed the focus of the interviews was on herstory.

As the interviewees were MPs I had rather mixed expectations, reflecting my recognition that they were simultaneously an 'elite' and women. I wondered if I would face the kind of difficulties that the previous research reflections from elite studies had revealed. Having read the reflexive accounts of the experience of interviewing MPs I was a little apprehensive. But on the other hand, given that I was asking these women their perceptions of being female MPs, I wondered if I would develop a rather more friendly and sisterly exchange of information of the kind described by Ann Oakley (1982). In fact, the interviews themselves turned out to be rather mixed. On occasions, the interviews were conducted on a friendly basis and the interviewee seemed to appreciate a sympathetic ear. At other times, the interview was rushed, cold and on a few occasions even hostile.

Access to their Lives

The first task for the research was to gain access. Interviews were requested by letter on an anonymous basis. Response to the first letter of invitation, despite mentioning that the research is ESRC funded, resulted in numerous rejections and a only a few interviews. Often the reason given for a rejection was that the MP was overwhelmed by requests for interviews on the experience of being a woman in politics. This was a rather odd response given the paucity of published studies. It seems in fact, that interviews by journalists on this subject and requests for information from school, college and university students, were being used as reasons for refusing an academic interview. Given that MPs are constantly receiving requests for interviews it is understandable that they have to prioritize who they give their time to. As journalists act as a communication channel between the MPs and the electorate, which means that they can often make or break a MP, its no surprise that MPs are less impressed with requests from academics. In a second round of letters, it was pointed out that this was a staff research project, not only a PhD study, and the data would be used in an academic book. As I was apparently competing against others for the right to an interview, it was felt that such statements of status might give me a 'competitive advantage'. The response to this version of the letter was in fact much more positive. Three requests were sent to each female MP before a final refusal was accepted. Amusingly, one MP told me that she usually gave in to a third request for an interview because it showed the serious intentions of the researcher. I eventually managed to interview thirty-five women MPs out of a total of sixty-three in parliament. This included twenty-six from the Labour Party, eight from the Conservatives and one Liberal Democrat.

Given that great efforts had to be made before I was granted an interview and just under half of the women did not give me an interview it is clear that as Kevin Williams notes, 'Powerful interests will not provide the opportunity for social scientists to study their workings at first hand' (Williams, 1989: p. 253). John Fitz and David Haplin similarly comment on the problems of access to researchers:

...the powerful - in this case the administrative and political elite - have considerable constitutional, legal and cultural resources that enable them to deflect or channel any research in which they are the object of enquiry. The power they exercise is reflected both in the paucity of studies about elites, in this case in education, and in the kind of research that is directed against them. The classroom or 'street corner society' can be observed in minute detail, but the same cannot be said about the interactional exchanges in the Cabinet Office. (1994: p. 48)

This point about access obviously has a bearing upon the research method one adopts. Unless one is personally embedded within the lives of the MPs it is virtually impossible to do participant observation of any sort. Where researchers come from outside the higher circles of power and are interested in peoples experiences of being MPs, then one has to rely on interviews granted under conditions over which one has little control. Indeed 'Dependence on the interview is a response to the problems of obtaining material about the powerful from other sources' (Williams, 1989: p. 269).

Most academics would experience a similar struggle to gain access to MPs, although, those who are much older than me (I am 29 years old) and have established academic careers and can network with politicians either socially or through work would probably have a greater chance of being given time. This is less likely for someone on the junior rungs of the academic ladder without a reputation or a web of social networks and who is a sociologist rather than a political scientist. Unlike Baltzell (1958), Janowitz (1967) and Ray Pahl (1996) I did not have the advantage of personal contacts. At a recent conference on Researching Contemporary Elites (July 1996) held at the Bank of England, Ray Pahl presented a paper on his research relationships. He mentioned that he had friends in high places in different kinds of organizations, so many of his interviewees were his friends or friends of friends. My personal life has been quite separate from the MPs. None of them were my relatives, friends or working colleagues. This is an important point to emphasize, because those with links have optimized upon them for their research. These links or contacts can become very important for not only gaining access, but status and rapport.

