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4 Reflexivity, trust and voice


Research fieldwork requires careful preparation and negotiation with participants and any other relevant stakeholders. Being embedded in the field – in the everyday of the research context – is often described as desirable, particularly for ethnographic fieldwork, but this does not begin to describe the nuances and possibilities of what can happen during the research process (Butcher, 2013). Understanding the positionalities and relationalities of different social actors in the field, including of the researcher(s), can help to generate shared understandings with participants about what the research will achieve both for the researcher and for the participants. This section introduces concepts and practices that can assist in understanding how to:

  • gain access to the field
  • build trust with participants
  • enable participant voices to be heard and brought to the fore in research.

Access to the field in a research project requires careful consideration prior to entering the research setting. Beyond the practicalities of meeting participants or negotiating and agreeing access, the researcher should consider the positionalities, relationalities, reflexivities and intersubjectivities of participants and themselves, which are discussed below. A substantial body of research in management and organisation studies has developed a comprehensive understanding of how researchers can relate to and interact with participants in respectful and participatory ways, and how that can positively influence the research process. By understanding these concepts and embodying the values they promote, empowering methodology is more likely to succeed in meeting both their needs and those of participants (Manning, 2018). This is particularly significant for researchers working in unfamiliar contexts such as with marginalised indigenous communities in the global south, where historical relations, cultural practices and linguistic differences can influence how much access a researcher may gain (Butcher et al., 2015; Manning, 2018).

Cunliffe defines reflexivity as ‘questioning what we, and others, might be taking for granted – what is being said and not said – and examining the impact this has or might have’ (2016: 741). It requires researchers to challenge their assumptions, decisions, actions and interactions (Cunliffe, 2016). Manning (2018) continually questions her positionality – as a Western researcher and her relationships with participants – as being central to developing a decolonial feminist ethnographic methodology working with marginalised indigenous women in the global south. This requires an understanding of Self and Other where the researcher sees themselves as the Other, rather than participants (Butcher, 2013; Manning, 2018). This appreciation of the researcher as out of place is highly self-reflexive and positions them as learning from participants as they introduce aspects of their everyday lives to them. It reverses the conventional power dynamic between the researcher as knowing and the researched as known (Butcher, 2013), and provides an ethical position from which the researcher can build trust and enable participants to be understood as empowered without this being ‘given’ to them, which is an inherently power-laden gesture. This is illustrated by the following story from the field, which is discussed later.

Watch the following slideshow, which shows a ritual in which local officials, farmers and visitors in the Navdanya community planted nine varieties of seeds in the community garden to acknowledge Earth Day, researched by Avilasa Sengupta, a researcher on the project team. Use the arrows to scroll through the pictures.

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Through this sharing practice, visitors learn from the farmers about the importance of connection to the land, and by participating, they engender the community’s trust in them. It is an example of the intersubjective nature of developing cross-cultural understandings. By thinking and acting intersubjectively, researchers can see beyond considering participants as research subjects, and see themselves also as participants. Management and organisational research is relational, so qualitative researchers cannot separate themselves from the participants (Cunliffe, 2016). For a researcher to participate in the everyday of the field is a process of reflexivity that involves learning from other participants, being always mindful of their own positionality (Manning, 2018).

By acting in such self-reflexive ways, researchers can embed themselves in everyday routines and gain a mutual sense of belonging. This builds trust between the researcher and other participants, which could enable greater access to knowledge and deeper understandings of how participants make sense of their lives. Hence, through building trust and gaining greater access, the self-reflexive participant-researcher is arguably more likely to collect sufficient data to later produce findings that support their claims of understanding participants’ truths about their lives. The warrantability and reliability of a qualitative researcher’s claims are derived from their truthfulness, or verisimilitude (Butcher, 2013). By remaining true to oneself and other participants, the research can gain the depth of access to make truthful and trustworthy claims in research outputs.

