‘Some of our people can be the most difficult’. Reflections on difficult interviews.

by Sam Pryke
Liverpool Hope University

Sociological Research Online, 9 (1) pryke

Received: 22 Jul 2003     Accepted: 20 Feb 2004    Published: 28 Feb 2004


This article questions the methodological convention in the social sciences that the interviewer must never disagree with a respondent in qualitative research. The issue arose during research on the British Serbian community when some participants sought to justify, exculpate or reject Serbian liability for atrocity. My initial response not to demur but to simply move onto the next question morally tainted the research, as it seemed to collud in a denial of Serbian responsibility for atrocity in an understanding of war (1991-99) in which the Serbs were always the victim. I discuss, through an extended excerpt from an interview conducted later in the research, my attempt to challenge respondents over this claim. I set the moral and methodological case to object to the denial of atrocity against the practical dangers present in doing so: the risk of a loosing track of the spine of a prepared script of questions as a fruitless argument develops and the intricacies of the subject matter are exposed. But I also allow for an interpretation that would suggest that my response was altogether too cautious. My conclusion, such as one can make one about such a complex matter, is that to object in such a kind of instance is legitimate.

Keywords: Serbs, interview, atrocity, denial, argument, ethics.


1.1The quote in the title was in an email written to me by a woman prior to an interview I did with her and several others in 2001, during a research project on second generation British Serbs. In the interview itself she told me in response to a question about atrocity and ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, 1992-1995:
I just find it amazing in Bosnia, it goes back to that joke tape that we have got, you know the Serbs claimed all that land, they were massacring, they were raping, where the hell did they find time to do everything?! They weren't the numbers there, it wasn't as if the Serbs outnumbered the Muslims, but where did they find the time to rape 30,000 women in all that time, do all the massacring and secure and gain all that territory?

1.2 There is, of course, always a problem with quoting people out of context and in order to avoid doing so I return at length to this interview below, suffice it to mention that this claim was placed within a wider framework of understanding of the break-up Yugoslavia in which the Serbs were always the victim. The subject of this article is, I trust, evident from the quote: what response should a researcher make when faced with a respondent who says things that are not only wrong, but are morally abhorrent.

Disagreement in Qualitative Research

2.1 Despite the proliferation of debate over methodological approaches to and issues in qualitative research, this is not a matter that has been previously discussed. This is no doubt because of a generally taken for granted view that the researcher must not directly contradict an interviewee. Qualitative research, indeed sociological research in general, is about gathering information from an individual(s) facilitated by the development of rapport, something that is quite different from in any way acting in opposition to them. Of course, the logical inference that might readily be drawn from this that the interview is an unproblematic instrument of data retrieval is now considered untenable. It is widely recognised that the assumptions and actions of the researcher, his/her reflexivity, influence the product of the research at every stage of the process. Part of the art of good qualitative research is to acknowledge and incorporate such reflexivity both within the conduct of the research and writing it up. This said there are, of course, profound differences in the remit of the role the researcher is afforded in the research process. For some the 'I' acts as a variable amongst others within a broadly scientific process (Davies 1999), whilst for others the centrality of autobiography within sociology, specifically feminist sociology, should be made explicit (Stanley and Wise 1993). This latter tradition further argues that there should be no attempt to screen out the emotions that individuals involved in research bring to interviews (Fontana and Frey 2003: 83). Such an approach seems to leave open the possibility of expressed disagreement within an interview. Therefore, there is an anticipation of the subject of this article in the existing literature. However, because of the political antecedents of academic feminism, the implicit assumption of such research has been that it will necessarily be conducted between women, and that it will be collaborative and positive. For instance, the express intent of feminist research as set out by Finch (1984) to foster an atmosphere of mutual empowerment in which the boundaries between the interviewer and respondent largely dissolve, would appear to leave little room for the very possibility of a quote like that above - the ridicule of mass rape by a woman.

2.2 To be sure, more recent research within the feminist tradition has begun to question the degree to which research is mutually empowering (Turnbull 2000: 19-20). But indication of just how deeply the assumption that feminist research involves a beneficial meeting of minds is conveyed by Yvonne McKenna in another recent mediation on the difficulties of feminist method. In discussing her research with Irish nuns, one senses that the writer seems almost guilty in recounting the coldness and moral disapproval she experienced (McKenna 2003). It is perhaps noteworthy that Elaine Campbell feels able to most directly question the limits of a recognisable feminist research methodology whilst interviewing not a group of 'difficult women' but of 'difficult men', specifically police officers. In part this was because she came to question the utility of a guiding commitment to mutual negotiation and democracy within the research process (Campbell 2003: 296-8). As she points out other feminists - for instance Millen (1997) with antifeminist women - have encountered similar problems with other groups, male and female, as their research agenda has become more diverse in recent years. But her conclusion that 'if my interviewing practice falls short of "feminist ideals", this should not be regarded as a weakness of method so much as the limits of methodology' is more definite (Campbell 2003: 300).

