Whilst discussing the process of interviewing research participants with a colleague, I was asked whether presenting themself as a researcher rather than a medical doctor would help them get more ‘honest’ answers. Thinking about such things is important for research, though it is, to some extent, insoluble. The interviewer will have an impact on the interviewee – how could they not?
Furthermore, a person may have reasons to hide the less-than-savoury aspects of themself or a group they feel loyal to; ‘spin the truth’; or simply not want to present themselves in a vulnerable or unflattering way. Is all we really learn from interviews what people feel comfortable disclosing about themselves? Can we trust interview responses when the interviewer, and even the room, can have such an impact?
Alvesson (2011) has considered these questions and reflected extensively on the nature of interviewing, in his book ‘Interpreting Interviews’ . Though, rather than throwing the baby out with the bathwater, he offers a solution – consider whether the following aspects can affect the answers given by your interviewees, and to what extent, given what you’re asking.
The local context
People give different responses when interviewed in their office or at home; or whether they see you as an academic, a woman, their junior etc.
Framing the situation
The interviewee’s assumptions of what you as a researcher would find useful and interesting.
I.e. how we have a “valued, coherent image” (p.86) of ourselves, and what we say to others will reflect this.
Every language has pre-packed metaphors, conventions and genres that we draw on. These help us understand each other, but when used, tend to reduce variation and complexity in responses given.
Our desire to want others to see us in particular ways.
Awareness that what you say could have later (unintended) consequences for you (or any group that you feel part of).
Our choice of words ‘crafts’ a “specific version” of the world (p.96) and we have different skills in doing this – i.e. is the interviewee being sincere or simply a ‘smooth talker’?
A discourse is “a system of thought carried by a specific language and anchored in social practice. It frames and forms individuals.” (p.98), as well as whether we ‘see’ things as ‘problems’, ‘injustices’, ‘natural’ and so on. However, there are only so many of these in our language for us to draw on…
Of course Alvesson (2011) goes into these in much further depth in his book, but he is not providing a ‘prescription’ for how to undertake interviews, but “to inspire more sophisticated thinking” (p.102) about what can be known from interviews. And that can surely only be a good thing for research, right?
 Alvesson, M. (2011) Interpreting interviews. London: Sage Publications.