Nevertheless, as discussed in Section 3, the notion of telling other peoples’ stories is problematic because it repositions the researcher as ‘knowing’ participants: the choice of whose voices should be heard, and how they are brought to the fore of research outputs, are critical considerations. Manning discusses providing ‘space for marginalised Maya women to voice their own understanding of their gender, identity and work from within the context of their social, cultural and historical location’ (2018: 312). Through self-reflexive questioning of her own positionality, Manning sought not to legitimise her own voice over that of other participants by maintaining the contextual space familiar to the Maya women; hence their agency and voice came to the fore (2018). Any presumption that researchers should or could ‘give voice’ to participants is flawed, but making space in which participants make their voices heard is an empowering approach. This reasserts the notion of the researcher as learner, and implies a need to listen – not in order to deliver solutions to participants, but to raise awareness of their struggles. ‘Being reflexive doesn’t give us definitive answers to problems but highlights the need to engage in critical questioning and deeper debate around taken-for-granted issues that have potential moral and ethical implications’ (Cunliffe, 2016: 745).

Access, trust and emergent fieldwork

Gaining research access to specific communities and contexts is rarely straightforward, and things don’t always go to plan. Just because a researcher identifies a need to study a particular social and/or cultural phenomenon, doesn’t necessarily mean that it can be researched. Here, Tim will begin by introducing researchers’ dilemmas of gaining access to (and the trust of) social groups as a key determinant of research success. He will then go on to discuss practical (yet often taken for granted) ways in which researchers can build trustworthiness and nurture lasting relationships with participants, which can enable research fieldwork to flourish – often extending studies beyond researchers’ original aims. Tim will illustrate the discussion with examples from his own research.

Activity: Film Focus 7, ‘Access, trust and emergent fieldwork’ – Tim Butcher

Watch the film and make your own notes in response to the following questions:

  • How would you talk to your research participants about yourself? How would you convey the authenticity and truthfulness of your intentions as a researcher?
  • How would you explain your research, so it is better understood by your research participants? Write a short statement.
  • What roles have you played within the communities or organisations you have previously researched? Do you think you could have played a more active role? If not, why?
  • What kinds of activities might not be appropriate (for you and others) in the research settings you have experienced? Why?
Download this video clip.Video player: 04-250627-28-access-trust-and-emergent-fieldwork.mp4
Skip transcript


I’m Tim Butcher. I work for The Open University in the UK.

In this film, we’ll be talking about access, trust and emergent fieldwork. It’s really important to understand how you enter the field and thus how you gain access and how you build trust within the community.

So those initial moments, those introductions, are really, really important. They set the tone, if you like, for the rest of the research. In my own PhD research, for example, in a factory in Bristol in the UK, I was introduced by an intermediary local manager who didn’t really know me but I’d been introduced to, who then introduced me to workers on the shop floor. And I would spend I spent the next twelve months working there alongside those workers.

And the things that I talked about in those initial stages were really trying to help them to understand my own warrantability. So how authentic, how truthful was I being about who I am, who I think I am, my relationship with them, and also what I wanted to achieve in terms of the research. And that really, as I say, set the scene.

So it’s really important to explain your research in appropriate ways, ways that other participants understand. That enables you to gain access and start to build a sense of trust. It’s also then important to listen, to listen to the ideas and feedback that you get from people as you talk through why you’re there, what it is you want to achieve, to understand what other participants want to achieve, to maybe get some instructions from them about specific things they might want you to look at, things that they don’t want you to be involved in, and so on, and also trying to understand how the research that as you envisage it might meet the needs of the broader community, how that might enable the community to share their stories more widely for whatever purpose.

And so as researchers, we often have a series of dilemmas as we access the field, as we try to gain access, as we start to try to build trust. We have to ask ourselves, how much do we already think we know about what’s going on in the fields? How much desk research have we done prior to going into the field? And was that really relevant?

Asking ourselves, how long should the study be, for example? How often you come and go from the community? For me in different projects, the studies have been at different lengths. I’ve spent different amounts of times in communities.