2.3 Other traditions in sociology have some relevance to the subject of this article. The now somewhat dated debate (Bulmer 1982) about the ethics of covert participation is of limited pertinence, as my concern here is with research in which sociologists are quite open about their role (though I do return below to whether I should have indicated at the outset that I might disagree with respondents). Methodological discussion of the degree of involvement and detachment of the researcher in qualitative research, and wider issues of the epistemic standpoint of the researcher, bias and objectivity in sociology, do have some relevance to the matters I consider here. However, controversy over these issues, whether within the philosophy of science or politicised debates about the responsibility of the academic vis-a-vis structures of power, are invariably rather more abstract than a comparatively mundane question like what the interviewer should do if a respondent says something that is repugnant (see, for instance, Hammersley 1995: 117-118). In a different vein, discussion of the degree to which an interviewer should try to adopt the methods of person centred counselling has some relevance to this issue, given its underlying assumption that the interviewer must, without judgement, always encourage the client to reflect upon themselves (Wengraf, 2001: 129). But there appears little or nothing that directly addresses whether it is ever permissible and, if so, under what circumstances and in what fashion, for an interviewer to disagree with a respondent.

2.4 Certainly some approaches give considerable freedom of manoeuvre to a researcher within an interview. The conceptualisation of the 'active interview' insists that it should be seen as a 'dynamic, meaning making' encounter, rather than a 'search and discovery mission with the interviewer intent on detecting what is already there inside a variably cooperative respondent' (Holstein and Gubrium 1997: 116). The researcher therefore should, in the interests of greater rigour, 'actively interview' by prompting, making linkages and even anticipating an interviewee's response (117). But this is clearly different than to proffer in some way an opposing view.

2.5 For more overtly political reasons Pierre Bourdieu's last empirical research undertaking, The Weight of the World (2000), realised his commitment to socioanalysis. The book reveals how Bourdieu and his collaborators offered respondents alternative interpretations within interviews and subsequently elaborated them within analysis. Bourdieu thought this a process through which the sociologist might help a respondent challenge their false consciousness (Bourdieu and Eagleton 1992: 113, 121).[1] His intent was to counter the confusion of those marginalised and displaced by globalisation, something that coincided with an increasingly radical political turn towards the end of his life. Therefore, whilst contentious, the terrain of the interviews was not as inherently confrontational as that which involves the entrenched position of an ideology that knows no doubts - nationalism.

2.6 The burden of the above is that, notwithstanding the 'theoretical space' for expressed disagreement that exists through reflexivity in the research process in general and feminism in particular, and despite the tacit possibility to contradict in some notable research traditions, there remain certain obstacles and limitations involved in doing so within qualitative sociology.

2.7 If one takes a different angle on this issue, in the vast textbook literature on how to go about interviewing, one can find questioning strategies that are available when a researcher is implicitly critical of a respondent's opinions, but do not actually contradict them. Minchiello outlines how certain hypothetical or even 'devils advocate' questions can be framed to explore a respondent's position. (1991: 124) The tactic of drawing out the logic of somebody's position by either paraphrasing them more starkly, or embellishing and strengthening an argument and then presenting it back to an individual to reveal its weakness, is, in fact, an ancient tradition. Campbell used it in her research on police officers mentioned above, not to try and change the sexist understandings of police officers about promotion within the force, but as 'a catalyst for further discussion, elaboration and rumination' (295). The exception amongst text books in respect to argument is revealing. Deanna Kuhn maps hard hitting question formats - 'argumentation' - about such topics and crime and unemployment. However, as the title of book suggests, she is not really interested about these topics in themselves so much as the ability of people of different class and educational background to conduct arguments: the skill at marshalling evidence, effectively generalising, etc (Kuhn 1991: 299). Therefore, argument is only directly referred to when the subject is testing argument.

2.8 Whether an interviewer might ever disagree with a respondent is the topic of this article. Given the subject matter it will be most readily understood by readers with some knowledge of the break-up of Yugoslavia, but it is not primarily about that subject. Nor, I should quickly point out, do I want give the impression that I think that the political psychology that the article mentions, principally mechanisms of denial, are in any way unique to Serbs. There is a tendency within every national ideology to 'get history wrong'; that, said Renan over a hundred years ago, is what nationalism is about (Renan 1990). In respect to the contemporary Balkans, it is my view that denial over aggression and atrocity between 1991-95 is presently more pronounced in contemporary Croatia and its disapora than amongst Serbs. Nor, relatedly, do I want to further some 'Balkan orientalist' conception of Serbs as a uniquely difficult people.[2] To be clear, the article concerns the methodology and ethics of difficult interviews. Before addressing this subject directly, I first make some general remarks about the research project in which this issue emerged.

Researching the British Serbian Community

3.1 Between December 1999 and November 2001 I conducted research on the British Serbian community. I had initially wanted to research refugees from Bosnia living in the North West of Britain, especially Manchester, on their contrasting perceptions of the fall of Yugoslavia. However, it became apparent that the idea was not feasible, given the problems of conducting research with people of different national backgrounds - mainly Bosnian Serbs and Muslims - who lived in the same city and, in some instances, were known to each other. Moreover, although my limitations in Serbo-Croat was not an insurmountable obstacle, it certainly did not make such research any easier. Instead, I began research on what seemed like a more viable topic within the wider field: the British Serbian community. With this group I could potentially research the micro transmission of national consciousness between generations, a subject broadly in line with my Ph.D. thesis on British youth movements. I quickly ascertained that there had been no sociological study of the British Serbian community written, unlike say the Poles and Ukrainians who had come to Britain after the Second World War in similar circumstances.