The Management of Time

Even when the MP agreed to an interview, time had to be constantly re-negotiated. I soon got used to meetings being cancelled and re-scheduled at the last minute. In a couple of situations, I turned up at the meeting place to be told that the MP would not be able to see me on the day arranged. A change in the parliamentary political situation could make the appointment with me a low priority. Some of the reasons given to me were: she has an urgent constituency matter, she has to speak in the House later on this afternoon, she is preparing for a Bill that she has to present tomorrow. These reasons, are all related to the unpredictable nature of political work. As the diaries of MPs do not allow for stable long term planning one has to expect an element of disruption. However the waiting and re- booking can take a lot of time out of a project. On this point John Fitz and David Haplin appropriately note: 'One attribute of the powerful is that they are able to make you wait and thus determine the organization and the pace of the research' (1994: p. 34).

Once you have got to the stage of actually meeting the MP you still cannot be sure of the amount of time that will be allowed. Although an hour was requested in the letters, at the meeting some declared that they could only manage half an hour in their extremely busy schedule. Sometimes they would meet me in a great hurry to get the interview over and done, so that they could go in to their next tightly scheduled meeting. In these situations I had to quickly prioritize my questions. I was deciding what to ask and what to leave out, at the same time that I was asking the questions. Others who have interviewed MPs, have also stated the pressure of time within the interview:

The exchanges ... were rather more hurried than we would have wished. We also edited the schedule as the interview proceeded, in order to give priority to what we thought were the key questions. (Fitz and Haplin, 1994: p. 47)

Sometimes I was able to obtain more time from the interviewees as they got involved in the topics being discussed and got rather carried away. For instance, one MP initially told me that she was reluctant to give me an interview, but in the end she gave me the longest interview lasting nearly three hours and finishing at 10 p.m. at the House of Commons.

Often I was told at the very beginning of the interview that they received so many requests from academics for interviews on women in politics that most of them were rejected. This made me extremely conscious of the time I was taking away from them. Needless to say that this also made me feel extremley grateful for their company. Given the high frequency of this statement I began to inquire about how many interview requests they received on this subject. One MP told me that she got so many that she did not count them, as they often went straight into the bin and an exception had been made for me because I had persisted with requests. Most of them said that they were sent at least one request a day on this subject. Geoffrey Pridham's observation that the '...responsiveness of party elites may in part be determined by the subject of investigation...' (1987: p. 73) holds true in my case. The negotiation of access and time seems to be particularly difficult if one is interviewing on a popular topic. This has recently been the case with the issue of women in parliament and Labour Party quotas for women.

Although control over time was important, normal day-to-day politeness meant that most interviewees were reluctant to look down at their watches during an interview. I soon noticed that it was easier for the interviewees to draw the interview to a close if they could easily glance at my wrist to see the time, or if they could look up at a clock on a wall that they were facing. This gave me the opportunity to manipulate the situation to my advantage. In order to get some extra time from them I deliberately chose not to wear my watch during the interviews. If the interview room had a clock on the wall I tried to sit facing it. Even this strategy had its limits, however, as interviews in the House of Commons were regularly punctuated by the chimes of Big Ben giving them an indication of the time. In the majority of the interviews I knew that I was working against the clock and only occasionally did I manage to ask all of my questions.

In the interviews where the MP stressed that she had to limit the time she could give me, the urgency of asking the questions quickly and moving on to the next issue was highly apparent. Sometimes their body language expressed that they were anxious to get away. Also they would ask 'how much more is there to cover'. This contributed to a sense of having to hurry through the interview. If the interviewee started to rush me after spending very little time with me I sometimes tried to gain more time by continuing to ask questions until they chose to stop. This meant that I was often holding the tape recorder and asking questions whilst they were getting up and moving away. Table 1 breaks down the time I was given by each interviewee. Those interviewees who gave me an hour or more were less likely to rush through the interview. Whilst those who gave me forty-five minutes or less, seemed on edge and in a hurry to get away.

Table 1: Interview times

Interview Time
Interviews Not RushedInterviews Rushed
2 hours +40
1 hour to 2 hours 113
45 mins to 1 hour09
20 mins to 45 mins08

Location and Unexpected Company

The location of the interview was generally decided by the interviewees. I usually met them at the House of Commons, at 7 Millbank or at the Norman Shaw North Building. From the initial meeting point they chose where to take me. So I had little idea beforehand of the exact setting of the interview. The settings ranged from interview rooms, offices, hallways, to the many tea rooms or bars at the Commons. Given the time pressures I soon learned that I was expected to behave like a journalist, rather than an easy going sociologist. This meant that like a journalist, I had to be ready to switch on the tape recorder and fire away questions, regardless of my where I was and who else I was surrounded by. Often I did not have the time and luxury to consider the noise, seating arrangements or the placing of the microphone.