So these are important considerations for you as a researcher because, obviously, you need to interweave it with your own life as well beyond the research but also fit in with the lives of other participants. There might be times or things when it’s not appropriate for you to be around.

Other more specific things how much time to spend with particular participants. You might find that you collaborate very closely with some people more than others. But then asking yourself, how much time do you spend with them in particular as opposed to others?

But also, where do you spend that time with them? Do you have a conversation over coffee every morning, perhaps, or in other spaces in other ways? And just what’s going on in those exchanges?

So these are some of the dilemmas that you might ask yourself, OK, well, do I need to get anymore out of that? Should I be doing less of it? Is there something more I could be doing to enable that to flourish? Or should I be pulling back a little bit?

You might ask yourself what sorts of things you might get involved in. I myself in my study with the people of Papunya watching the football matches from the sidelines and wondering whether I should take my boots and strap them on and try and get a game myself. Should I be plating the game, and would I be any good? But with that then give me a greater sense of what it feels like to play the sport there, then, in that moment? Would it add anything to the research?

And what other things might you look out for? What other sort of roles might you play in the community? So when you’re working with other participants, are you just there as a researcher? Are there things that you could help out with, and should you? These are all things that we have to ask ourselves.

I know in my own research, for example, in the football project, so there’s a very real need beyond the research for funding for the sporting league. There’s always a need to develop that further. And so what role can I play as someone to share people’s stories, to share the photographs, to maybe raise awareness about the needs of the community? And that extends far beyond the research.

But that becomes a choice that I’ve made. It’s a choice that you need to make yourself about just how embedded do you become. How interwoven should you be? How long should you spend there? How much do you come and go? Several things to think about.

There are also things that we take for granted in everyday life that we take into the field with us as researchers, simple things like arranging meetings. So maybe back at the university, we have a regular schedule of meetings. Or we send someone a calendar invitation electronically, and they accept it. And then the meeting occurs. I often do that but might be five minutes late.

But in the field, things might not work out that way. There might be other things getting in the way, for example. I’ve had meetings that have been delayed by days and weeks even because of circumstances, things that occur that no one was expecting. And so I’ve often had to be quite patient.

Or we’ve convened meetings in places that we found weren’t necessarily ideal. But it was an opportunity to come together to talk about something. So petrol stations have been places where I’ve had meetings because I’m working in a place where there are huge distances between towns and communities. And so petrol stations actually became meeting points because it’s where you refuel between those very distant places.

Again, moving on to space, so the space of the petrol station in my experience, understanding where to meet, how to meet, what to do in those spaces, understanding the sorts of spaces you may or may not be welcome in. In my research as an organisational ethnographer, I rarely go into other people’s homes.

I tend to be researching or meeting people or hanging out with people even in spaces that are organised. So, for example, the organised sport. And there’ll be spaces, of course, that we’re not invited into. So we need to respect that. We need to know our place in the field and know the place of others and respect that too.

We need to ask ourselves things like, what is the truth? Are we being told the truth by participants? What are their truths, and what are our own? I spoke about this in a previous film.

We just take for granted some of these things in everyday life. The way I see the world might not necessarily be the way that other people see the world. And so, as researchers, we need to really try to get our heads around these dilemmas, the things we take for granted.

And I think the final point that I want to raise in regard to taking things for granted is situations if they don’t quite feel right. The body knows. We feel it in our gut if something doesn’t feel quite right. And so we can maybe say, well, I don’t want to go into that at this moment in time. Now, I might want to vocalise that, or I might not. Might want to keep it to ourselves.

Likewise, if there’s something unexpected happening and it entices you, you get drawn into it, and you’re feeling really good about it, then why not let it go with it? Let it take you further in because it may open up further opportunities to not necessarily just capture data, but to experience more as the researcher to really try to unlock some of the mysteries of the research.

So what if a particular situation in your research just doesn’t feel right? You’re in the field. You find yourself somewhere doing something. And it just doesn’t quite feel right to you.

