Research participants used to be referred to as ‘subjects’, especially in my home discipline, psychology. ‘Participant’, the term now generally used, emphasises the rights of the person recruited, and their centrality to the research process. It signals the researcher’s intention to take an appropriate ethical position. However another implication, less often recognised, is that ‘participating’ in research is an active engagement. Are we paying sufficient attention to this?
At the start of a project, potential participants are generally given a bland and partial description of the proposed research. They may ask questions, including quite challenging ones ('What practical change will this produce?', 'Will I be paid?') but these are seldom acknowledged in the standard Methods section of a paper or article. Instead, accounts of participant recruitment and obtaining informed consent are recited as if these are smooth, even mechanical procedures, within the researcher's control. Similarly, discussions of interview data tend to imply that talk flows in response to questions, as if participants were a resource to be tapped or mined. This misrepresents the nature of their involvement.
The participant's engagement in an interview will be shaped by the multiple known situations it evokes, such as job recruitment, medical consultations or market surveys. Each sets up different expectations about the amount of talking involved, the obligation to provide answers, the degree of distance or informality. A minimally briefed participant may be confused about the appropriate style for the research interview, or even its purpose. They may assume that the researcher is a potential provider of practical assistance, or (especially in psychology research) a counsellor. The interview situation can be further complicated by the participant's previous experience of interviews in certain institutional contexts. For instance, it is standard ethical practice in research to explain that there is an option not to answer questions, yet that 'permission' may not be ‘heard’ by the participant.
An interviewee, like an interviewer, is always doing more than one thing – simultaneously acting and reacting, agreeing and distancing, self-monitoring and editing. Their engagement will involve a personal reaction to the interviewer. This is sometimes acknowledged in general terms in research texts, for instance, as an issue of sameness or difference in standard categories like gender, race/ethnicity, age or class. However, there will always be additional responses, including amusement, irritation, umbrage, and boredom. As researchers, we may be interested in affect as a concept but do we consider how it plays out in an interview situation?
Analyses of interview data tend to treat talk as an original, individual, and personal output, discounting how much of it is borrowed and rehearsed (Taylor 2012), and also how it is shaped by social norms. In today's social media culture, people might seem less inhibited, more ready to reveal personal information, yet certain barriers remain (for instance, the near-total UK ‘prohibition' on discussing personal finances). It can also be argued that a readiness to post or tweet mostly trivial details amounts to a different contemporary performative style, rather than greater self-disclosure.
Of course, some research attempts to capture the talk rather than the participant, as in narrative and discursive analyses of the meanings, resources (discourses, narratives, repertoires), and language practices in play in a social and communicative context. Yet even in these approaches, there has been a tendency to reinstate the subject, for instance in psychosocial research that adopts the focus and authority of a psychotherapist (see Taylor 2015). This raises ethical issues because in a therapeutic encounter the question or problem comes from the client, while in research it comes from the researcher (Frosh and Baraitser 2008). In other words, the participant has not been recruited as a therapy client and almost certainly does not expect to be the focus of the research in that way.
Can all of these points be acknowledged in the analysis of interview data? Yes and no. There are probably too many issues at play in interviews to be able to approach them as specific foci in the writing up of research. However, what can be acknowledged is that, in addressing the question 'How do we know?', we need to be cautious about the claims we can make on the basis of an interview. Like any other research encounter, it is shaped by all parties, including an actively engaged participant rather than a passively present subject.
Stephanie Taylor is a Senior Lecturer in Social Psychology at The Open University.