3.2 For reasons discussed below conducting research on this group proved difficult (though also stimulating and interesting). Before outlining the difficulties encountered, it is necessary to say something about British Serbs. The British Serbian community consists of the surviving, mainly Chetnik (nationalist), émigrés who escaped Tito's Yugoslavia in 1945 and came to Britain in 1947/8 as European Volunteer Workers, their children born in the late 1940s, 1950s and 1960s and their grandchildren born over the last twenty years.[3] In 1990 these three generations made up approximately 30,000 people, living mainly in English towns where manufacturing work had been plentiful in the 1950s: principally Bradford, Halifax, Leicester, Birmingham and London. Despite constant quarreling and splits, the initial thirty year period after arrival in the late 1940s was characterised by high levels of church attendance, community activity based on family inter-connection and village pasts, a shared socio- economic and religious background, a common war time experience and a similar political outlook. This 30,000 number was, of course, added to by large numbers of Serbian refugees from Federal Yugoslavia in the 1990s, but my research was concerned with the older community. Specifically, my interest was in how members of the second generation acquired a sense of Serbian national identity from the first.

3.3 The one organisation that might have facilitated the research was the Serbian Orthodox Church. Realising that I was hardly in a position to ask for access to the Church's membership records without offering anything in return, I proposed some form of exchange whereby they would put me in touch with people to interview in return for a survey on issues like church attendance. This would also have enabled me to apply for research funding. Although the priests I contacted, including the head of the Serbian Orthodox Church in Britain, were reasonably friendly and were prepared to be interviewed it became clear that they had no interest in any form of a wider survey. However, they did provide some links that, together with one contact I obtained through a friend of my wife, enabled me to compile some kind of a sample. Over a two year period I interviewed nineteen members of the second generation and, for background information, six members of the first generation. In addition, I went to a number of Serbian events such as dances and weddings. Progress was therefore possible but the snowballs did not role very far; qualitative research cannot and does not, of course, aim to be statistically representative, but I have no doubt that the research would have been richer and deeper if I had spoken to fifty or a hundred people rather than nineteen. If I had done so I think it likely that certain differences I detected in outlook amongst respondents, derived from whether or not their parents were Chetniks from the Krajina (Croatia), would have become clearer. Relatedly it would been preferable if I had been able to concentrate the study in a single town. However, as I lacked sufficient contacts in any one community to acquire more than a handful of interviewees, I was forced to geographically caste out the net. Even so it was difficult to get people to speak to. Some respondents who were willing to further help me after I had interviewed them, told me that they would ask others they knew if they would be prepared to talk. But in most instances, if they subsequently contacted me at all, it was to say that they had asked somebody they knew, but he/she was not interested.

3.4 This is because of a general feeling that the misrepresentation and injustice - involving the expulsion and loss of relatives - experienced by Serbs in the Balkans has hurt them in a collective national sense. Simultaneously, they have experienced numerous jibes and jokes over the years about 'bloody Serbs' amongst British friends, partners, acquaintances, work colleagues and simply people they have given their names to. The result has been a heightened sensitivity (historically present within the Serbian diaspora, see Padget 1989) leading to a partial withdrawal into community and family over the last twelve years. This was, in fact, one of the main findings of the research.(Pryke 2003a).

3.5 Given these sensitivities, as the research developed I tried to overcome any misgivings respondents might have about being interviewed by supplying respondents with a basic outline of the subjects areas I wished to ask them about before hand. This was also prompted by the fact that after early interviews I was told by respondents that it would have been helpful if they had had prior indication of the questions. I assured them in covering letters that the research was not intended to 'get at' and further discredit Serbs. After the interviews I sent either full transcripts or write ups of the interviews to respondents, and the published article when it eventually came out. These measures - not exceptional in themselves of course - were in large part motivated by a genuine appreciation of Serbian fears of misrepresentation and a basic respect for the individuals involved. But I was also obviously aware that my chances of obtaining further contacts and interviews would be increased if I appeared scrupulously fair and professional.

3.6 If a reluctance to talk meant that I was only able to find a relatively small number of people to be interviewed, it is also true that those that that did participate were undoubtedly more highly educated and in better occupational positions than is the case with the majority of second generation British Serbs. This was not of major importance in itself given my interests in the transmission of national consciousness, but it would have been desirable to have greater access in respect to socio-economic class. A profile of those interviewed emerged. They were generally in their 30s or early 40s, intelligent, articulate and loquacious with some understanding of the worth and purpose of sociological research, and wanted in some way to put the record straight, to speak to somebody who was prepared to listen to them and at least knew something about the subject matter. A feature of second generation British Serbs, quite unlike most Yugoslav Serbs, is that they were brought up in a politicised environment by dint of having émigré parents. Therefore, having agreed to talk, the subject matter of the interviews in itself did not present a problem. Respondents usually had strong opinions and were well informed about events in former Yugoslavia. This meant that, on the one hand, there was little risk of respondents framing answer that they thought I might wish to hear, whilst, on the other, the participants seldom resorted to irritating cliches about ancient Balkan hatreds that often pass for journalistic and everyday understanding of the region.

3.7 They were also, it is relevant to report, a generally hospitable and pleasant group of people who, irrespective of whatever motivation they had in talking about 'being Serbian', were kind enough to invite me into their homes to help me with my research. In most cases it was not difficult to establish a reasonable rapport within interviews at least prior to questions about the recent Yugoslav wars. So, in important respects, far from being a difficult group to interview, they were ideal research respondents. Notwithstanding what I already knew about Serbian nationalism and the break-up of the former Yugoslavia, there was little that prepared me for some of the testimony I received in the latter stages of the interviews.

