Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1998


Peter Collins (1998) 'Negotiating Selves: Reflections on 'Unstructured' Interviewing'
Sociological Research Online, vol. 3, no. 3, <>

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Received: 1/12/97      Accepted: 28/9/98      Published: 30/9/98


In this paper I reflect on a series of informal or 'unstructured' interviews with people experiencing chronic job insecurity. I show that far from being merely a source of data these interviews are dynamic social interactions wherein multiple dialogues are conducted between multiple selves. I argue that because interviews are epistemologically ambiguous, morally ambivalent and emotionally charged they cannot be seen simply as repositories of 'objective facts' but should also be understood as mutually constructed social events with an existential quality sui generis.

Dialogism; Emotions; Interviewing; Narrative; Qualitative Methodology; Self


It's just as well we didn't have to collect any data, I couldn't get her to say anything interesting.

I begin with a quotation from a second year undergraduate who is talking about a short interview she has been asked to conduct, as part of a course we call Methods and Analysis. There is a tendency at the outset for students to see the interview as a kind of smash and grab opportunity in which they accost some innocent bystander and relieve them of whatever useful 'data' they may have. They are aided and abetted in their assumptions by texts which imply a 'model' interview in which objective interviewers extract objective facts from, presumably, objective subjects. By the end of the exercise we hope that students have begun to appreciate that the interview is an interactional situation (Denzin, 1978: pp. 112 - 13) and that it is more useful to talk of data generation than data collection (Mason, 1996: p. 35).

My interest in interviewing as a means of doing social research is both pedagogic and practical. I am currently engaged in a project investigating the response of local government workers to the threat of redeployment and redundancy following the reorganisation of local government in Cleveland.[1] These are what Burgess (1984: p. 102) calls, with touching innocence, 'conversations with a purpose'. My intention has been to record the personal narratives of employees experiencing Local Government Reorganisation. I originally considered a number of different methodologies but for mostly pragmatic reasons eventually plumped for the diary supplemented by the interview.[2] I had qualms about interviewing, not least because I had never carried out an interview in my life. I had, however, participated in them in a variety of circumstances, and these experiences certainly coloured my view, particularly of the 'model' interview.

The research interview is generally divided into two types: the 'structured' and the 'unstructured' (eg. Bernard, 1994; Burgess, 1984; Mason, 1996). This is a misleading and ultimately unhelpful dichotomy. In this paper I will show how even the apparently most 'unstructured' interview is structured in a number of sometimes subtle ways. The interviewer, in the very act of initiating the interview necessarily determines the nature of the event: we are to engage in what is called 'an interview' - it is an event which most people will understand to consist of particular roles and rules: shaped, that is, by a particular structure. As the interview progresses an internal dynamic develops, a storyline emerges which becomes increasingly complex especially in those cases where further interviews are undertaken. Although 'unstructured' interviews are characterised as allowing a greater freedom of expression on the part of interviewer and interviewee, it will become clear in what follows that even the most 'unstructured' interview is actually structured at a number of levels.

Bourdieu (1977), always concerned with the practicalities of epistemological issues, argues that as a research methodology the interview is one of the weakest - because the interviewee is likely to provide the interviewer with the 'official account' (which reifies norms, values, ideals)- an account of what ought to happen rather than what actually does happen (Bourdieu, 1977: p. 37). This need not be such a problem in cases where one is trying to find out more about individual lives - who better to ask than the individuals themselves? In focusing on what they do we are more likely to discover the conscious ploys, or 'strategies' as Bourdieu (1977: pp. 3 - 9) calls them, that interviewees employ - in these cases, particularly at work, though it is probably the case that we overemphasize the cognitive/intellectual over the emotional in our interpretation of response and I shall return to this point later. Participant observation is possible but very difficult where subjects are at work in different places, at different times and in very different circumstances; surveys may be useful in showing how many people do x and what kinds of people own y but provide very thin information about individuals. I would agree however, that something like Bourdieu's epistemological strategy (which he calls the objectification of the act of objectification) is a necessary part of our research. Bourdieu argues that we should, at some point, stand back and scrutinise the relationship between our methodology and the information it has enabled us to collect. And then take a second step back and consider how the relation between methodology and the kind of information collected determine the eventual form our accounts (Bourdieu, 1977: pp. 1 - 30). It is difficult to deny the importance of this level of reflexivity nowadays.[3]

It is a strategy which Ann Oakley adopts in her important essay Interviewing Women: a contradiction in terms which touches directly on the theme of this paper. Re-reading her essay has helped me considerably in formulating my own ideas. Oakley suggests that textbook advice on interviewing confirms

