A Postmodern-Psychoanalytic Perspective on Interviewing by
Neill R. Ustick
Australian Catholic University,
Signadou Campus, Canberra
PO Box 256 Dickson ACT 2602
phone (61 2) 62091147, fax (61 2) 62091185
Draws on work of:
- James Scheurich (1997) - postmodern critique of traditional interviewing
- Wendy Hollway and Tony Jefferson (2000) - free association narrative interview method
- Fontana & Frey(2005) - recognised the historical, political and contextual shaping of interviews
Although the following options amount to oversimplification, I have found it useful to ask myself
“Am I attempting to be a scientist who seeks the objective ‘truth’ about a situation or am I more the historian who attempts to discover what meanings the situation have for people?”
-in social research, especially critical social research which investigates an unstable and changing social reality, there is reason to doubt the ‘search for certainty’ (and universal laws) and reason to develop approaches sensitive to context and to individual agency, particularly where individuals and not large groups are involved. Writing for an audience of teachers, (p.3)
McLeod (1994, p. 78) thus
"The fundamental goal of qualitative investigation is to uncover and illuminate what things mean to people … (it is) … a process of systematic inquiry into the meanings which people employ to make sense of their experiences and guide their actions."
There are strong claims for interviews as means of gathering significant data about people and their perceptions; for example,
For the narrator, the interview provides the opportunity to tell her own story in her own terms. For researchers, taped interviews preserve a living exchange for present and future use; we can rummage through interviews as we do through an old attic – probing, comparing, checking insights, finding new treasures the third time through, then arranging and carefully documenting our results (Anderson & Jack, 1991, p. 11).
At face value, this remark over-simplifies interviewing. It over-emphasises the role of the transcript to the neglect of contextual factors and elements not audible on the tape; it regards the transcript as a simple record. These points are taken up in what follows. (p.6)
Scheurich’s arguments include the following points (pp. 64, 70): ‘The researcher uses the dead, decontextualised monads of meaning, the tightly boundaried containers, the numbing objectifications, to construct generalisations which are, in the modernist dream, used to predict, control and reform, as in educational practice.’ Such an ‘objective’ analysis vastly underestimates the complexity, uniqueness and indeterminateness of each one-to-one human interaction. This view of interview research
“situates the researcher as a kind of god who consciously knows what she/he is doing, who (if properly trained) can clearly communicate meanings to another person, and who can derive the hidden but recoverable meanings within the interview to support an abstract generalisation”.
Usually implicitly, the approach embodies power asymmetries, e.g., it is the researcher’s project, the researcher develops the questions, the interviewee is under the spotlight (the subject) while the researcher remains hidden. (p.6)
Forming Scheurich’s notions into a brief summary, I offer the following points:
- The researcher has multiple intentions and desires, some consciously known, some not. So, too, for the interviewee.
- Language used for questions is not bounded or stable; it is slippery, ambiguous, varying across people, times, places; i.e., what a question means to an interviewer can mean something different to an interviewee; these meanings also can change over time.
- Answers depend on the time and who asks the questions, so that a different interviewer would get different responses.
- Some of what occurs is verbal and some is non-verbal. Some occurs only in the mind of each participant but it may affect the whole interview.
- Sometimes the participants are jointly constructing meaning, but at other times one may be resisting joint constructions.
- A participant may be saying what she thinks she ought to say.
- Interviewees are not passive subjects but active participants, sometimes resisting researcher goals; they ‘carve out space of their own’ (p. 71) – a dominance-resistance view of the play of power.
- Analysis recognises the presence of the researcher, notably the shaping power of the researcher’s conscious and unconscious assumptions and orientations.
For Scheurich, an added dimension of research interviews lies in considering the interviewee’s point of view and specifically the question ‘Who is their audience?’ He suggests it might be you the interviewer, themselves, or Imagined audiences, e.g., community/ies or groups of which they are or were a part.
I have tried to take up the challenge posed by Scheurich to develop new imaginaries of interviewing. My claim is a very modest one, namely to have found strong links between the work of Scheurich in the US and that of Hollway and Jefferson in the UK. This linkage adopts many of the postmodernist elements of Scheurich’s analysis but also extend it with fresh ideas from other intellectual traditions, notably narrative research and psychoanalysis.
It is important to note two initial points. One is that, as Hollway and Jefferson recognise, that this new approach is not suited to all research questions: “It is most powerful when the research question involves understanding people’s experiences through their own meaning-frame and when the area that needs to be tapped to address the research question implicates a person’s sense of self” (2000, p. 155). A second point is that the research approach assumes a particular image of human beings, what they describe as “an enriched, more complex, nuanced and, arguably, more humane and ethical view of the human subject” (2000, p. 155).
Hollway and Jefferson (2000) believe that narrative plays a central role for making meaning of human experience. They see narrative as a story of a person’s own experience, told in their own terms as a meaningful whole, reflectively seeking to see the past in the present. (p. 10)
It is appropriate to note a warning about an uncritical view of narrative, one that Atkinson (1997, p. 325) describes thus: “Narratives are regarded as offering the analyst privileged access to personal experience. It is suggested that an appeal to narratives too often includes inappropriate assumptions concerning human actors and social action.” It is also one of which Hollway and Jefferson are well aware. Indeed, they are critical of many versions of qualitative research interviewing which they argue assume that “participants are ‘telling it like it is’, that participants know who they are and what makes them tick … and are willing and able to tell this to a stranger interviewer” (Hollway & Jefferson, 2000, pp. 2-3). To the contrary, stories have a constructed quality, according to the motivations, memory and framework(s) of the teller – thus a story is an artifact or representation at least one step removed from the events to which it refers. As Riessman (1993, p. 8) notes, “We do not have direct access to another’s experience. We deal with ambiguous representations of it – talk, text, interaction and interpretation”. Hollway and Jefferson develop this notion of the complex and constructed nature of people, drawing upon postmodern and psychoanalytic notions central to their analysis:
We are psycho-social because we are products of a unique biography of anxiety- and desire-provoking life events and the manner in which their meanings have been unconsciously transformed in internal reality. We are psycho-social because such defensive activities affect and are affected by discourses and also because the unconscious defences that we describe are intersubjective processes (that is, they affect and are affected by others). We are psycho-social because the real events in the external, social world are desirously and defensively, as well as discursively, appropriated (Hollway & Jefferson, 2000, p. 24).
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Fontana, A. & Frey, J.H. (2005). The interview: From neutral stance to political involvement. In Denzin, N.K. & Lincoln, Y.S. (2000). The Sage handbook of qualitative research (3rd ed.) (pp. 695-727). Thousand Oaks: Sage.