The Interviews

4.1 The interviews were semi- structured, generally consisting of open ended questions. They were divided into three sections: the family background of the respondent, their experiences of growing up in the various communities they lived in and their perception of and attitude towards the break-up of Yugoslavia. Initially, I had thought to deal only with family and upbringing as my interest was in the transmission of national identity. But whilst it was the case that respondents were generally adept at chronologically separating the various influences upon them as they have had to examine and re-examine their own identity during Yugoslavia's collapse, it was also inevitably the case that the reality of war weighed upon the interviews. It would obviously have been silly to have tried to exclude mention of war in an interview about nationalism. However, to try and confine discussion of the break-up of Yugoslavia to a discrete place within the interview, I informed respondents at the outset that we would conclude with some questions about it.

4.2 The two initial sections of the interview were, almost without exception, unproblematic and, in so far as is possible for this type of research, standardised. There was little need to deviate significantly from the list of prepared questions about family, church and community. Common themes emerged of a strong Serbian cultural identity within the home, a perception of difference at school, a period of teenage rejection/rebellion over the conservatism of community life and, to the consternation of their virulently anticommunist parents, a generally positive perception of communist Yugoslavia acquired whilst visiting relatives there. Throughout interviews respondents spoke about the British Serbs, and Serbs more generally, in part with the standpoint of somebody considering their own nationality, and in part as somebody external to them looking with the perspective of removal, reflecting an ambivalence of the second generation immigrant. I suggested certain linkages to aid the flow of the conversation and occasionally, when directly asked, indicated the experience of others I had interviewed. Some might argue that this necessarily amounted to 'active interviewing', but now, as at the time, this simply seemed to me to be an obvious and unremarkable approach to enable the interview to proceed in a satisfactory fashion.

4.3 Things changed somewhat when we reached the final section of the interview. As is obvious, questions here were of opinion and perception rather than experience as although some respondents had visited the region in the early 1990s, they only did so for brief periods. Several of the men I spoke to told me that they seriously considered going to fight in 1991/2 and again in 1999, but none had done so. The sort of questions I initially framed were as follows: 'When did you first become aware of the rise of Slobodan Milosevic?', 'What were your thoughts about the key issues in his rise, the situation of Serbs in Kosovo and Croatia?', 'What was your view of Milosevic at that time and the idea which he was seen to champion of a Greater Serbia, a state encompassing all the Serbs of the region?'; 'What was your perception of the outbreak and unfolding of the war in Bosnia?'; 'What did you make of the intervention of the UN?'. It will be observed that there was nothing in these questions that was directly about ethnic cleansing and atrocity, although there was obvious scope for this should a respondent wish to talk about these matters. They were followed by questions about the respondents orientation towards the British Serbian community as a result of the war and any negative personal experiences at work, etc., referred to above. Within this section common experiences once again emerged and the interviews became somewhat more straightforward.

Talking about War

5.1 Perceptions and opinions about the war varied considerably. Almost all of the respondents took the Serbian side in the sense that they thought that the media has consistently misrepresented the genuine fears and grievances of the Serbs, and that external intervention, especially the recognition of Croatia and Bosnia by the EC, had inflamed a fraught situation in 1992. However, within this picture views varied widely between those who had general condemnation for Serbian military actions, to those who understood the motivation of the establishment in 1991 of the Krajina Serbian Republic in Croatia and were concerned about the plight of Serbs in Kosovo but wished to condemn the bombardments and ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, to those who struggled to rationalise and justify massacres, to those, like the respondent quoted above, who all but denied that the Serbs had ever done anything wrong. To be clear, by no means everybody I spoke to sought to exculpate, justify or deny Serbian atrocities in the course of the civil war. Take, for instance, the view of one woman brought up at the heart of the London Serbian community: 'I did feel a sense of despair when I heard Serbs had done this [Sebrenica], and I just felt that Serbs had degraded themselves in the eyes of the world.' Further, 'At [Serbian] get togethers people tend to say "I can't understand who could do that", but obviously people did commit such acts and they were members of somebody's family'. What is important here is that the respondent not only condemns atrocity, but, admittedly without offering an actual interpretation, confronts the claim that atrocity is beyond understanding, a tacit means of the denial of responsibility.

5.2 When initially faced with exculpation, justification and denial of atrocity my response was to move onto the subsequent issue. When told in an early interview that Sebrenica was a justifiable act as the Muslim combatants of the town had, at the instigation of the CIA, repeatedly carried out attacks on Serbian villages in the region despite being clearly warned that to continue to do so would result in heavy reprisal, I passed on quickly and somewhat abruptly to the next question. I had no wish to use whatever rapport that had developed in the interview to 'probe' around this sort of claim in the similar way to, for instance, recollections of Orthodox Sunday School in the 1970s. However, in retrospect I felt somewhat disgusted by my silence. Driving home afterwards I seriously considered abandoning the research. It was not that this sort of claim was unexpected - although it was incongruent with the individual -, it was just that my lack of response seemed to collude with the denial of atrocity. Regardless of what I might ultimately do with the data, I seemed to be actually furthering the justification of the worst massacre in Europe since 1945. I knew that it would be both pointless and wrong to engage in outright arguments within interviews, and would, moreover, jeopardise the research. But I did resolve to at least 'push' respondents in some undetermined way on this sort of claim should it be made again.