(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)

Oakley is referring here to the 'model interview' in which a more or less aggressive interrogator 'grills' their unfortunate captive. Although interviews may indeed take this form they need not. In what follows I hope to show that interviews are social interactions in which meaning is necessarily negotiated between a number of selves (and in which power may be more or less shared). The interviewer need be neither 'objective' nor 'detached', but should rather be 'engaged'. Engagement implies a willingness on the part of the interviewer to understand the interviewee's response to a question or prompt in the wider context of the interview(s) as a whole. The interviewee might develop a narrative thread almost regardless of the disparate questions put to them. Such 'meta-narratives' may or may not relate to the explicit subject under review and provides the interviewee with a ready means of countering and undermining the unequal relations of power which are said to typify all interviews.

Let me return to those methods textbooks and primers, which tend to focus wholly on the techniques and strategies that an interviewer should adopt for the efficient extraction of information from interviewees. The model interview prescribed in the manuals depends, implicitly, on a particular model of language: a structuralist model; that is, on language as external, determined and determining, rather than language as an emergent social activity. According to Stevens (1996: p. 240) the structuralist model of communication 'supposes that people are independent of language'. In these terms, the interview serves to facilitate the process wherein messages are conveyed from one mind to another. The interviewer encodes a thought in words and the interviewee decodes them to discover the thought and then similarly transmits a thought in turn. While language is the vehicle which carries the message from A to B, expression is a problem for individuals who struggle alone to find the words which most aptly describe emotions, events, relationships and so forth that exist prior to language. This model posits a distinction between talking and doing, between words and action: 'Words are used to describe and convey, action takes place elsewhere and might be the subject of communication' (Stevens, 1996), and language is reduced to little more than a medium or transparent system which conveys messages from one mind to another.

The structuralist model is essentialist, ignoring the way in which people actually talk and obscures the processes by which language is socially constituted. It perpetuates the myth that interviews are, above all else, opportunities for collecting objective facts. To treat language as discourse and foreground the actual production of language is to eschew the study of language as an abstract systems of rules and take seriously human linguistic practice and language as a form of social interaction. My argument is that the production of language and the production of selves go hand in hand. With this shift of perspective, the interview metamorphoses from a thin to a thick methodology, to adapt Geertz; from the implausible detachment of objectivism to, what Bourdieu calls, 'participant objectivation' (Jenkins, 1992: p. 50). Using examples from the Cleveland interviews, I will go on to give some indication of what this 'thickness' consists of.

From the Negotiation of Facts to the Negotiation of Selves

However else we might characterise the interview most would agree that it is a means of finding out more - about peoples' understanding of their lives, for instance. What kind of knowledge is this? The model interview, it is said, enables us to collect facts which are objectively arrived at and indisputable. My interviews comprise accounts of events together with attempts to interpret them on the part of interviewer and interviewee, but the process is haphazard and tentative. Rather than facts (which have an existence independent of the means of their discovery), such exchanges precipitate narrative: narrative that is emergent and indexical. Events and experiences are constituted, partly at least, in their telling (and re-telling). To describe a situation is to constitute it (as ethnomethodologists might put it).

Interviewees have talked at length about the ways decisions have been made and implemented and about the various effects such decisions have had on their careers, on their families, on their relations with colleagues and so on. But these accounts are a part of a narrative that has less to do with the machinations of local government and more to do with the generation and presentation of self. The 'facts' only appear as such when they are wrenched out of their context within a narrative which they help to plot. I ask Carol:

- OK, so how is the job going?
- Wonderful!
- What's the far as it being temporary?
- It's still just the same, I'm still on secondment.

There is not the space here to provide a thorough contextualisation of this short piece of dialogue. It is a tiny part of an extraordinary story. At first sight her job is 'wonderful' and this might be taken as a 'fact'. Apart from the ironic overtone (partly signified by the exclamation mark) Carol knows that I am aware that she has been seconded from a job she had come to loathe and which was making her ill, so any job would be wonderful in comparison. Her current, temporary position is very complex (in relation to the organisation of her department). The facility which she had managed for several years had been transferred from Cleveland County Council to the newly formed Stockton Unitary Authority; she was concerned about the probable re- organisation of the facility under the new authority. Although Carol is confident about her own ability to manage, she feared redundancy, assuming as many County Council employees did that they would be at a disadvantage as ex-County Council staff. Then the new administrator of a similar facility was badly injured in a car crash and Carol was seconded as the only possible replacement. She feels guilty to have come by what she sees as a 'plum' job in this way but is mightily relieved to leave her old job behind - the experience was transformational; a good example of what Denzin (1989: pp. 70 - 73) calls 'epiphany' - it caused Carol to re- evaluate her life. I could go on - interpretation is potentially limitless! Suffice to say that these few lines of dialogue are not merely indicative of but partially constitutive of an emergent self, one that is ambivalent and ambiguous, simultaneously secure and insecure.[4] Other selves wax and wane as the interview proceeds. We go on to talk about the possibility that her badly injured colleague will eventually return to work. I ask

- Oh, right. So somebody will probably come in - do you think they will take over from you?