The other factor that could make the interview exchange uncomfortable was the presence of other people. I soon got used to the interview time being interrupted whilst the MP attended to other business, such as the bleeper, made a quick urgent telephone call, or dealt with secretaries, personal assistants or friends.

I soon came to realize that I could never be sure that the interview would be conducted in private. Hence, a one to one exchange between the interviewer and the interviewee can not always be expected. Nine of the thirty-five interviews were conducted in the company of other person(s). Briefly these situations were:

Table 2: Interview conditions

Location of InterviewOther Person(s) PresentBehaviour of Other Person(s)
1. Open Plan Office at Norman Shaw North BuildingMale PA's of other MP & her ownAttending to other business
2. Tiny Office at the House of CommonsMale PA
& Male Guest
Attending to other business.
Waiting to see MP.
3. Tea Room at the House of CommonsFemale SecretaryHaving coffee, listening to interview & commenting.
4. Tea Room at the House of CommonsA male MP (half way through interview)Listening & commenting. Waiting to see MP.
5. Bar at the House of Commons4 young male assistantsDrinking and listening to
6. Spare Room at 7 Millbank
Female FriendListening whilst waiting to see MP
7. Lobby at the House of CommonsFemale MP & her friend (10 minute interruption)All having a chat & taking up interview time
8. Office at 7 Millbank
Male PAAttending to other business
9. Office at the House of CommonsMale AssistantListening whilst waiting to see MP

It is important to ask how the presence of other people may have actually affected what the MP revealed. After all, the interviewee had an audience, other than the researcher, to whom an image of self had to be presented. The company of other people waiting to see the MP certainly affected my own behaviour, as it made me acutely aware of the pressures of time. John Fitz and David Haplin found interviews where ministers were accompanied by advisers to be intimidating (1994: p. 39). Sometimes I also found the presence of others who were observing me interviewing to be quite intimidating. In situation 5, above, I was extremely conscious of being watched by four young men in a bar as I conducted an interview. As the interview was on the subject of gender relations in parliament, I often felt much more uncomfortable when the people present were men. Table 2 shows that six of the nine cases involved men.

The Politics of Talk

A semi-structured interview schedule was used for the questions. The schedule did not operate as a strict framework, but rather as a point of reference. As the purpose of the interviews was to grasp each female MPs interpretation of what it was like to be an MP, most of the questions were open- ended, allowing for a high degree of interviewee input. However, I went on to learn that the style of the talk that the MP chooses to adopt can seriously affect who controls the situation.

Feminists and ethnographers often make the point that chatting is important for creating rapport and for gaining an insight into the interviewees perceptions. Like Stephen Ball, I have found this principle of handing over the content of the talk to the interviewee to be problematic (Ball, 1994: p. 97). Some of the MPs were keen talkers who resented interruptions from me and proceeded in monologues. Although it would sometimes have been interesting just to sit back and listen, I had to interrupt the interviewees, as I had to work within time boundaries. If I had not inserted questions until they had actually stopped answering the last one then I would probably have got few of the issues addressed, as the time allocated to me would have expired. It is important to recognize that MPs have party political interests for talking on some issues and evading others so if the interviewer allows herself to go with the interviewees flow she could easily end up with a transcription that is a party political broadcast and doesn't touch on any of the areas the MP considered to be too sensitive to reveal. Because it is customary in British culture not to interrupt people when they are speaking, I did initially find it a little difficult to interject in mid-sentence with another question. However, I soon learned to put aside this etiquette whilst in the presence of MPs. This is one of the ways that interviewers of MPs have tried to reassert control over the interview. Indeed researchers have had to devise ways of '...contesting elite inclinations to "just talk" - easily, freely, and at length, but not necessarily to the issues in which the researcher is most interested' (Ostrander, 1994: p. 145).

The opposite to the keen rambler was the rather defensive MP who spoke in short sound bites. Phillip Williams (1980) describes this kind of MP as reticent to the point of suspicion. When some of the women MPs adopted this position they turned the interviews into highly structured surveys that barely skimmed the surface of the issues important to the project. I think one has to be ready for this highly defensive tactic but I see no way around this if they are not willing to engage in an in-depth conversation. It can, of course, be extremely demoralizing if one gets two or three word answers to several open-ended questions.