5.3 There was another aspect to this decision. In mid 2000 I had read and reviewed a book about Australian Serbs by a sociologist called Nicolas Proctor. The data he draws upon in his book, Serbian Australians in the Shadow of the Balkan War (2000), is certainly more extensive than I was able to attain. As he candidly acknowledges in the book's introduction, he was able to gain access to the Australian Serbian community by dint of the fact that his partner is Serbian, although he did have the terms of his research set by an organisation called the Australian Serbian National Federation. Eschewing a more traditional research methodology, Proctor terms his endeavor a 'personalised hermeneutic journey' in which interviews - apparently virtual counselling sessions although no extended transcript is reproduced - and observation are used to understand the 'long distance trauma' of Australian Serbs (a re-working of Benedict Anderson's concept of 'long distance nationalism') (Proctor 2000: 8). Whatever the merits of the book, a lack of critical distance makes it in my view morally distasteful and methodological hazy. He states that at the outset he felt uncomfortable with issues of right and wrong in the break-up of Yugoslavia. This resulted in Proctor being prepared to record and then reproduce pages of participants' tendentious testimony about the wrongs perpetrated upon the Serbs, as if it were fact. I was never likely to have done this, but my dislike of the bland approach he adopted extended to the determination that it was necessary to inject a greater critical aspect to the actual research process as well as the ultimate write up. (Pryke 2003b)

5.4 The issue next arose in a group interview with three people of Krajina (Croatian) Serbian family background. In order to discuss the issues the interview raised I quote at length from the transcript:
Interviewer: At that time, 1991/2, did you support Milosevic, despite his Communist Party past, as a figure who was championing the cause of Serbs throughout Yugoslavia and did you support the idea of a Greater Serbia, understood as you say as a defensive reaction?

Respondent one: The simple answer is yes. At that time the various ethnic groups in that region wanted their own independence. The difference between the Serbs and the other groups is that a significant minority of the Serbs at that time lived outside of Serbia. The only way that those Serbs could feel safe was in a state of their own, whether or not you call it the state of Yugoslavia or Greater Serbia.

Respondent two: They didn't want a Greater Serbia for the sake of a Greater Serbia to make a kind of superpower, but they had to be together. So yes, I supported that and I think most people here did. Did you support Milosevic as a figure who represented that?

Respondent one with general agreement: Yes, he gave that impression at the time.

Was that true throughout the community? What was the view of the first generation?

Respondent one: Well there were a few of the first generation who didn't support him at first, but they came round. It got to a point where people, regardless of whether he was a communist or a royalist, saw that he was doing it for Serbs, as long as he was doing it for Serbs. And there was a great feeling that for the first time we were going to be united. Initially, that was what he wanted to do but the West got involved.

Respondent two: The UN, the Western World, had this idea to try and impose a new world order on Yugoslavia.

Well whatever outside powers did they weren't responsible for atrocities on the ground. The evidence would suggest that in respect to Bosnia, the worst atrocities were committed by the Bosnian Serbs because of their control of the Yugoslav army. Did you at any point think that the creation of a Greater Serbia would inevitably involve the mass expulsion of Croats and Muslims?

Respondent three: Perhaps I am naive but I didn't think that it would.

Respondent one: I don't agree with the statement you just made, but it was a bi-product of the war.

Respondent two: A lot of it was voluntary, people just went to live with people of their own background and culture. And some people stayed. I just find it amazing in Bosnia, it goes back to that joke tape that we have got, you know the Serbs claimed all that land, they were massacring, they were raping, where the hell did they find time to do everything?! There weren't the numbers there, it wasn't as if the Serbs outnumbered the Muslims, but where did they find the time to rape 30,000 women in all that time, do all the massacring and secure and gain all that territory?

Are you saying that the rapes and murders didn't happen?

Respondent one: Yes they did, on all sides. They happened, they happened, we are not saying they didn't.

Was there ever a point when you felt you had to condemn it?

Respondent one: But it goes back to the victors truth. America and Great Britain are not going to admit that they cocked up, history will prove that they cocked up. But they are not going to admit that.

Well, I think that some external figures who got involved did concede that they got things wrong. But my own view is that although outside powers may have made things worse, there's a case for saying that, the responsibility of what happened there was that of the people who lived in that part of the world. But I just wondered, how long your support for the Serbian cause remained, perhaps it never waivered, or were there points when you thought it necessary, perhaps only to yourself, to condemn what happened there?

Respondent two: It made me feel what was going on out there, my own view, I felt more proud to be a Serb. I felt the longer it was going on, the more misinformation we were given, it made my feelings and my own proudness to be a Serb even stronger. Because you only had to look at the bombing of the bread queue in Sarejevo: front pages, headlines 'Serbs bomb bread queue'. It was proven by the UN that it was a Muslim attack on their own people for their own propaganda purposes.

So your support for the Serbian cause didn't waiver at any time?

Respondent two: No it just got stronger and stronger.

And that was furthered because of the portrayal of Serbs as the aggressors?

Respondent one: It became more and more evident that the media, the governments, they'd all taken sides, they'd decided that the Serbs were the bad guys, the others were the good guys. And they did their best to present those parties in that light. Any evidence they could use against the Serbs they did. Any evidence to support the Serbs they ignored.

5.5 There are a number of possible interrelated theoretical, political, ethical and procedural objections to such a line of questioning.