In this question I am suggesting that Carol is in a vulnerable position, her future wholly dependent on the decisions of others. Carol, however, is confident in her own abilities and in the reputation she has established as a reliable and hard-working employee, who has impressed senior managers with her drive and initiative. She replies:

- Well we don't know, we are reviewing it at the moment, what is the best way to go ahead with it.

In using the first person plural, Carol places herself at the centre of the decision-making process. This is Carol as competent and confident manager. Far from being a pawn in the Reorganisation process, peripheral to high level decision- making she believes that she has a say in whether she remains in her current post or not, that her fate is, to an important extent, in her own hands.

Each interview is an occasion for the elicitation of many selves. Apart from the self one imagines oneself to be manifesting the other (whether interviewer or interviewee) contrives to negotiate the construction of others. Sometimes we are comfortable playing these roles (enacting these selves?), sometimes we are not. They are identifiable either by expressions given or given off (Goffman, 1990: p. 14). There is often a sense of collusion. The interview, though it may appear a single, coherent social event, is not. To the extent that the selves of both interviewer and interviewee are variously and complexly defined the interview is a carnival of voices and a concatenation of events. Even to define the interview in terms of the co-presence of interviewer and interviewee might be an oversimplification.

As Denzin (1978: pp. 112 - 133) argues, the interview represents an interactional process and it is to this central issue that we must now pay due attention. During interviews a number of overlapping selves are constructed, some of which I sketch below - focusing on the person of the interviewer. These selves are manifested in some interviews some of the time; they are not mutually exclusive and neither do they represent an exhaustive classification.

Negotiating Selves

The relationship between interviewer and interviewee is fluid and changing, but is always jointly constructed. It is rarely obvious where the balance of power lies, between the selves precipitated during this relationship. That is, we have (as interviewers) a limited control not only over what is being said but also over who we are during an interview. I introduced myself to prospective interviewees as an anthropologist interested in stress. In most cases this prompted blank incomprehension, though one wag replied:

- So, if you're an anthropologist I must be one of the natives...

Hartlepool. I am an anthropologist because I am here, in the field, collecting data. Anthropology is about hard graft in difficult locations. Furthermore, because I contribute to the definition of 'the field' I become a part of it; I become a part of the social reality I am investigating. We do read, of course, but who wants to listen to one's library adventures? Experience in the field not only helps support my career as an anthropologist, it also provides me with a fund of anecdotes (not all of them trivial) that increases my symbolic capital within the academic field.[5] I can talk about the problems of recalcitrant informants with the best of them. During seminars, I can ask questions which although only marginally relevant enable me to introduce my latest insight, borne of working with real people in the real world.[6] This is the preferred self I constructed during the early interviews. There are costs however.

Maybe exploitation is too strong a word but I imagine that even the most well-intentioned academic gains or at least hopes to gain prestige and perhaps even promotion through publishing their research findings. I think it is safe to suggest that such benefits are not merely fortunate spin- offs of conducting research. When I eventually recycle these life stories I shall present them as new knowledge which will (apart from anything else) serve as proof of my competency both in collecting information (methodology) and in reconceptualising it (analysis) in a manner which my colleagues will recognise as legitimate (real knowledge). I might add that there is a certain local 'value added' in paying due attention to the life stories of women (as well as men) on the one hand and of people undergoing crises on the other. Indeed there is an inevitable ambivalence in Oakley's position - she is quick to point out that apart from being morally sound her approach also brings in better data; what distinguishes it as more than just another strategy is the excellent results it helps her procure. The ethical dilemma is that, whatever strategy one adopts, one is equally concerned with the implementation of ploys, of one sort or another, through which one seeks to improve the quality of data.

The fact that I am engaged in a certain reflexivity does nothing to hoist me out of this impasse. This type of research, depending as it must on the co-operation of interviewees, is bound to some extent to be self-serving and one's methodology a more or less pragmatically driven means to an end. Narrative analysis could even be a form of narcissism or exhibitionism: we use others' lives to display our analytical prowess, our interpretive skill. I offer no solution and can only suggest that we have somehow to accommodate the resulting discomfort. Josselson (1996: p. 70) avers that the work should continue but that we should do it 'in anguish'. The anthropological self is morally ambivalent and ambiguous.