I’ve had these experiences, and they’ve taken many forms. It sometimes might be related to your own personal security or the security of someone else. Or maybe you’re observing something happening that makes you feel very uncomfortable perhaps because of different cultural practices, different cultural values, or just something might be very, very risky.

Playing Australian rules football is quite a risky sport. It’s a fast-paced game, and so on. So my idea of should I go and play well, I’m much older than the players. And so me going out to play on the field with them, I’d be putting a lot at risk. I don’t think that my body would stand up to it.

So perhaps what’s holding me back in that is my body itself. My body’s sending me a message – perhaps that’s something you shouldn’t be doing. Perhaps there are other ways you can try to gain a different understanding or perhaps an even better understanding by taking a different perspective.

But then there could be some even more, if you like, risky situations that you might find yourself in. So the best advice I can offer you is that you are part of a community of practice that if you’re not sure about something, if you have the time to stop and think and reflect, to check in with your fellow researchers back at your university or wherever, to check with other participants, to check with senior people that you’re working with and sort of ask, is it OK to do this? Should I be doing this? What could I be doing differently? So always making sure that you’re comfortable in the research that you do.

You must be asking yourself practically, what can you do to build trust, to nurture relationships so that you get the most out of the research experience and so do your participants? Well, perhaps I could share some thoughts or some reflections from my own experiences over the last twenty years or so as an ethnographer, as a researcher.

I suppose the most important thing I’ve learned is to listen, to listen to participants. What do I mean by that? Well, my first experience of going and visiting Papunya before the fieldwork ever started, I went and I listened. I hardly said anything over two days. I introduced myself very briefly on a couple of occasions, but that was it.

And why was that? Well, understanding that, at that time, I was very much an outsider but also understanding the cultural practices and values within the community itself that the people who speak are the elders. Everybody else listens in public forums. And so it wasn’t right for me to speak up. It wasn’t right for me to ask questions.

So I’m sure as a researcher going into the field for the first time, you’re full of questions. You want to absorb things straight away. But perhaps the best thing you can do is to sit back and listen. Even through that research project, I’ll sit with my camera in the cafe and have a latte with elders and show them photographs. And it’s really great to just listen to their responses.

So where I’m seeing football players on a field, they’re looking at the landscape behind. And they’re telling me things. They’re showing me things that I’ve not seen myself. And so simply by listening, I can pick up so much more than by asking lots of questions because I might not know the right questions to ask.

It’s also important to show participants that you’re listening to them as well. So, yeah, when I’m sitting there with my camera and a latte and we’re talking through the photographs, it’s really important to then respond to what participants are telling me and to ask them a little bit more about what they mean, to laugh along with their jokes, to maybe have a little bit of a joke yourself. Build that rapport.

I think the other thing building on that point would be about checking your own interpretations. If you’re not sure, ask. And then listen. And that’s a form of reciprocity in and of itself. But there are all sorts of forms of reciprocity.

Generally, anthropologists have written a lot about reciprocity. It all sort of stemmed from the idea of gift giving, so going and visiting a community and offering gifts in exchange for the research data. But it’s more than just gifts. You can bring so much more.

I’ve talked before about perhaps you might have skills or talents that you could bring. You might have connections you could offer. Who knows? But there could be ways that you can build trust and reciprocity between yourself and other participants that you’d not even thought of that they might think of.

So, again, listen out for it. What can you do in exchange for the wonderful gifts that they’re offering you in terms of their knowledge, their understandings, their stories, and so on?

And I think, finally, what I’ve learned is just be yourself. Be honest with participants and truthful to yourself. Be who you are. You don’t have to become something else to be a researcher.

As a researcher, be yourself. And then other people will learn to trust you. Your relationships will grow. And you’ll gain comfort in each other’s presence so that then the research flows.

You’re probably thinking, well, there are competing demands here. There’s the need to get into the project, to do the research, to get the data, to get out the other side and get it published, and then perhaps move on to the other project.