1) The most general point is of a theoretical/politcal: explicit disagreement represents a serious deviation from the role of the interviewer in sociological research. It might be argued that a respondent should not seek to contradict a respondent even if disagreement is couched in relatively mild terms like ‘the evidence would suggest’, ‘in my view’. As indicated above, there is recognition that completely neutral questions are impossible, that it is quite legitimate to probe a respondent’s answers and permissible in some circumstances to formulate ‘devils advocate’ questions. But this is some way from making pre-emptive claims – in a style one critic compared to a Hague Tribunal prosecutor - in an interview. The sociologist is an interpreter not a legislator. If he/she has pretensions to change minds then at the very least this should be somehow acknowledged at the outset of the interview, and thus placed in the context of some form of action research or, to extend Bourdieu, ‘sociotherapy’. But if a researcher has such moral scruples that make it impossible for him/her to encounter views that they find objectionable, they should not undertake the research in the first place.

2) It is questionable what such questioning actually achieved as, other than conferring a certain moral and, possibly masculine self-righteousness – restated here in retrospect -, rather more information might have been attained by a less confrontational strategy based upon maintaining a positive rapport.

3) To seek to embark on such an interviewing strategy necessarily places the interviewer in a position of spurious authority whereby he/she assumes that they have a controlling and necessarily superior knowledge about the subject matter than the respondent. 4) This line of questioning inevitably raises the issue of whether or not it is legitimate to try to bring an alternative morality with people who, through in this instance an overriding national allegiance, see things rather differently.

5) To contradict in such a context risks entering a conversation thicket from which it is difficult to extricate oneself from, whilst maintaining any degree of control over the direction of the conversation. Therefore the strategy both assumes omnipotence and jeopodises elemental control.

5.6 I have no wish to try to answer all such possible criticisms, especially as I think aspects of some valid. They were composed with the benefit of hindsight and with the benefit of hindsight I would have done things rather differently. Who in retrospect would not have conducted primary research differently? This said, I would wish to defend and indeed advocate the interviewing strategy used above. For the sake of clarity I will outline my thoughts on this as responses to the five points made above.

5.7 First, whilst there is an absence of direct reference to disagreement with respondents within interviews in both theoretical and practical discussion of sociological research, the overview of the issue at the beginning of the article indicates that there is sufficient flexibility within prominent approaches to incorporate it in my research. Although it is the case that my decision to try and challenge certain opinions was not directly prompted by a prior theoretical position, I was influenced by Bourdieu’s concept of socioanalysis and was interested to see how it would ‘play out’ within interviews. Moreover, the interviewing strategies recommended by Minchiello (1991), were of some importance. The possible criticism that sociology is not directly concerned with changing minds through argument within interviews, seems based on an assumption that opinions are static. Several of the people I spoke to – though not those quoted above – told me that they had come to think about things slightly differently as a result of being interviewed. Now clearly to have set out to proselytize would have been at once arrogant and naive. But my determination to directly disagree with respondents was not motivated by a fanciful ambition to re-educate Serbs. Rather, I did so because to continue to have remained quiet would have been morally wrong and methodologically loose. Having said this, I think that it would have been advisable if I had stated candidly before asking questions about the break-up of Yugoslavia that, whilst I was not setting out to disagree with respondents, I might well venture another opinion. This would have added to a certain ethical transparency to the dialogue.

5.8 Second, I certainly think it was the case that being prepared to disagree with the respondents made the interview far more revealing than it otherwise would have been, as it established at least four things. First, clarification that the respondents supported the attempted creation of a Greater Serbia, albeit legitimated as a defensive strategy. This is important as the idea that there ever was a definite attempt to create a Greater Serbia, as opposed to defending Yugoslavia, is sometimes glossed over or even denied within Serbian circles. Second, in contrast to the tack I had taken in some previous interviews, it pressed respondents on whether this inevitably involved ethnic cleansing as a logical consequence of this. Third, it repeatedly pushed the issue of Serbian responsibility for war by my refusal to accept the facile contention that it was all the fault of external powers. Fourth, it established that several of the respondents acknowledged that Serbs did commit atrocity, specifically rape, after the issue had initially been brushed aside through sarcastic humour.

5.9 So, disagreement was not just an act of moral self-dramatisation, but something that gave greater depth to the data obtained. I am doubtful that an less critical strategy that tried to keep alive a positive rapport at all costs would have been equally as effective. Moreover, as indicated, it is the case that a critical dialogue has a certain integrity as compared to a silky rapport that lures a respondent into disclosure with no hint prior to the write up that the interviewer finds their testimony objectionable. This is not to suggest, of course, that a critical dialogue precludes moments of rapport (Campbell 2003: 295).

5.10 The third possible objection that such a strategy assumes a position of unwarranted authority in which the interviewer stakes out ‘the truth’ within the interview, involves interpersonal and epistemological issues. Anyone who has done qualitative research will know that power relations within interviews, as in interaction more generally, are always subject to some degree of ongoing negotiation or ‘dialectic of control’ (Campbell 2003: 297). In the above interview, it was the case that the respondents seemed generally strong minded and forthright individuals who were never likely to defer to the opinion of an academic – who does these days? Prior and subsequent conversation revealed that they knew a good deal of Balkan history, spoke and read Serbian well and visited relatives there fairly frequently. In certain respects their knowledge and expertise were greater than mine. Moreover, they had the ‘personal capital’ of talking about ‘their country’ – they had lost relatives in August 1995 and the land their family had inhabited for centuries. Finally, they were probably conscious of their position as gate keepers as they knew that my research depended on an ongoing chain of contacts. So, far from the interview being an encounter where I had utilised a controlling academic knowledge and authority, I felt somewhat battered and emotionally drained afterwards.