A partial resolution is offered by Susan Chase (1996) who carried out life history research amongst women head teachers. Her concern was that (for pragmatic reasons of obtaining tenure) she did not include her interviewees in her attempts to interpret their stories. Her justification, which is retrospective, centres on her assumption of authority as narrative analyst. She argues that she is less interested in the details of interviewees' individual lives but rather 'in how women superintendents' narratives embodied general cultural phenomena.' She continues:

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).

She locks her own practice into what she takes to be the purpose of narrative analysis:

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).

This sounds a bit like Bourdieu's first order 'objectification' again, in which the interviewer claims to know more, through adopting a theoretical posture, than the interviewee. Chase's argument is interesting (certainly to me) but would probably not stand up in all cases. Neither does it directly confront the extent to which we lead interviewees on to believe we are doing x when in fact we intend to do, or at least end up doing, y. The anthropological self confronts a number of ethical dilemmas, central to which is the question: In whose interest?

The point of this cautious and rather unsophisticated engagement with the sociology of knowledge is to flag up the likely intrusion into the research of interviewer self-interest. While it is clear that academic research serves to benefit the academic, the epistemological status of 'facts' collected during interviews is ambiguous, particularly if we take as unproblematic the possibility of objectivity - or of a subjectivity stripped of its political economy.

Although I refrained from wearing a white coat I implicitly defined myself and was defined by the interviewees as an expert, as someone who knows something about the causes and effects of stress and sometimes I am pressed to give an 'expert opinion'. I establish my credentials in a rather off-hand way, occasionally referring explicitly to this 'piece of research', that 'paper', 'the literature' and so forth. Interviewees were sometimes persistent in asking my opinion on the latest research about exercise, diet, relaxation techniques and so on, ad infinitum - the stress industry is booming. This may shade into what Bernard (1994: pp. 231 - 32) calls 'the deference effect' which he sees only as a problem preventing the interviewer getting at good data. During the course of the interviews, I steadily cast myself in the role of cynic as regards the 'stress industry'. This probably prevented some interviewees from asking me directly for advice and may also have influenced their understanding of 'stress'. I admitted at the outset that I knew very little about the workings of local government or of the ins and outs of their particular occupations and it was soon apparent to them that I knew no more than them about the Byzantine complexities of Reorganisation.[7]

In any case, the interviews were sites not so much for the exchange of facts, but of stories and the interviewer became, of necessity, a story-teller. Carrithers (1992: p. 1) observes that 'We cannot know ourselves except by knowing ourselves in relation to others'. The interviews often involve a stream of narrative, involving an intricate braiding of stories. Interviewees, in telling stories about themselves in relation to others, reconstitute themselves. As the interviewer I am not, I cannot be, merely a passive observer in all this, even though it is primarily the interviewee's life which is under scrutiny. In encouraging the interviewee to tell me these stories and in asking them to develop a sub-plot here and a character there, I am encouraging them to construct and reconstruct themselves and contribute to this by exchanging stories of my own. This is a continuous process and I don't want the interview to sound more portentous than it is. However, these occasions can be particularly auspicious for the production of stories and therefore the invention of selves. As I take less seriously the manuals' advice to maintain a lofty silence, I am increasingly moved to contribute my own stories, to hold them up for contrast or comparison with those of the interviewee. As Oakley puts it:

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)

My stories revolved around my family, my work and the project itself. Interviewees regularly asked me how the research was going, to which a typical response was:

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.

Interviewees have talked to me about some things that they talk to no- one else about - and enjoy doing so:

- It makes a nice change to spend an hour or two with someone willing to give me their undivided attention...

I become a sympathetic ear. An example is the desire of one interviewee, Brian, to air political views not shared by friends or family. This began with comments relating to the government's motives for scrapping Cleveland County Council but soon ranged across other diverse issues: the management and ownership of football clubs, the status of unions, the question of the minimum wage and so on. Brian was very quick to see party politics in even the most innocuous remark, often interpreting and re-interpreting comments made by me wholly in the context of local politics. It was as if the interviews were vehicles for working out his own political beliefs, which seemed to colour every aspect of his existence. I found myself in agreement with many of his interpretations and either implicitly or explicitly communicated this agreement to him, thus encouraging (largely unintentionally) forthrightness on his part. I never anticipated that my interviewees would form a 'representative sample' and so the question of bias does not arise here. An interviewee's views (on any issue) will be influenced by any number of others - including me. In any case, as Bernard argues, 'any question an interviewer asks may be leading' (Bernard, 1994: p. 218). I would go further and say that an interviewer's questions and comments are necessarily leading while adding that the interviewee can always subvert such leading.

