The Three-Interview Series

Perhaps most distinguishing of all its features, this model of in­depth, phenomenological interviewing involves conducting a series of three separate interviews with each participant. People’s behavior becomes meaningful and understandable when placed in the context of their lives and the lives of those around them. Without context there is little possibility of exploring the meaning of an experience (Patton, 1989). Interviewers who propose to explore their topic by arranging a one-shot meeting with an “interviewee” whom they have never met tread on thin contextual ice. (See Locke, Silverman, & Spirduso, 2004, pp. 209-226, for important insights on this issue in particular and qualitative research in general from the perspective of the readers of such research. Also see Mishler, 1986.)

Dolbeare and Schuman (Schuman, 1982) designed the series of three interviews that characterizes this approach and allows the interviewer and participant to plumb the experience and to place it in context. The first interview establishes the context of the participants’ experience. The second allows participants to reconstruct the details of their experience within the context in which it occurs. And the third encourages the par­ticipants to reflect on the meaning their experience holds for them.

1. Interview One: Focused Life History

In the first interview, the interviewer’s task is to put the participant’s experience in context by asking him or her to tell as much as possible about him or herself in light of the topic up to the present time. In our study of the experience of student teachers and mentors in a professional development school in East Longmeadow, Massachusetts (O’Donnell et al., 1989), we asked our participants to tell us about their past lives, up until the time they became student teachers or mentors, going as far back as possible within 90 minutes.

We ask them to reconstruct their early experiences in their families, in school, with friends, in their neighborhood, and at work. Because the topic of this interview study is their experience as student teachers or as men­tors, we focus on the participants’ past experience in school and in any situations such as camp counseling, tutoring, or coaching they might have done before coming to the professional development school program.

In asking them to put their student teaching or mentoring in the con­text of their life history, we avoid asking, “Why did you become a student teacher (or mentor) ?” Instead, we ask how they came to be participating in the program. By asking “how?” we hope to have them reconstruct and narrate a range of constitutive events in their past family, school, and work experience that place their participation in the professional devel­opment school program in the context of their lives. (See Gergen, 2001, for an introduction to the power of narratives for self-definition.)

2. Interview Two: The Details of Experience

The purpose of the second interview is to concentrate on the con­crete details of the participants’ present lived experience in the topic area of the study. We ask them to reconstruct these details. In our study of student teachers and mentors in a clinical site, for example, we ask them what they actually do on the job. We do not ask for opinions but rather the details of their experience, upon which their opinions may be built. According to Freeman Dyson (2004), a famous mathematician named Littlewood, who was Dyson’s teacher at the University of Cambridge, estimated that during the time we are awake and actually engaged in our lives, we see and hear things at about a rate of one per second. So in an 8-hour day, we are involved in perhaps 30,000 events. In this second interview, then, our task is to strive, however incompletely, to reconstruct the myriad details of our participants’ experiences in the area we are studying.

In order to put their experience within the context of the social set­ting, we ask the student teachers, for example, to talk about their relation­ships with their students, their mentors, the other faculty in the school, the administrators, the parents, and the wider community. In this second interview, we might ask them to reconstruct a day in their student teach­ing from the moment they woke up to the time they fell asleep. We ask for stories about their experience in school as a way of eliciting details.

3. Interview Three: Reflection on the Meaning

In the third interview, we ask participants to reflect on the meaning of their experience. The question of “meaning” is not one of satisfac­tion or reward, although such issues may play a part in the participants’ thinking. Rather, it addresses the intellectual and emotional connections between the participants’ work and life. The question might be phrased, “Given what you have said about your life before you became a mentor teacher and given what you have said about your work now, how do you understand mentoring in your life? What sense does it make to you?” This question may take a future orientation; for example, “Given what you have reconstructed in these interviews, where do you see yourself going in the future?”

Making sense or making meaning requires that the participants look at how the factors in their lives interacted to bring them to their pres­ent situation. It also requires that they look at their present experience in detail and within the context in which it occurs. The combination of exploring the past to clarify the events that led participants to where they are now, and describing the concrete details of their present experience, establishes conditions for reflecting upon what they are now doing in their lives. The third interview can be productive only if the foundation for it has been established in the first two.

Even though it is in the third interview that we focus on the par­ticipants’ understanding of their experience, through all three interviews participants are making meaning. The very process of putting experience into language is a meaning-making process (Vygotsky, 1987). When we ask participants to reconstruct details of their experience, they are select­ing events from their past and in so doing imparting meaning to them. When we ask participants to tell stories of their experience, they frame some aspect of it with a beginning, a middle, and an end and thereby make it meaningful, whether it is in interview one, two, or three. But in interview three, we focus on that question in the context of the two previous interviews and make that meaning making the center of our attention.

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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