5.11 The issue as to whether an interviewer can set out the truth as to what happened in an issue like a civil war is in some ways more complex. Take the above example of the Sebrenica massacre that I did not pursue in an early interview. Extended questioning about this episode would not have been quite as straightforward as might appear. When told that the CIA were involved in the provocations of Serbs around Srebrenica, I assumed that the claim was just another Serbian conspiracy theory. However, a BBC ‘From Our Correspondent’ BBC documentary, screened in January 2001, revealed this to be essentially accurate. This scarcely justifies the slaughter of up to 8,000 men and boys in cold blood. The point, however, is that almost inevitably in a bloody civil war that pitted neighbour against neighbour, no party was without blame. In fact, all parties tended to claim that any particular act was motivated by a prior attack – ‘they did it to us first’, ‘we only did to them what they did to us’, being the standard rationalisations -, and in the wider scheme of things they were the greater victim. My basic point here is that an interviewing strategy that involved contradicting respondents and stating an alternative view is somewhat more problematic than might at first be thought as no final and complete history will ever be told of the break-up of Yugoslavia, or indeed any other historical event of such complexity. There was obviously not therefore a touchstone of truth that might some how be called upon. Nor should a research interview by conceived as akin to a courtroom trial in which evidence is displayed and scrutinised in the interests of determining the truth. It concerns the experience and opinions of a research subject. However, this important acknowledgement is quite different from a position in which truth becomes a causality of rival accounts of events or of relativist postmodern philosophy in which the interview is only of interest as a self-referential text (Alversson and Sköldberg 2000: 4). We know, for instance, that rape was carried out on a large scale by Serbian forces, especially in Bosnia 92-93, not just as a spoil of war but as an aspect of systematic ethnic cleansing. We know this because of the painstaking work by, in particular, feminist researchers who have interviewed survivors and uncovered Serbian documents on the taking of territory (Stiglamayer 1994). If in an interview a respondent dismisses the idea that mass rape really happened at all, it seems therefore legitimate to pursue a line of questioning that seeks that takes issue with him or her.

5.12 The fourth possible criticism, one of possible opposed moralities, has no foundation. On the one hand, it would rely upon a conception of ethics that delineates sociological research from everyday life (for critique seeStanley and Wise 1993: 203). If I heard somebody deny that mass rape ever happened despite overwhelming evidence that it did, I would almost certainly object. Even allowing for the some greater care in the choice of words used, why should a research interview be different? Moreover, a process of denial does not hinge upon an alternative morality. On the contrary, it accepts a shared morality. It was not as if the respondents claimed that, yes, Muslim women were raped and that this was a legitimate means of violence and impregnation in ethnic war. Rather, at least one of the respondents initially made light of the suggestion that it had ever happened at all.

5.13 The fifth possible problem is that once an interviewer begins to disagree with a respondent even in measured terms a polemical momentum is quickly established. The interview quoted from above did not culminate in shouting and abuse followed by blows, but looking over the transcript I can see that that my subsequent questions were not so carefully phrased and, in fact, became more like statements and closed interrogative points, habitually used in the cut and thrust of argument. So there is a danger involved of a row developing. However, the interview like the research process in general is beset by potential problems and risks (Stanley and Wise 1993: 153). If one was intent upon avoiding them altogether it is unlikely that much sociological research would ever get done.

Taking disagreement a step further?

6.1 There is of course a quite different response to the interview quoted above: my response did not go far enough. One could reasonably argue that the kind of claims constituted an incoherent but definite process of denial: the implausibility of claims of atrocity, the moral equivalence of war, the primary responsibility of external powers, the demonisation of one side by the media, and, incredibly, the claim that a process like ethnic cleansing was voluntary. Nobody could seriously argue that a directly confrontational argument within an interview would benefit anybody and serve to take a research project forward, but one might argue that it is the responsibility of the sociologist to attempt in some way to try to break through denial by offering counter interpretations, rather than just simply making the questions somewhat more critical.

6.2 For instance, it became apparent to me in the course of the research how a single incident, the market place bombing in Sarejevo, 5th February, 1995, was generalised. In his otherwise thorough book States of Denial (2001), Stan Cohen does not consider how a particular event can become a template for a wider counter-interpretation. The claim, by Serbian respondents as evidenced above, was that contrary to the initial media assumptions that the Serbs had fired the mortars, it was officially proved by UNPROFOR that the Bosnian army had actually attacked their own people in order to further discredit the Serbs. In fact, this was not the case as UNPRFOR ballistics experts were unable to confirm with any certainty the location from which the missiles had been launched. This made for controversy, although there remains some doubt as to whether this uncertainty was real or simply a form of leverage used by the UNPRFOR commander General Michael Rose to reverse the Bosnian government refusal to take part in negotiations over demilitarisation of the city, scheduled for February 8th (Allcock, Milivojevic and Horton 1998: 259).

6.3 Notwithstanding the lack of clarity here, I might have made this specific point in interviews, rather than simply passing on without dissent to the next question or stating a general disagreement. Or I might have taken things further still. The extraordinary claim, ‘It made me feel what was going on out there, my own view, I felt more proud to be a Serb’, might have been countered with something like, ‘With respect, how can anyone be proud of the siege of Dubrovnik, or the destruction of Vukovar or the massacre or Sebrenica in a war in which your side, the Serbs, were in any case the ultimate loser?’. The strategy would have risked confrontation, but might have been more revealing and transformative.