There is a strong sense, on occasion, that the events recounted and experiences described are made more substantial, more real, in being recorded and written down (Josselson, 1996). To this extent I am a biographer. Indeed, Susan Chase (1995: pp. 1 - 2), drawing on Elliott Mishler, argues that 'in depth interviews should become occasions in which we ask for life stories' (italics in the original), and believes that 'conventional methods of sociological interviewing tend to suppress respondents' stories'. Chase also believes, as I do, that interviewees will continue to tell stories whether we encourage them to or not. However, the interviewees know, as well as I do, that it will be my representation of their lives that is finally fixed in print. This remains true regardless of the extent to which they are involved in writing up the interviews. We have discussed different forms of co-operative writing but interviewees have shown no interest in collaborating in such work, suggesting once more that it is inscription rather than authorship that matters most. As one interviewee said, disarmingly, 'My life is in your hands.' We expect our memorials to be less fleeting than the spoken word and in these cases it's the writing that makes the difference.[8]

Kate asked

- 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.
- Hmm.
- Sometimes I wonder if it [Local Government Reorganisation] really happened you know.

Similarly, there were occasions when an interviewee was clearly appalled by the treatment of either themselves or a colleague and have called on me to stand not only as biographer but as witness to the unfairness of the process of reorganisation. Mary talked about one young female colleague at some length:

- She hadn't been with the County long and now she's been transferred to a new authority that she didn't an office with people she doesn't know and has no proper job...she spends most of her time weeping.

On another occasion Mary remarked, 'People just don't know the half of it'. She was exasperated at the apparent passivity of her union in highlighting the plight of those being redeployed - 'they're just not interested', and felt that 'the powers that be would take more care' if particular cases were made more widely known. She told me that she was glad that 'at least you know what's happening here...tell others people about it.' I explained that my writing would not be published for some time and even then would probably not reach a very wide readership. The local press did sometimes carry reports concerning Reorganisation and interviewees would often comment on them, either dismissing them as misinformed or applauding their veracity but always pleased to see their problems aired. Interviewees seemed most concerned that others should be aware of what was happening to them, that it was unjust, even immoral. In providing me with accounts of particularly harrowing experiences they appeared to be creating a testament which demanded sharing. As interviewers, we are sometimes asked to bear witness to injustice; the stories are moral tales where wrongs, although they may never be righted, are at least acknowledged by another. There is also the possibility, of course, that this particular wrong will be recorded for posterity and the wronged publicly vindicated.

Gay Becker (1997) argues persuasively that those suffering 'disrupted lives' create meaning through story-telling. In constructing these narratives a life is given a measure of coherence, order is created out of chaos; it seems important that accounts are said aloud, that they are shared and in this way chaos is brought under control - although in some instances the anxiety of interviewees is explained in terms of the perceived meaninglessness of events. At such moments I become a sounding board. This was particularly true of the period immediately before Local Government Reorganisation when some interviewees were attending three job interviews in a single day and no-one seemed clear about what was going on:

- 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?

James apologised for 'leading off' after a long diatribe against departmental management. In a moment of calm reflexivity he went on to say that work had become pointless and that it was difficult to talk about it rationally. Colin often described aspects of Reorganisation in a wilfully labyrinthine manner - drawing out of me gasps of incomprehension. He seemed to be implying that even a highly educated academic could not be expected to make sense of his current work situation and occasionally asked me bluntly, 'Well, can you make sense of that?'. When I agreed that I could not, this confirmed his belief that local government was no longer organised along rational lines.

On occasion I have felt like Coleridge's wedding guest. A story sometimes has to be repeated, many times. It is as if only by repetition that its full significance can be realised. One interviewee, Ruth, began one interview by relating an incident involving her and her group leader in considerable detail, even mimicking the voices of those involved. Three months later she repeated the story, having forgotten I think that she had told me it once before; the transcripts show that the story had become a monologue which she could repeat more or less word for word. I have the strong impression that the story had been polished and told and re-told in the interim possibly to many others. The story had become a personal fable, a cautionary tale, which encapsulated all that was wrong with Reorganisation. Although Becker's interviewees are suffering disrupted lives largely due to serious illness, her comments seem equally relevant in this case: 'Narrative can be a potent force in mediating disruption, whether the disruption is caused by illness or personal misfortune' (Becker, 1997: p. 2). Ruth began her story, on each occasion, close to tears, but seemed to gather confidence during and through its telling. In such instances the 'objective facts' presented by the interviewee seem less important than the means and manner of telling.

