Avoid a Therapeutic Relationship

At the same time, interviewers must avoid changing the interview­ing relationship into a therapeutic one. Many see a similarity between the type of open-ended, relatively nondirective interviewing that I have been discussing in this book and the type of exploration that takes place in psychotherapy. It is essential that research interviewers not see them­selves as therapists. The goals are different (de Laine, 2000, pp. 116— 118; Kahn & Cannell, 1960; Kvale, 1996, pp. 155-157; Weiss, 1994, pp. 134-136). The researcher is there to learn, not to treat the participant. The participant did not seek out the researcher and is not a patient. The researcher will see the participant three times, after which their connec­tion will substantially end. They will not have a continuing relationship in which the researcher takes some measure of ongoing responsibility. Researchers are unlikely to be trained therapists. They should know both their own limits and those imposed by the structure and goal of the interviewing process. Researchers must be very cautious about ap­proaching areas of participants’ private lives and personal complexities to which they are ill equipped to respond and for which they can take no effective responsibility.

But even when researchers exercise such caution, the intimacy that can develop in in-depth interviewing sometimes threatens those lim­its, and a participant may find the interviewing process emotionally troubling (Griffin, 1989). Participants may start to cry in an interview. Interviewers may themselves become upset in the face of a participant’s tears and not know what to do. My experience is that many times the best thing to do is nothing. (See Brannen, 1988, pp. 559-560, on the importance of listening hard and saying little at times like this in inter­views.) Let the participant work out the distress without interfering and taking inappropriate responsibility for it. On the other hand, if the dis­tress continues, the interviewer then has the responsibility to pull back from whatever is causing it. (See Bernard, 1994, p. 220; Smith, 1992, p. 102; Weiss, 1994, pp. 127-131, for further guidance on interviewers’ responsibility for their participants.)

In my mind, a key to negotiating potentially troubled waters is to assess how much responsibility the interviewer can effectively take in navigating them. In one interview, a participant referred repeatedly to a colleague’s nervous breakdown. As much as I was interested in the subject, I did not follow up on it because the participant’s repeated refer­ences to it troubled me. We were near the end of the third interview. I was not planning to return to the participant’s campus the next week. I would not be able to follow up if exploring the topic caused the partici­pant emotional distress. One boundary I learned to observe was the one that marked where I could take effective responsibility for follow-up and where I could not.

Source: Seidman Irving (2006), Interviewing As Qualitative Research: A Guide for Researchers in Education And the Social Sciences, Teachers College Press; 3rd edition.

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