6.4 This strategy would, I think, have been highly problematic. It is altogether more likely to turn the dialogue into a time consuming and fruitless row which generates more heat than light, as both parties lose all track of the general trajectory of the interview. A withering set of questions about a single event, or a wider refutation of an objectionable opinion when the interviewer knows the respondent is wrong, might appear attractive to a sociologist who admires how a combative TV journalist attempts to prize information from a government minister. However, the two types of interview are quite different and the means of eliciting knowledge cannot be directly compared.


7.1 This article has sought to make the case that it is permissible to directly disagree with respondents in an interview in the light of my experience in conducting research on the British Serbian community. Important trends in thinking about methodology would seem to allow for the possibility of disagreement, but it is notable that there is no direct discussion of the matter in either the theoretical or more practical literature on qualitative research. My determination to risk argument within interviews was not wrought by a vain attempt to inaugurate a new methodological departure, but the experience of initially listening without dissent to the attempts by second generation British Serbs to exculpate Serbian actions during the break-up of Yugoslavia, 1991-1990. In retrospect I felt that my silence had colluded with the denial of atrocity and, relatedly, allowed the assumptions that underpinned the accounts to go unchallenged. As a result, I subsequently contradicted respondents within interviews by being prepared set out what has been established about the war. Although it did not necessarily make the interview quoted above any more pleasant at the time, the strategy did succeed in uncovering respondents’ beliefs in a way that a series of less disputatious questions would not have done. Such a research strategy has, as I acknowledge, inherent dangers. However, in certain circumstances the risks are worth taking given the both moral and procedural issues at stake. A strategy of openly disagreeing with respondents should therefore be added to the existing stock of research techniques in qualitative research.


ALLCOCK, J.B., MILIVOJEVIC, M. and HORTON, J. J. (editors) (1998) Conflict in the Former Yugoslavia, An Encyclopedia. Denver, Col.: ABC-CLIO. ALVESSON, M and SKÖLDERBERG, K. (2000) Reflexive Methodology, New Vistas for Qualitative Research.London: Sage.

BELL, C. and ROBERTS, H. (editors) (1984) Social Researching: politics, problems and practice. London: Routledge.

BHABHA, H. (editor) (1990) Nation and Narration. London and New York: Routledge.

BOURDIEU, P. et al (2000) The Weight of the World: Social Suffering in Contemporary Society. Cambridge: Polity.

BOURDIEU, P. and EAGLETON, T. (1992) ‘A conversation about doxa’, New Left Review, No.191.

BULMER, M. (editor) (1982) Social Research Ethics: an examination of the merits of covert participant observation. London: Macmillan.

CAMPBELL, E. (October-December 2003) ‘Interviewing men in uniform: a feminist approach?’, Social Research Methodology Vol 6 No 4., pp. 285-305.

COHEN, S. (2001) States of Denial, Knowing About Atrocities and Suffering. Cambridge: Polity.

DAVIES, A. C. (1999) Reflexive Ethnography, A guide to researching selves and others.London: Routledge.

DENZIN, N. AND LINCOLN, Y (editors) (2003) Collecting and Interpreting Qualitative Materials. London: Sage.

FINCH, J. (1984) ‘“Its great to have somebody to talk to”: the ethics and politics of interviewing women’ in C. Bell and H. Roberts (editors) Social Researching: politics, problems and practice. London: Routledge.

FONTANA, A. and FREY, J. (2003) ‘The Interview: From Structured Questions to Negotiated Text’ in Denzin and Lincoln (editors), Collecting and Interpreting Qualitative Materials.

HOLSTEIN, J.A. and GUBRIUM, J.F. ‘Active Interviewing’ in D. Silverman (1997) Qualitative Research, Theory, Method and Practice.London: Sage.

HAMMERSLEY, M. (editor) (1993) Social Research, philosophy, politics and practice. London: Sage.

MAGAS, B. (1993) The Destruction of Yugoslavia, Tracing the Break-up 1980-1992. London: Verso.

MILLEN, D. (1997) ‘Some methodological and epistemological issues raised by doing feminist research on non-feminist women’, Sociological Research Online, 2, http://www.socresonline.org.uk/2/3/3.html.

MINCHIELLO, V., ARONI, R., TIMEWELL, E. and ALEXANDER, L. (1990) In-Depth Interviewing. Melbourne: Longman Cheshire.

MCKENNA, Y. (2003) ‘Sisterhood? Exploring power relations in the collection of oral history’, Oral History, Vol. 31. No.1. pp. 65-72. PADGETT, D.(1989) Settlers and Sojourners: a study of Serbian adaptation in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. New York: AMS Press.

PROCTOR, N. (2000) Serbian Australians in the Shadow of the Balkan War.Aldershot: Ashgate.

RENAN, E. (1889) (1990). ‘What is a nation?’ in H. Bhabha (editor) Nation and Narration. London and New York: Routledge.

SILVERMAN, D. (editor) (1997) Qualitative Research, Theory, Method and Practice.London: Sage.

STANLEY, L. and WISE, S. (1993) Breaking Out Again, Feminist Ontology and Epistemology.London and New York: Routledge.

STIGLMAYER, A. (editor) (1994) Mass Rape against women in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Lincoln: Lincoln University Press.

TODOROVA, M. (1997) Imagining the Balkans. Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press.

TURNBULL, A. (January-March 2000) ‘Collaboration and censorship in the oral history interview’, Social Research Methodology, Vol 3 No 1., pp. 15-35.

WENGRAF, T. (2001) Qualitative Research Interviewing, Biographic, Narrative and Semi-Structured Methods. London: Sage.