Peter Collins (1998)
'Negotiating Selves: Reflections on 'Unstructured'
Sociological Research Online, vol. 3, no. 3, <http://www.socresonline.org.uk/3/3/2.html>
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Received: 1/12/97 Accepted: 28/9/98 Published: 30/9/98
It's just as well we didn't have to collect any data, I couldn't get her to say anything interesting.
(a) its status as a mechanical instrument of data-collection; (b) its function as a specialised form of conversation in which one person asks the questions and another gives the answers; (c) its characterisation of interviewees as essentially passive individuals, and (d) its reduction of interviewers to a question asking and rapport- promoting role. (Oakley, 1981: p. 36)
The interview is, then, a thoroughly gendered methodology:
interviewers define the role of interviewees as subordinates; extracting information is more to be valued than yielding it; the convention of interviewer-interviewee hierarchy is a rationalisation of inequality; what is good for interviewers is not necessarily good for interviewees. (Oakley, 1981: p. 40)
Oakley specifically and explicitly sets out to show the extent to which interviewing is a 'masculine paradigm':
the entire paradigmatic representation of 'proper' interview in the methodology textbooks, owes a great deal more to a masculine social and sociological vantage point than to a feminine one. For example, the paradigm of the 'proper' interview appeals to such values as objectivity, detachment, hierarchy and 'science' as an important cultural activity which takes priority over people's more individualised concerns. (Oakley, 1981: p. 38)
- OK, so how is the job going?
- What's the position...as far as it being temporary?
- It's still just the same, I'm still on secondment.
- Oh, right. So somebody will probably come in - do you think they will take over from you?
- Well we don't know, we are reviewing it at the moment, what is the best way to go ahead with it.
- So, if you're an anthropologist I must be one of the natives...
As I analyzed the narratives, I focused on a set of language processes that are taken for granted in everyday speech: the use of cultural discourses for making sense of individual experience; the development of narrative strategies in relation to conflicting cultural discourses; and the communication of meaning through linguistic features of talk (such as pace as well as intonation of words)...Given this analytic focus, I decided that it was not necessary to send participants drafts of my analyses and to ask for their feedback...In sum, I claimed my authority as narrative analyst by articulating a distinction between what I wanted to communicate through my interpretations and what women superintendents wanted to communicate by narrating their experience (Chase, 1996: pp. 53 - 4).
The aim of narrative analysis is not to impose immutable or definitive interpretations on participants' stories or even to challenge the meanings participants attach to their stories. Rather, its goal is to turn our attention elsewhere, to taken- for-granted cultural processes embedded in the everyday practices of storytelling (Chase, 1996: p. 55).
the goal of finding out about people through interviewing is best achieved when the relationship of interviewer and interviewee is non- hierarchical and when the interviewer is prepared to invest his or her own personal identity in the relationship (Oakley, 1981: p. 41).
no intimacy without reciprocity (Oakley, 1981: p. 51)
Well, the interviews are going very well, I think. The problem is, um, finding the time to sit down and think about what you're all telling me.
Thus began a short disquisition on the problems of carrying out research during term-time, alongside teaching, administrative and pastoral responsibilities. I was regularly quizzed regarding the nature of 'the academic life'. The conversation, on such occasions, often turned to aspects of time-management and particularly to the tensions created by working late, or taking work home. And there are other areas of common interest and concern. After interviewees discovered that I had an eight year old daughter those with children of their own inevitably offered anecdotes about school, swimming clubs, birthday parties and so forth. When they admitted experiencing difficulties it was not hard to feel sympathetic. In the case of Diane, the 'stress' perceived to be caused by Local Government Reorganisation pales into insignificance in comparison with the trials of coping with a teenage daughter. Telling our stories helps us think about our own situation: narrative implies reflexivity.
- It makes a nice change to spend an hour or two with someone willing to give me their undivided attention...
- You said that this'll be published?
- Some of it, yes, I hope so.
- That's good. Well, when people read about all this I expect they'll learn something from it.
- Sometimes I wonder if it [Local Government Reorganisation] really happened you know.
- She hadn't been with the County long and now she's been transferred to a new authority that she didn't choose...in an office with people she doesn't know and has no proper job...she spends most of her time weeping.
- Can you believe that, I mean it really doesn't make sense does it?
- I'm not sure that there is a reason, we're all just stumbling along in the dark.
- Nothing about this makes any sense. Can you see any sense in dismantling a perfectly good service?
- Do you remember I told you about...?
- And you can guess what happened... (prompting me to try)
Similarly, I participate in these stories
- Is that the one who...?
- Oh yes, I remember him, he...
- But what happened to George in the end?
- I suppose it helps me sleep.
- So, how much are you drinking at the moment?
- It's about a quart every night. I know it's stupid really. I feel awful in the morning. I sometimes think what I could have done with the money. It's terrible.
- I have to get this off my chest...
- I have a real problem at the moment....
- He is inhuman. He has, I don't go sick because even if I feel absolutely lousy I think I haven't got time to be sick so get on with it, and I go, but he has, I can see the point of having a sickness monitoring because yes there are people who take advantage of the system, we have people in our office that take advantage of the system, but if you take a day off you are made to feel like a criminal - it is a Spanish Inquisition, you know.
- I'm saying this because I know it will go no further...
- This is off the record isn't it...
- You did say that you'd not be using my name didn't you...
- And if you talk to them up there in personnel I hope you tell them...
whatever their reasons, they quite overtly control the information they give - though, as Goffman says, they cannot always control what information they give off (Goffman, 1990: p. 14). Several interviewees have talked about my being a go-between in a rather broader sense - as someone who will eventually pass on 'the truth' (about Local Government Reorganisation) to the public. One made the awkward point, highlighting the fundamentally unilateral nature of interviewing, that while I intended to pass on information gleaned from them, I gave them little or no information in exchange. However, this did not prevent their reinvention of me as a co- conspirator. Interviewees were capable of hatching plots and devising tactics of Machiavellian subtlety, particularly in relation to the complex matter of job interviews and applications (some were involved in 40 or more in the weeks preceding Local Government Reorganisation) and implicitly sought both my opinion and, sometimes, my consent. During that period it would have been harder to discuss such matters with colleagues in that they might well be applying for the same posts. Mary remarked
- So anyhow I thought I'd just put in a word for Bob...I couldn't stand the thought of her getting the job...
and during the same interview,
- I knew I had no hope of getting that job but I wanted them(colleagues she had come to distrust) to think that these were the jobs I had been advised to apply for...
We cannot understand human life merely in terms of individual subjects, who frame representations about and respond to others, because a great deal of human action happens only in so far as the agent understands and constitutes himself of herself as integrally part of a 'we'. (Taylor 1991: p. 311)
2 After a round of preliminary interviews in September 1995, 16 employees (10 women, 6 men; all white, mostly white collar) agreed to meet me once every 10-12 weeks for 2 years.
3 See the various papers in Steier (1991) for a stimulating introduction to some of the questions raised by the admission that 'we as researchers construct that which we claim to "find"' (Steier, 1991: p. 1).
4 Burkitt (1991) offers a readable account of past and present attempts to theorise the 'social self'.
5 For a brief introduction to the notion of symbolic capital see Bourdieu 1977: pp. 171 - 183. This discussion suggests further analysis of the interview as a 'gift relationship'.
6 I was once upbraided by a colleague, quite properly, for introducing my 'Egyptian experience' into a debate where it was obvious to her at least that the research I was engaged in at that time, in the Lake District, would have been far more relevant - I found her comment intensely irritating at the time.
7 Similarly, I co-operated in the construction of interviewees as experts - in administration, printing, social work, auditing and so forth. James (a quantity surveyor) and Matthew (A health and safety officer) were particularly articulate and enthusiastic in their accounts of their work. During an early interview James talked continuously for over thirty minutes, sometimes in great detail, about costing an important housing project he was then responsible for. He added that if he heard people 'talking work' like that in the pub he would think them dreadful bores. The interview provided a legitimate arena for parading expertise.
8 But see Bar-On (1996) for a sensitive account of some of the difficulties in bringing the accounts of survivors into print.
9 The question of emotion has hardly been addressed in the methodological literature and it is an issue that I hope to return to in a later paper.
10 See Ben-Ari (1995) for further discussion of 'disclosure'.
11 Miller (1996) argues that Buber (1970) makes a similar case.
12 Guano in her interview with Queenie ('Jamaica's most famous Kumina queen'), notes that her informant sings both 'To God and to the anthropologist...' (Guano, 1996: p. 225).
13 This argument is taken up more recently and at length in Shotter (1993).
14 For more on this see Holquist, 1990 (especially Chapter 2).
15 For a brilliant and extended discussion of this matter see Shotter, 1993 (especially Chapter One).
16 For further discussions of this important issue see, for example, Brannen, 1992; Bryman, 1988; Denzin, 1978; Fielding and Fielding, 1994; and Mason, 1994.
17 Manuals that do parallel the approach taken here include Chirban, 1996 and Rubin and Rubin, 1995.
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