As the interviews progressed it was increasingly difficult to remain passive, merely a listener. I was expected to participate, to contribute, to comment, to help in the development of stories which grow ever more intricate. As I have mentioned, a fundamental aspect of interviewees' accounts was their storied character; the narratives are plotted in complex ways and I often found keeping track a problem; interviewees sometimes helped by repeating parts of stories already told, filling in details that were originally omitted but which were now required if I was to understand a subsequent twist. Interviewees expected me to pay attention and regularly checked that I was:

- 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?

Needless to say both interviewer and interviewee regularly refer back to such comments in subsequent interviews and recall of details is an implicit and mutual test of engagement. It is a gross oversimplification to assume that the interviewer merely asks and the interviewee merely answers questions. As Bruner (1990: pp. 105 - 6) points out, recent advances in social theory have led us to understand that the realities people construct are 'social realities, negotiated with others, distributed between them.'

In some cases the coping strategies of interviewees are abhorred by their family and friends and I am reconstructed as confessor. Although one hardly sets out to arbitrate on the morality of interviewee's behaviour, it is difficult sometimes to avoid doing so. Interviewees occasionally admit that they are not fully in control of their habits. At some point in each interview Diane returns to what she describes as 'my weakness':

- 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.

On this occasion and on others, Diane was trying to elicit a moral response: what did I think of her drinking - did it put her beyond the pale? Was it to blame for the poor relationship she had with her husband? Did I think she was an alcoholic? She told me bluntly that she never discusses her 'weakness' with others, even her best friend. These interchanges were difficult for me and I joked on one occasion that I could not offer her absolution. She explained on one occasion that although one friend in particular knew 'all her little secrets', she didn't think their relationship could stand the strain of 'picking through them all the time'. As interviewer, I stand outside Diane's circle of friends, family and workmates, I am an outsider, anonymous but available. My relationship with the interviewees probably did not develop into friendship, even though I had become something other than a stranger (Fehr, 1996: pp. 70 - 112). We have discussed the meaning of friendship at some length, however, and there seem to be two views. One is that friendliness may be exhibited by anyone (and therefore that anyone can be a friend - colleagues and family members included); the second is that family and colleagues (for instance) cannot be friends - they fall into different categories. It seems likely that my role as researcher placed me in a category which for some interviewees was incompatible with being a friend.

Despite making it plain to interviewees during our first meeting that I was not qualified as a counsellor, during the course of the interviews that followed, interviewees explicitly referred to this disclaimer but went on, in any case:

- I have to get this off my chest...

- I have a real problem at the moment....

And given that the theme of the interviews was 'stress', the conversation often turned to what might generally be called 'problems'. Diane was talking about 'management' and one manager in particular:

- 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.

Diane felt that she often worked when she was too ill and regularly asked me what I would do in her position. It is common practice in large organisations, including local authorities, to run an in-house counselling service. Too often the counsellors are colleagues to whom it might be dangerous to appear as one unable to cope. This is particularly the case where a counsellor might also work in personnel - and at a time of job insecurity the perceived risks are magnified. I am not a trained counsellor or psychotherapist and made this clear, but on the other hand the way I arranged the interviews (using them to talk about stress) probably led to them resembling counselling sessions. On several occasions interviewees told me that they found the interviews therapeutic (one even used the word cathartic). At first, I found it difficult to know how to respond to direct requests for help or advice and tried to avoid or divert these issues. Eventually, I decided, as a matter of course, first to listen and then to suggest other agencies 'who know more about these things than I do'. I found out what counselling services the new authorities offered and also compiled a short list of other agencies that might be of assistance - though I never referred to it in fact. I found it far harder to cope during those few occasions when interviewees became distraught. Ruth was being treated for depression during the time of our interviews and was very critical of the way Reorganisation was being managed. She broke down in tears on several occasions but always insisted on continuing with the interview.[9]

Even those who avoided telling me directly about their problems, regularly shared their secrets with me, realising my confidante self:

- 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...

