Working with the Interview Material

Research proposals should describe how researchers intend to work with and analyze the material they gather. Describing this process ahead of time is especially difficult for those who are doing empirical research for the first time. It is difficult to project how they will work with material from interview participants if they have never done interviewing work before. In Chapter 8, I discuss working with the material. I stress the im­portance of paying attention to the words of the participant, using those words to report on the results as much as possible, and looking for both salient material within individual interviews and connections among in­terviews and participants.

The role that theory plays becomes an issue when researchers are actually trying to analyze and interpret the material they gather. Some scholars would argue that the theory used to discern and forge relation­ships among the words that participants share with interviewers must come out of those words themselves. Theory cannot and should not be imposed on the words but must emanate from them. This approach, ex­tensively discussed by Glaser and Strauss (1967), has been somewhat per­suasive in the field of qualitative research. It argues, rightly I think, espe­cially against taking theoretical frameworks developed in other contexts and force-fitting the words of the participants into the matrices developed from those theories.

On the other hand it may be naive for us to argue that researchers can be theory free. Everyone has theories. They are the explanations people develop to help them make connections among events. Theories are not the private preserve of scientists. Interviewers walk into inter­views with theories about human behavior, teaching and learning, the organization of schools, and the way societies work. Some of the theo­ries are informed and supported by others, and some are idiosyncratic. Others arise from readings interviewers have done in and about the sub­ject of their inquiry.

Some scholars argue that in qualitative research such reading should be kept to a minimum lest it contaminate the view and the understanding of the researcher (Glaser & Strauss, 1967). To a certain extent I agree with that view. It helps to interview participants about their experience if the interviewers are not weighted down with preformed ideas based on what they have gleaned from the literature.

For example, in an interview I had the pleasure of conducting with Linda Miller Cleary in 1996, she spoke to me about the interviewing work that she and her colleague Thomas Peacock were conducting on the experience of American Indian educators (Cleary & Peacock, 1997). She said that, especially when interviewing in a cross-cultural setting, she was cautious about doing too much reading ahead of time. While affirming that she had to do enough reading to be informed and thoughtful about her topic, she was concerned about taking too many stereotypes from the literature into her interviewing. She said that “because I hadn’t done a lot of reading, I could ask questions that were real questions” (L. M. Cleary, personal communication, August 11, 1996).

Interviewers must be prepared for their work and be aware of the research on which they are building (Yow, 1994, p. 33). Some researchers go further and argue that interviewers must be expert on their topics before they begin the interviews (Kvale, 1996, p. 147).

I think an intermediate position is sensible at the proposal stage. It is crucial to read enough to be thoughtful and intelligent about the context and history of the topic and to know what literature on the subject is available. It is important to conduct the interviews with that context in mind, while being genuinely open to what the participants are saying. After the interviews have been completed and researchers are starting to work intensively with the material, a return to the reading will help with the analysis and interpretation of the interview material. No prior reading is likely to match the individual stories of participants’ experience, but reading before and after the interviews can help make those stories more understandable by providing a context for them.

The range of fields and associated readings that those who do re­search in education must synthesize is daunting. Often, we fall short of the task. But for those who take the task seriously, it is first-rate intel­lectual work. This work should be affirmed, represented in the proposal, and digested before the completion of the research, but not necessarily totally before the interviewing. This is a precarious and difficult position to hold. It requires maintaining a delicate balance between the some­times competing claims of the relevant literature and the experience of the interview participants.

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

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *