Social Group Identities and the Interviewing Relationship

Issues of equity in an interviewing relationship are affected by the social identities that participants and interviewers bring to the interview. Our social identities are affected by our experience with issues of class, race, ethnicity, and gender, and those social forces interact with the sense of power in our lives (Kanter, 1977). The interviewing relationship is fraught with issues of power—who controls the direction of the interview, who controls the results, who benefits. To negotiate these variables in de­veloping an equitable interviewing relationship, the interviewer must be acutely aware of his or her own experience with them as well as sensitive to the way these issues may be affecting the participants.

1. Race and Ethnicity

In our society, with its history of racism, researchers and participants of different racial and ethnic backgrounds face difficulties in establishing an effective interviewing relationship. It is especially complex for Whites and African Americans to interview each other, but other interracial or cross-ethnic pairings can also be problematic. (To explore this impor­tant issue more deeply, see Boushel, 2000; Dexter, 1970; Dollard, 1949; Hyman et al., 1954; Labov, 1972; Phoenix, 1994; Reese, Danielson, Shoemaker, Chang, & Hsu, 1986; Richardson et al., 1965; Song & Parker, 1995.) In addition, interviewing relationships between those of the same racial-ethnic background but of different gender, class, and age can en­gender tensions that inhibit the full development of an effective inter­viewing relationship.

That is not to say that individual interviewers and participants can­not to some extent subvert the societal context in which we do our research. Interviewers and participants of good will who are from dif­ferent racial backgrounds can create a relationship that runs counter to prevailing social currents. Maintaining sensitivity to issues that trigger distrust as well as exhibiting good manners, respect, and a genuine in­terest in the stories of others can go a long way toward bridging racial and ethnic barriers.

Such bridging attempts are methodologically important. Although the shared assumptions that come from common backgrounds may make it easier to build rapport, interviewing requires interviewers to have enough distance to enable them to ask real questions and to explore, not to share, assumptions. It would be an unfortunate methodological situa­tion if African Americans could interview only other African Americans, Latinos only other Latinos, Asian Americans only other Asian Americans, Native Americans only other Native Americans, and Whites only other Whites.

In my own experience, I have found that the three-interview struc­ture goes some way toward overcoming the initial distrust that can be present when a White person interviews an African American. The three- interview structure can mitigate tensions in other cross-racial interview­ing relationships as well. By returning to the participant three times, an interviewer has the opportunity to demonstrate respect, thoughtfulness, and interest in that individual, all of which can work toward ameliorating skepticism. Nonetheless, my experience is that racial politics can make interracial and cross-ethnic interviewing, no matter the structure of the interviews and the sensitivity of the interviewers, difficult to negotiate.

Of the 76 faculty and administrative participants we interviewed in our community college study (Seidman et al., 1983), only one terminated the interviews before the series was completed. That participant was a male, African American administrator at a community college who with­drew near the end of the first interview. At the time, he gave no reason. He just said that he wanted to stop.

I remember the feeling of disappointment as my colleague Sullivan and I left the interview. We searched our minds for what had precipitated his decision. I felt both guilty and disheartened and was on the verge of losing confidence in the interviewing methodology. Later, as I reflected further on the episode, I realized that our interview study had become caught up in the racial history and politics of our society. Perhaps instead of being a failure, our interview method had been working too well. As our participant had spoken of his life history, he had begun to deal with the way racism had played out in his life and his career. I think he found himself speaking more honestly to White interviewers than he cared to (Anderson, Silver, & Abramson, 1988; Cotter, Cohen, & Coulter, 1982). His withdrawing was a loss to us and our study.

Linda Miller Cleary met a similarly complex situation in her research on American Indian education. Cleary prepares teachers of secondary English at the University of Minnesota, Duluth. She has a significant number of students who are Ojibwe, and most will teach American Indian students. She developed a research project, initially to find out more about the experience of teachers of American Indian students to better prepare her students to do that work. In an interview with me in 1996, Cleary said that she felt “always suspect” whenever she sought ac­cess to American Indian educators. She said she sensed a distrust of her motives and intentions. After one series of interviews was completed, one participant asked her pointedly, “Why are you doing this?”

She was well into her research when, because of the suspicion she had faced in establishing access and in each initial interview, she realized that “people aren’t going to trust me as an author.” Although she felt she had been able to get beyond much of the initial distrust and gather good material in her interviews, she wanted “another perspective . . . in the process of analysis.” She came to the decision that, “I really couldn’t do it alone . . . the gap was too big” (L. M. Cleary, personal communication, August 11, 1996).