Everything I’ve been talking about takes time, takes effort. It takes energy. It takes care. And so that’s a huge dilemma for you as a researcher. It’s dilemma for me. But I found ways to really try to reconcile that for myself.

And so for me, it’s more than just research. It may not necessarily be for you. But some things that you might want to consider before going into the field is to think about how this research might grow beyond its original aims.

I think it’s important to know the difference between what the project is and what the research is. For me, the project is a big box. And within that is a smaller box of the research.

So at Papunya with the sports, the big project is the communities coming together in meaningful ways to participate in sport and with a longer term aim to build that into a football league. And that has cultural value to it. It has social value to it.

My research within that is to tell a particular story from a particular time to show the world what’s going on here and why it’s meaningful. And so I’m able to separate out the research from the project to take the what’s needed, to publish from it, to share the story, but then also to stay in contact with the community to help it through its longer journey, its broader journey.

You might ask yourself, OK, so if there’s a difference between the research and the project, how do you see yourself beyond being a researcher? I talked about different roles and different identities. What other skills can you offer that extend beyond the research? You might think like I do about ways of supporting the participants that you work with, the communities, what sort of advocacy you might provide, how you might help raise awareness of the issues that they face, the phenomenons in their life.

And this question of what happens when the research is over? Do you just move on to the next project and lose contact? Or out of a sense of duty of care and just being a human being, do you want to keep in touch? And how do you want to keep in touch? And why do you want to keep in touch? Why would others want you to keep in touch?

So these are all things to think about as your research evolves and develops, as things emerge, as things change. You yourself as a researcher, you’ll change and transform throughout the process. It is a process. You’ll be learning along the way, just as I have, just as I continue to.

For me, it’s incredibly rewarding. As I said before, I see this as far more than just work. This is a vocation for me it. It’s part of who I am, a big part of who I am. And so I just hope that by sharing some of these hints and tips with you, some of this practical advice, that you can take this into your own practice and develop your own way of being as a researcher.

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Voice and reflexivity in research interviewing

Empowering research is understood as a way of working collaboratively with research participants on topics and issues of relevance and importance to them, empowering them to use their voice through research participation. Here, Emma will discuss the meaning of voice and the importance of critical reflexivity in research interviewing. By introducing the feminist critique of traditional interviewing, she will share some alternative ways of thinking about research interviewing as empathetic and dialogical.

Activity: Film Focus 8, ‘Voice and reflexivity in research interviewing’ – Emma Bell

Watch the film and make your own notes in response to the following questions:

  • Do you have experience with traditional interviewing? If so, how do you identify with the issues mentioned in the film?
  • What actions could be taken to redress the imbalance of power in a research interview?
  • What would you do if an interviewee asked you a question?
  • Do you think that a personal, emotional connection between an interviewer and interviewee is a hindrance or a necessity?
Download this video clip.Video player: 04-250629-30-31-voice-and-self-reflexivity-in-research-interviewing.mp4
Skip transcript


I’m Emma Bell and I work at The Open University in the UK. This talk is about voice and self-reflexivity in research interviewing. I want to start by talking about the meaning of voice. Next, I’ll talk about the purpose of research interviews and the feminist critique of traditional interviewing. Following on from this, I’ll consider the importance of reflexivity. Moving on, I’ll consider alternative ways of thinking about research interviewing as unstructured, empathetic, and dialogic. And finally, I want to talk about the problems of privileging voice.

There’s a lot written in management research about reflexivity but much less about voice. So what does it mean for research participants to have and to use their voice? We have to start by acknowledging that the main voices to be heard in our society are white, male and Western. And this has led to a silencing of other voices, those of women, people of colour and people of the global south.

What this means is that these others are treated as objects to be commentated upon by those privileged voices. Rather than giving those others voice, what this involves is making spaces for those marginalised, oppressed and exploited to use their voice, letting them speak, and listening to what they say. So giving voice is about disrupting those established power relations that privilege certain voices and silence others. It’s also about treating participants as competent narrators of their own situation rather than cultural dopes.