Sandra told me that I was 'the only person in the world' who knew that her husband's firm was relocating the family to the USA. I had promised confidentiality during our first interview and we discussed what this might mean, but I still felt a considerable responsibility as keeper of this secret (even when it became apparent that 'one or two others' did know). She once described our interview as a 'safe haven', one in which she could talk about what she 'really felt about all this America stuff'. She was worried about leaving her friends and family, about leaving her job (and whether she would be allowed to return to it, about her children's education, and their ability to settle in a new country, about the possibility that her husband might be moved again after a year or two, and so on. She was, then, ambivalent about the likelihood of moving and was trying to talk her husband out of it - though she understood how important it was for his career (the company was pressing both Sandra and her husband to agree to relocation). I was never asked for advice but it became increasingly difficult to refrain from commenting on the progress of events. In fact I found her narrative (she continued to write copious diary entries often containing astute analysis of her predicament) increasingly gripping. She left for the States in December 1996 but has kept in touch. As a stranger I might have been suspect but as a benign stranger I had my uses. Interviewees confided in me, assuming that I was unlikely ever to move in their circle of friends, family, or most significantly, colleagues. I was most often asked to confirm confidentiality and anonymity when their remarks related to line managers.[10]

In later interviews, interviewees' contributions were prompted less and less by questions asked by me. They become increasingly engaged in filling out their story. Their comments have become, increasingly, subtle, their meaning implicit, their purpose in uttering them more or less pragmatic. In such instances I find myself recommissioned as a filter or go-between. Interviewees, naturally enough, have their own agendas; they do not always tell the whole story (and occasionally they tell rather more than the whole story); sometimes interviewees are either very keen that what they tell me 'goes no further' or that I pass on their remarks to others (sometimes specified, sometimes not):

- 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...

Clearly, several interviewees were spending a considerable amount of time and energy in manufacturing a better position for themselves and for their friends. In doing so, they provided me with a glimpse of the pervasiveness of informal networks within large organisations.

Sometimes I felt myself being cast in the role of straight man when a comical spin was put on events. More significantly, I sensed that the entire interview amounted to a performance, in which I was co-opted, willy nilly as co- performer. We were each engaged in impression management and doing our best not to commit a faux pas. Indeed, some of the early interviews, in particular, felt like obstacle courses that I had to survive in order to be allowed to return two months later. There was a felt need not to seem overdressed or underdressed, too formal or too relaxed, taciturn or garrulous, obsessively interested on the one hand or bored on the other. One wanted to appear a good/normal/reliable/competent person. Being so exposed, the presentation of self during interviews can be a particularly exhausting exercise. Considerable effort was expended in attempting to maximise the impressions given and minimise or otherwise control those given off. In later interviews these things seemed to matter less and we relaxed, becoming less worried about appearances. In passing I should add that discoveries in pragmatics (Brown and Levinson's (1987) 'politeness theory' for instance) would seem to confirm what Goffman has to say more generally, on the plane of language; and of course, in the interview, language is likely to be foregrounded. On occasion our primary goal is to be seen to be behaving properly and this message overrides the literal content of what is said; the point is that much behaviour during interviews is symbolic - and I realise that I have said too little about this.

It is likely that I have been cast in many other roles, if that is what they are, which I remain unaware of. Handbooks on research methods occasionally identify these roles but tend to portray them in wholly negative terms, as obstacles in the way of collecting better data. Strategies are suggested for overcoming or circumventing them. In terms of the structuralist model of language they are seen as 'interference'. I feel, increasingly, that it is both pointless and unhelpful to deny the roles one is expected to play, the selves that are jointly negotiated. Even if we are confident enough to think we can control ourselves we cannot possibly hope to control the attitude of the other. The interviewee will evaluate, judge and generally size us up, no matter what we do. The manuals might teach us how to ignore these inevitable processes of social interaction but they cannot teach us how to prevent them.

I have focused here, for the sake of brevity, on the position of the interviewer. The selves I bring to the interview are partially formed, confirmed and legitimated by the interviewee in each case. The selves I have identified are in some instances shared with a particular interviewee: each is, of course, 'expert' in one way or another; most have become counsellors, confidants and sounding-boards (for me) at one time or another, sometimes at my explicit request. These interviews became and probably always were complex social constructions, bearing little relation to the programmatic question-answer routine upheld by the model. As Blumer (1969) avers, selves are co-authored: and so too are interviews. In this sense 'structure' is an unhelpful term in describing the interview. To label these interviews 'structured' or 'unstructured' is to ignore the continual negotiation and re-negotiation of selves which characterises all social interaction.

It might be argued that I have taken an overly cognitivist or intellectualist approach here. Emotion, of one kind or another, to a greater or lesser degree, is immanent in all social interaction - even if it is only indifference; individuals have feelings about each other and about the situation they find themselves in. To deny this is perverse. The emotions experienced, whether by interviewer or interviewee, are as real, as important and as interesting as any other product of the interview. Clearly, it makes a difference whether that 'yes' was uttered in frustration, in anger or in joy. To ignore or discount manifestations of emotion is as unreasonable as ignoring the talk that objectivity demands we record. There are, however, further complications here which bring us back to collecting data. Emotions are not biologically determined, they are social constructs (Levy, 1984; Rosaldo, 1984; Harre, 1986). The emotions displayed by different groups and categories of people tell us something about the position of those people in relation to others. Finally, we should note, if only in passing, that the cognitive and the emotional are not easily disentangled (Solomon, 1984).