Facing the issue head on, Cleary solved it by inviting a colleague, Thomas Peacock, who holds the Endowed Chair of American Indian Education at her university, to join her in the research project. By teaming with a colleague who knew firsthand the complexities of their American Indian participants’ experience, she took a significant step to­ward strengthening the equity between researchers and participants and the authority of the research. Their collaborative work is represented in their book, Collected Wisdom: American Indian Education (Cleary & Peacock, 1997), in which they discuss not only the subject of the research but also the significant methodological issues inherent in it.

2. Gender

There is evidence that interviewers and participants of different gen­ders get different interviewing results than do those of the same gender (Hyman et al., 1954). The interviewing relationship that develops when participant and interviewer are different genders can be deeply affected by sexist attitudes and behaviors. All the problems that one can associate with sexist gender relationships can be played out in an interview. Males interviewing female participants can be overbearing. Women interview­ing men can sometimes be reluctant to control the focus of the interview. Male participants can be too easily dismissive of female interviewers. Interviewers of both genders can fail to see the possibilities of whole ar­eas of exploration if their perspectives are ideologically laden. Nor are interviews among interviewers and participants of the same gender auto­matically unproblematic. They can be imbued by the false assumption of shared perspectives or a sense of competition never stated.

In addition to affecting individual relationships between interview­ers and participants, sexism influences the total context of research. Interviewing research itself can be characterized as “soft” research—re­search not likely to yield “hard” data—and can thereby be minimized by a sexist research community (Callaway, 1981). On another level, Patai (1987) argues that if interviewers use women for their own research ends, no mat­ter how well-intentioned the research study is, the dominant paradigm of a society’s exploiting women is supported rather than challenged.

There is also the possibility of sexual exploitation in in-depth inter­viewing because of the sense of intimacy that can develop. Participants talk about the details of their lives while the interviewer listens attentively. A natural bond of fondness and respect develops as the interviewer and the participant explore the participant’s experience. Clearly, it is impor­tant for interviewers not to exploit that bond sexually.

In one study, a research assistant told me how she had become at­tracted to one of her participants as a result of interviewing. She wanted to talk about her feelings and their implications for the interview process. She knew that any connection with the participant outside the interview structure would serve only to distort the interviewing relationship. She was worried that even if she had no outside contact with the partici­pant, her fond feelings were affecting the way she asked questions. (See Hyman et al., 1954, p. 54, for another example of how the cordiality of the interviewing relationship affects the way interviewers ask questions.) It helped when I assured her that her feelings were reasonable, but I also emphasized the importance of staying focused on the purpose of the interviews.

It is possible for male and female interviewers and participants to subvert the gender-role stereotypes sexist society would have them play. Interviewers of both sexes can study transcripts of interviews they have done, reconstructing the arrangements they have made to see how they might have employed sexist assumptions in building their interviewing relationships. They can also examine those relationships by reflecting on their interviewing experience in a journal or with a peer. Most important, in the interviewing relationship itself, they can demonstrate a conscious­ness of sexism and concern for gender equity. (For further reading on the subject of gender and interviewing, see an excellent discussion in chapter 5 of Yow, 1994, and an extensive and considered discussion in Devault, 1990. See also Edwards, 1990; Herod, 1993; Riessman, 1987; Rosser, 1992; Williams & Heikes, 1993.)

3. Class, Hierarchy, and Status

When interviewer and participant eye each other through the lens of class consciousness, the stories told and the experiences shared can be distorted (Hyman et al., 1954). A lack of consciousness about class issues can be injurious to both the participant and the interviewer (Sennett & Cobb, 1972).

In a discussion of class in Marxist terms, Patai (1987) described the interviewer as a hybrid of a capitalist and a laborer who is capable of treating the words of participants as commodities to be exploited. If one understands class as a function of status, education, and wealth, inter­viewers are often middle class and university based, interviewing those who are in some way lower on a scale of status. (Dexter, 1970, runs coun­ter to that notion.)

When we did our study of community college faculty, I became con­scious of their sensitivity to the higher education totem pole. In the con­text of the university, school of education faculty rank low. Some com­munity college faculty participants, however, treated me with either an unwarranted skepticism because of my affiliation with what they per­ceived as the ivory tower, or an unearned deference because of my affili­ation with a university, in contrast to their self-description of being “just” in a community college.

Even the use of interviewing itself can be affected by class-based assumptions. For example, Richardson et al. (1965) wrote that partici­pants of low intelligence, low socio-economic status, or low status in an organized hierarchy may find it difficult to tolerate a preponderance of open questions because they are unused to talking at length spontaneously, articulately, or coherently, or because they are uncomfortable in an unstructured situation. (p. 149).