It’s about giving them space to tell their own story. One way in which researchers seek to do this is by quoting the words of participants in their published work. This brings us on to the purpose of the research interview, which is an opportunity to enable research participants to tell their own story. When we talk about a research interview, we’re referring to a question and answer-based conversation either between two people or with a group. And this can take place face-to-face or online.

So what’s the purpose of a research interview? I think it’s to find out about the lives of others. We can learn a lot about how to interview from the practice of novelists and journalists. This includes Studs Terkel, whose 1975 book Working I’m going to read from now.

‘For the many, there is a hardly concealed discontent. The blue collar blues is no more bitterly sung than the white collar moan. “I’m the machine,” says the spot welder. “I’m caged,” says the bank teller and echoes the hotel clerk. “I’m a mule,” says the steel worker. “A monkey can do what I do,” says the receptionist. “I’m less than a farm implement,” says the migrant worker. “I’m an object,” says the fashion model.

Blue collar and white call upon the identical phrase: “I’m a robot.” “There’s nothing to talk about,” the young accountant despairingly enunciates. It was some time ago that John Henry sang, “A man ain’t nothing but a man.” The hard, unromantic fact is he died with a hammer in his hand while the machine pumped on. Nonetheless, he found immortality. He is remembered.’

So the purpose of a research interview is to provide an account of a person’s story, their existence, their survival, their triumphs and their tragedies. It is, as Terkel tells us, a way of remembering. But what traditional approaches to research interviewing often neglect is consideration of the political and culturally embedded nature of the process.

Interviewing is inextricably and unavoidably historically, politically and contextually bound as Fontana and Frey tell us. The purpose, then, in empowering research is to create a narrative that empowers those who are marginalised, oppressed or exploited. In order to do this, we have to problematise some of the assumptions about the right way of interviewing.

So much of the textbook advice will focus on the ways in which the researcher, the interviewer, seeks to minimise their effects on the process of interviewing. It positions the practice as one way, an extraction of views, stories and information from the interviewee. This is done through questions, questions that are open-ended, questions that are not leading.

But the process of interviewing is not like squeezing the juice out of an orange. So in traditional research interviewing, the interviewer is told not to share their views, their feelings or their opinions for fear of creating reactive effects where the data and the validity of the research is compromised through the introduction of another element, something that the researcher has created. The feminist critique of traditional interviewing, however, problematises these very hierarchical power relations. Feminists argue that it is not morally right for the researcher to offer nothing in return in terms of themselves in these encounters.

Power is also exercised by the interviewer in the way that they control the process, determining what is discussed, the order of the questions, and guiding the interviewee onto topics of conversation. So a simple question for you might be to think about what you would do in an interview if the interviewee asked you a question. So what this highlights is the inequality of traditional interviewing.

And for feminists, the argument that they make is that this is a moral issue, a moral problem, that it is not right in these encounters for one party to benefit and the other to give, that there needs to be some sort of exchange, some sort of balance. And this is a very interpersonal human exchange, one that we can all recognise through our relationships with others. This is something that we would normally do. If somebody asked us a question, we would answer it. So to suspend those normal practices for the purposes of collecting data, feminists would argue, is fundamentally wrong.

This brings us on to think about the importance of critical reflexivity. So what we learn from the feminist critique of traditional interviewing is the moral aspect of the exchange. But what we also learn from this critique is that the interview is not a neutral tool. Instead, it’s laden with power.

A further issue to take into account concerns reactive effects. The idea of minimising and seeking to eliminate the impact of the researcher on the research setting is informed by a positivist logic of inquiry, one which seeks to eliminate bias and maintain scientific neutrality. However, if we take an interpretive perspective and we assume that reality is socially constructed, it’s inevitable and necessary that any encounter changes the knowledge that is produced, the knowledge that adheres to the situation.

So it’s impossible, then, for the researcher, the interviewer to be a fly on the wall. It’s impossible for them to collect data to conduct an interview without actually affecting the situation. Once we understand this, we can think differently about the interview as a process of co-constructing knowledge.

In the process, we not only get to know others, but we also get to know ourselves. So what critical reflexivity encourages is a getting to know oneself, a questioning of your beliefs, your values, your assumptions, your practices, and the effects that these have on others. This is a process of thinking critically about the way in which how we see ourselves affects how we see the world.

It involves thinking about what is taken for granted in a situation, what is not said, as well as what is said. Reflexivity is also informed by intersubjectivity as the idea that who we are is always experienced relationally through our relationships with others. We are never separate, then, from others. Who and how we are is always experienced relationally through our encounters with other people.

Finally, and importantly, Ann Cunliffe talks about critical reflexivity as a moral endeavour. It brings moral responsibilities, including to treat others as irreplaceable rather than as means to an end. One way in which critical reflexivity and self-reflexivity can be practised in research is through keeping a diary, keeping a record of your feelings and observations and encounters. And this is not something peripheral to the research but an integral part of it, something that might form the basis for your written published work.

So, so far, we’ve talked about self-reflexivity as the practice of focusing on our own assumptions, values, beliefs and practices, and how they affect our relationship to others. I want to move on now to think about some alternatives to the traditional practise of research interviewing and to think about unstructured, empathetic and dialogic approaches to interviewing as ways of doing research differently. So sometimes when I talk about interviewing to groups of research students, I use a transcript from an interview that I’ve conducted.

And what sometimes emerges from the discussion is observations around the unstructured nature of the exchange. So students will sometimes be concerned that there is a lack of structure or that the approach of the exchange involves me sharing some information about myself or some viewpoints that I hold. When I interview, I do work with some questions. I have those questions in mind. But I don’t use them to guide the interview in a structured way.

Hence, the approach is unstructured. And this is part of the craft of research interviewing. It’s about learning how to allow the conversation to unfold naturalistically and to be very much guided by the interviewee rather than to impose that structure upon them.

This non-directive style of interviewing emphasises the importance of listening, of leaving spaces for the person to fill. Different researchers use different labels for this approach. Fontana and Frey talk about empathetic interviewing, which conjures up a notion of what you’re trying to achieve. You’re trying to create a connection and interpersonal relation of feeling between two people.

Amy Way and her colleagues talk about dialogic interviewing. And they argue that this enables transformation. So rather than trying to remove any effect on the data, the interview is seen as a transformative experience for both the interviewer and the interviewee. This is something that changes them both. So through the process of interviewing, sometimes a research participant can come to know themselves differently by talking about their experiences and sharing those experiences with another person.

So this is an experience that has happened to me at various points in my research. It’s not that unusual at the end of an interview for a research participant to stand up and conclude the process by saying, ‘That was really interesting – it helped me to think about what I do and who I am.’

And so this is the kind of reflexivity that the process of unstructured dialogical interviewing can encourage. And it’s through practices such as mirroring where you reflect back to a participant something that they have said that enables them to reconsider their accounts of themselves in relation to others. And this can be a productive thing in terms of their understanding as well as yours.

So what these alternative approaches to interviewing have in common is that they draw attention to the co-creation or process of making knowledge through the interview process. In the final section of this talk, I want to think about the way in which we tend to privilege the research interview as a way of producing knowledge. So in management research, interviewing is seen as an essential staple in the qualitative research toolkit. It’s one of the most commonly used research methods. And this is something that is quite widespread across the social sciences as well.

So back in the 1990s, Atkinson and Silverman wrote a paper where they talked about the interview society, focusing on the US in particular, and commentating on the prevalence of the interview as a way of producing knowledge. And this is not just in research. So in politics, in popular culture, the idea of the chat show is all about taking people’s accounts of who they are and listening to those accounts and using them to understand the world.