One has always to bear in mind that MPs are 'skilled interviewees' with '...particular reasons for being careful about what and how they say things in the interview' (Ball, 1994: p. 96). Since women MPs are often mis-represented by the media they may have added reasons for being suspicious. As a consequence one may receive filtered, quick sound bites, that are cliched responses. So, even when one has access to an MP and managed to conduct an interview, one never knows if one has managed to access how things really are. This of course, leaves researchers with the intractable problem of not being able to '...penetrate to the more exclusive backstage, where intimate, informal behavior, sometimes "deviant" to public demeanor, takes place' (Hunter, 1995: p. 153).

Whatever Happened to Female Rapport?

In a text that is now something of a classic within feminist interviewing, Ann Oakley (1982: p. 57) argued that 'A feminist interviewing women is by definition both "inside" the culture and participating in that which she is observing'. Being a woman means that the researcher can personally identify with the women she interviews and the women identify with her, so that ' ...personal involvement is more than dangerous bias - it is the condition under which people come to know each other and to admit others into their lives' (1982: p. 58).

From this Oakley gathered that interview rapport and minimal social distance was more likely to develop when both the researched and the researcher shared the same gender, ethnicity or some other aspect of their identity, as this allowed for identification and empathy between the interviewer and interviewee. Janet Finch (1984: p. 76) also asserts identification when she says: 'However effective a male interviewer might be at getting women interviewees to talk, there is still necessarily an additional dimension when the interviewer is also a woman, because both parties share a subordinate structural position by virtue of their gender. This creates the possibility that a particular kind of identification will develop'.

The fact that I am female did affect the relationship with the MPs. In some cases the sharing of gender seemed to be especially important in how I was situated in the MPs speech. I was often included in the common experience of being a woman. Women MPs often spoke generally about what they disliked about men and male culture. It was easier for them to be critical of patriarchal relations because these criticisms could not be directed at me as I am not a man. So the sharing of gender was important to how and what was said by most of the women MPs.

Some of the MPs I interviewed even shared other kinds of background with me, such as ethnicity, parental background and regional accent. But paradoxically and quite contrary to my expectations, I did not always establish a rapport with those who I thought were closer to my world in terms of experiences of class, gender and racism, as well as political persuasion. Interview rapport did not necessarily follow from the shared experience of even multiple identities. So even though I was, in Ann Oakley's terms, an insider, because we were both women, I was often considered an outsider, because I did not share the occupational identity of my interviewees.

The defensive, suspicious interviewees who did not trust me and saw me as an outsider, certainly made the prospect of having woman-to-woman rapport of the kind described by Ann Oakley extremely unlikely. Having said that, a sharing of gender or other aspects of ones background did bring closeness in the interview if the interviewee wanted to associate themselves with me. This is the important point, that the sharing of a gender or some other experience certainly can be used as a resource to facilitate closeness and rapport if both the interviewer and interviewee are willing. It is dependent upon both of them wanting to associate with each other. It was the importance attached by the MP and myself to our shared gender that enabled rapport with those MPs with whom I felt, in advance, the greatest difference. Here I am specifically referring to women who come from quite a different class background to myself, are in the Conservative Party and hold general political views on issues like race relations to which I am strongly opposed but not all of the MPs wanted to utilize our shared gender as a resource for creating rapport. As alluded to earlier, some of the women MPs were quite cold and did not show interest in establishing friendly relations.

At the same time we have to bear in mind that only a few of the respondents were uniform in how they related to me all throughout the interview. Often the relationship shifted between friendly/unfriendly, considerate/flippant, kindly/arrogant, time conscious/carried away during the interview and they had forgotten about time. For instance, sometimes the conversation would be rolling quite nicely with the MP being considerate and relaxed and then suddenly a certain question would make them quite agitated and cross. Or the interview would start off with the MP being tight-lipped and defensive, but they would become much more warm and friendly if they liked me as the interviewer as revealed to them by the tone or nature of the questions.

The likelihood of rapport developing also seemed to depend on their attitude to the subject I was researching. At the time that I was doing the interviewing the issue of women in parliament and shortlists was a hotly debated subject. Women MPs certainly were not united in how they perceived the treatment of women in the political process. Some of them were of the opinion that, although more women were needed in parliament, too much had been made of the subject. In other words, there were other issues that were more important and too much time had been spent on this subject. So, as I was focusing on the female experience of parliament, as an academic subject, assumptions were made about my politics on the female condition in parliament. Some of the women quite clearly associated me with what they termed as the 'whingers', who continually complained about women's lot. In these situations the women expressed an hostility to what they saw as my interpretation and they certainly did not identify with me. Instead, they were rather contemptuous.