My experience has been that when participants, whatever their class background, place their work in the context of their life histories and are given the space to tell their stories, they can respond to open-ended ques­tions. On the other hand, when class, gender, or racial tension pervades the interviewing relationship, participants are likely to be tight-lipped and restricted in their responses (Labov, 1972; Patton, 1989).

Some interviewers have a wider range of class versatility than oth­ers. Given their own life histories, they are able to operate comfortably with people lower and higher in the class structure than they are. Others’ life experience has been so homogeneous that they are comfortable only when they are interviewing participants whose social-class experiences are similar to their own. They are reluctant to interview in settings in which they have little experience or classes of people with whom they have had little contact. That reluctance can sometimes result in a skewed sample of participants being interviewed and a picture of the experience being studied that is narrower than warranted.

4. Linguistic Differences

An issue embedded in many of the social relationships described above is linguistic differences between interviewers and participants. Sometimes English-speaking researchers interview participants for whom English is not the first language. If interviewers are fluent in the par­ticipants’ mother tongue and interview in that language, they will subse­quently face the complexity of translation. The issue of finding the right word in English or any other language to represent the full sense of the word the participants spoke in their native language is demanding and requires a great deal of care (Vygotsky, 1987).

Some doctoral students with whom I have worked who are fluent in the native language of their participants have experimented with inter­viewing in English and going along with their participants as they may switch back and forth between English and their mother tongue. When reporting on the interviews, especially in crucial segments, the research­ers sometimes report the language of the participants as spoken in the mother tongue to honor that language and the thought patterns inherent in it. They then provide a translation immediately following the portion spoken in the mother tongue.

What is at issue in interviewing participants whose first language is not that of the interviewer is the extent to which the language used by both the participants and the interviewer affects the progress of the interview. The thinking of both the participants and the interviewer is intertwined with the language they are using (Vygotsky, 1987). As in most issues regarding interviewing, there is not one right way to respond to these situations, ex­cept to recognize the importance of language and culture to thought. With that awareness, both interviewer and participants can experiment with ways of talking to each other that most authentically reflect their thinking. (For further reading on this subject, see Goldstein, 1995.)

5. Age

In addition to race, gender, and class, the relative ages of the partici­pant and the interviewer may affect the type of relationship that develops between them. Some older participants may feel uncomfortable being interviewed by a young interviewer, especially if they feel that the in­terviewer places them in a subordinate role (Briggs, 1986). Interviewing participants who are much younger or much older takes a special type of sensitivity on the part of the interviewer. He or she must know how to connect to children or seniors without patronizing them. When class, race, linguistic, and age differences are combined, especially in groups of school-age children, the danger that an interviewer will elicit distorted responses is high (Brenner et al., 1985). But when interviewed skillfully and with consciousness of class, race, and age, children can be thoughtful about their experience in and out of school and are capable of reflection that is informative and compelling (Labov, 1972). (For an example of ef­fective interviewing of young adults, see Cleary, 1990, 1991.)

6. Elites

Of the imbalances that can occur in the relationship between inter­viewer and participant, one of the most difficult to negotiate occurs when researchers try to use an in-depth interviewing approach with people in positions of power. Sally Lynne Conkright (1997) used the method de­scribed in this book to interview 11 chief executive officers or those on the next rung of authority in 11 significant U.S. corporations. She met the expected problems of access, which she overcame to a considerable extent. She also faced serious problems in carrying out her interview­ing plan. Executives who had agreed in advance to 90-minute interviews would develop very busy schedules. By the time she arrived for the inter­view, some could or would only give her a shorter amount of time.

On a different level, she noted that elites are often accustomed to being in charge of situations in which they find themselves. A number of her participants tried to take charge of the interviews. Sometimes, when Conkright tried to direct the interview, she noted that her participants became uncomfortable. “In some instances,” she wrote, “the signals were nonverbal in nature and, in other instances, the participants verbally ex­pressed that they would direct the interview” (pp. 274-275). She had to walk a very narrow line between asking questions in which she was in­terested and recognizing that such questions might threaten to lead to the termination of the interview.

Despite these complexities, she sustained her research and learned a great deal about both her subject and the methodology as applied to interviewing elites. Although I see in-depth interviewing as most appro­priate for getting at the details of everyday experience of those in less power-laden and status-oriented positions, still the attempt to gain the in­ner perspective of elites is worthwhile and important. (For further reading on this topic, see Dexter, 1970; Hertz & Imber, 1995.)

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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