Perhaps it goes without saying now that the interview is a complex social construction. The 'stress interviews' I participated in between 1995-1997 indicate to me that these interactions are structured, untidily, by both interviewer and interviewee - given the variety of purposes served by the interview this is hardly surprising - and the result is not one thing but many. Almost regardless of my questions, the interviewees told their stories, and did so more fluently as I controlled my urge to interrupt. The interview is, furthermore, a site in which selves are constituted through a talking relationship (Rapport, 1993). In Charles Taylor's (1991) terms it is time to move from a monological to a dialogical understanding of the interview:

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)[11]

It is worth reminding ourselves, though, that to assume that those involved inevitably collaborate to construct the same thing is a mistake. Furthermore, the very use of the term interview is to succumb to the paradox of naming: in calling a thing by name we overestimate its unity and homogeneity. I have tried to show that the interview involves a concatenation of selves, is prismatic, multifaceted and tending to refract meanings.

A colleague, Bob Simpson, who has spent a considerable amount of time interviewing men and women recently divorced, draws on Bakhtin in an attempt to understand the complexities of interviews and interviewing. Simpson suggests that the interviewee may be engaged in multiple dialogues with themselves, the interviewer and others imaginably present.[12] He argues that to assume a simple distinction, some easily identifiable epistemological break between the 'real' and 'imaginary' is probably a mistake.[13] Bakhtin, who is himself in dialogue with de Saussure, argues that all utterances are part of a chain of communication forming a dialogue in which situated others are an integral part. The chain is complex in that exchanges may take place over long stretches of time and take place with interlocutors who are remote and imaginary as well as immediate and real. Dialogues may be hidden as well as vocalised and explicit, they may be transacted between two selves or many, they may or may not be intended - we cannot always know. We may assume we are addressing one self but cannot be certain which self is responding. Utterances are 'furrowed' with the traces and reverberations of earlier dialogues. Meaning is not absolute but relative to context and situation, that is, to the flow of utterances in which the speaker participates. Utterances are 'double voiced', meaning that they are 'oriented to the object of speech as well as towards the previous speech of others whether these be individuals or groups, present or absent' (Simpson, 1997). The implication is that the interviewee might be addressing audiences other than the one immediately present. Bakhtin calls this phenomenon, the generation of voices within voices, 'ventriloquation' and, like Mead, he understands the self to be dialogic.[14] If correct, this calls into question the assumption that interviewees can ever be controlled or that data can ever be objectively derived from any but the most formal kinds of interviews. Even then, it is possible that interviewees will contrive to enter into dialogue with the schedule, not simply answering the question asked but adding another twist to the plot. A further implication is that people in conversation may not primarily be communicating and sharing meanings but selves and therefore identity.[15]

My pedagogic intent should now be clear. I am in favour of a humanistic social science in which we accept that people actively construct both their selves and the social world in which they live. This necessarily means paying a more attention to the process of interviewing and less to its product(s). Although I certainly do not want to discount those quantitative approaches which lead to generalisations based on statistical data I do hope that such work will be counterbalanced by an approach which foregrounds the individuality and distinctiveness of subjects.[16] I hope we can accept that interviews are shared events during which more than one life may be negotiated and in which neither participant is assumed to be more passive than the other. It is naive to think that interviews consist entirely (or even largely) of collecting data rather in the manner of shelling peas. Lives do not consist of data; they consist of stories and stories are negotiated during social interaction. And the stories (along with the selves they constitute) continue long after the writing is finished.

Finally, it is not my intention that this paper be treated as another manual, another check list of useful strategies enabling us to collect better data during interviews.[17] After all, if I think too much about riding my bike, I fall off. Rather, by accepting that the interview is a highly complex social interaction, I hope we might approach these singular and often moving encounters with a little more humility and sensitivity.


1 I am collaborating in this project with Tessa Pollard, a biological anthropologist, who is interested in physical changes (relating to blood pressure, cholesterol etc).

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.


I would like to thank Bob Simpson, the participants at the Auto/Biography Annual Conference, 1997 (held in Manchester, 24-26 January) and the anonymous reviewers for Sociological Research Online for their helpful comments on earlier drafts of this paper.


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