Creating Rapport

As rapport did not always easily develop from a shared gender I tried to create rapport through the establishment of links between my life and the lives of the women MPs. In order to do this I utilized other much more contingent resources of association, showing that class, gender, race or sexuality are not the only experiences that can be sources for identification. So, for instance, the importance of where one has lived, the subjects one has studied, or the places members of my family have lived, worked or studied, for the creation of rapport in an interview cannot be foreseen. In other words, the importance of the physical and social spaces and places that I have occupied some time in my life trajectory, as means for being given access to the MPs self is rather unpredictable.

I found that experiences other than class, gender, race or sexuality became unexpectedly important in establishing rapport. For instance, one Labour woman was rather detached upon meeting me and told me that she was tired of requests for interviews on women in politics. But as we went through her life trajectory and she mentioned her first constituency in Coventry I told her that I was brought up in Coventry and she immediately became much more open, relaxed and warm in her approach to me. Another MP was describing her constituency to me and when I informed her that I had actually lived in that part of London for a few years she also thawed out a bit. When one female MP mentioned that she had taught sociology in a comprehensive school in Coventry I reminded her of my nephew whom she had taught. She remembered him and talked of him and I think this created a close link between our worlds. In the last correspondence I had with her she says 'hello' to my nephew. Being a constituent of one of the MPs interviewed, we shared something very important to her existence as an MP. So my own MP treated the interview seriously and seemed to talk quite frankly about the House of Commons as a gentleman's club. Another MP has a degree in anthropology which gave her some insight into my way of seeing that enabled us to share a common intellectual language in the interview. She joked, for example, that the House of Commons was a good place for fieldwork into a tribal culture.

A somewhat more contrived kind of association was facilitated when I attended a conference in London organized by women MPs of the Labour Party to foster working partnerships with women in academia. Although I did not approach the MPs then and there and ask for interviews, I mentioned my attendance in the letters when I wrote to them. One of the MPs registered my name at a workshop of the conference and realized that I was the person whom she was scheduled to have an interview with in the following week. This MP gave my questions very well considered replies and I think my attendance at the conference may have been taken as proof of how serious I was about the area. It also disclosed my politics as being sympathetic to the Labour Party. Another MP had actually refused two of my interview requests, but when I wrote again mentioning the conference, I was given a very serious interview.


My specific experience of interviewing female MPs for a sympathetic feminist research project has illustrated the complexities that were encountered in the research space. Despite the sympathetic nature of the project the research experience did not always correspond to other feminist accounts of doing research. It certainly was not always a cosy, friendly exchange of information. At times it reaffirmed the experience of interviewing 'political elites', as noted by researchers in the area of elite studies. However, what separated my research from other research within elite studies was the specific sample and subject. None of the elite studies reflections are based on sympathetic interviews with women MPs. They are not primarily concerned with understanding the female experience of being an MP. In fact much of this work has been gender blind. Although recently a few female academics have blurred the boundaries between Political Studies and Gender Studies by publishing texts that are based on interviews with women MPs in Britain, none of these works discuss the research process in any detail (Vallance, 1979; Phillips, 1980; Abdela, 1989; Norris and Lovenduski, 1995). If we as feminists, want to use qualitative research methods to show the relevance of a gender analysis to the fields of stratification, politics and elite studies then we have to start aiding each other by reflecting openly on the research process. After all, feminists who are 'researching up', come across a whole set of distinctive problems during the course of their field work. Issues related to space, talk, access, control and empowerment have a bearing upon the research relationship in quite a different way to when feminists are 'researching down'. Indeed the whole power asymmetry is reversed when researching women elites. So we need reflexive accounts of researching women elites that are just as diverse and rich as the wide range of accounts to be found when the researcher is the privileged one in the relationship. The existence of boundaries of class and race within the woman-woman research relationship have been widely discussed when the researcher is the privileged one but little exists when the situation is reversed (Edwards, 1990; Olson and Shopes, 1991; Young, 1993; Phoenix, 1994; Reisman, 1987).


This project is funded by the ESRC and based at Essex University, Sociology Department. Professor John Scott is the Director of the project and I am the Researcher. All of the interviews have been conducted by me. A further aspect of the project, not reported here, examined female top civil servants. I have also interviewed black and asian MPs and top civil servants. This paper solely concentrates on the women MPs. I would like to thank Professor John Scott and Professor Miriam Glucksman for reading earlier drafts of this paper.


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