What Atkinson and Silverman argue, however, is that this has become a almost obsession in Western society where we take what people say as unmediated truth. This also has implications for our role as researchers. If the role of the researcher is to give voice through interview accounts, then there is a tendency to present those accounts as an aspect of truth.

But what happens if the researcher doesn’t interpret the situation in the same way as the research participant in their interview account? Well, one thing to bear in mind is that the status of an interview is relational. It is contextual. There is a need to think about how it connects to other representations, including other interviews and other ways of collecting data, for example, as part of a case study or an ethnographic study.

There is also a need to take into account power relations in the social setting where the interview takes place. This is illustrated by Arendell, in her study of fathers with children. Arendell’s study involved interviewing men in their homes and asking them about their experiences of fatherhood and their relationships with their divorced partners who were the mothers of the children. And through the process of interviewing these men, she found that many of them came to talk to her as a confidante, telling her things about their experiences and their relationships with their wives that were often very critical of the mothers. They disclosed their feelings and views to Arendell precisely because she was a woman because they perceived that it was more appropriate to share those emotions with a woman than it would have been if she was a man conducting the study.

Arendell did not voluntarily tell the fathers that she was a feminist. In the paper, Arendell questions herself reflexively by asking whether this meant that she was actually supporting the men through this practice of listening to them. However, she argues that the men wouldn’t have shared their stories with her had they known that she was a feminist. So you can see here the complexity of the exchange that takes place and the judgments that researchers sometimes make in a context of power relations when they are conducting an interview.

So bringing this discussion back to management research, management researchers often find themselves in interview situations where they are interviewing powerful people, managers, leaders in organisations, for example. And in such situations, there are a lot of judgments that come into play in terms of thinking about how much exchange and how much sharing takes place in similar ways to those experienced by Arendell in her study of fathers.

A final issue to take into account in terms of the privileging of voice within research interviewing concerns the idea of the self which informs the very practise of interviewing someone. So some researchers have argued that this is a very Western construct of the individual, the person as an agent, as someone who exists in the world separate from the world and separate from others. So by interviewing someone and asking them to account for themselves as individuals, it’s possible that researchers are, in fact, making assumptions wrongly in some cases about a person’s notion of selfhood.

I’m going to read you a quote which I think captures this very well. It’s from a book by Alldred and Gillies. ‘The very idea of interviewing someone is rooted in particular understandings about what being a person is, about communication between people, and about how knowledge can be generated by the posing of questions by one and recording of responses by another.’

So to summarise, in this talk, we have focused on the concept of voice as a way of thinking about empowering research. And we have considered the role of reflexivity in problematising traditional approaches to the research interview as an extractive process of generating knowledge.

But I want to just end by encouraging you to think about voice as a more relational construct rather than an individual one. We have sought to problematise some of the philosophical assumptions about the individuated subjects, which tend to inform our reliance on the research interview with an individual as a way of accessing a truthful representation. And so I’d like to leave you with that thought of how we could potentially do research interviewing differently in ways that opened up alternative subjectivities.

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Stories from the field

Guangpuanang Kahmei: building trust with the Naga people of the Langthabal region

Guangpuanang Kahmei, a researcher on the project team, studied with the Naga people, an Indigenous group who live in communities in the states of Assam, Manipur and Nagaland in India. The majority of Naga people live in the hill district known as Naga hills of Nagaland and Zeliangrong Hills in Manipur. Guangpuanang is originally from the Zeliangrong region called Tamenglong which is the headquarters of the Zeliangrong Nagas.

The village that Guangpuanang studied in is Rongmei village, which is part of the Zeliangrong community. However, the village is situated in the Imphal West district, which is actually far from the Rongmei settlement areas in the Meitei Majority district of Manipur in the Valley. This is a tiny village of around 30 households, a third of whom are Christian. This village is surrounded by Meiteis (non-tribal community).

Guangpuanang was particularly interested in understanding how Naga communities organise everyday routines and rituals. He has a close association with the NPMHR (Naga People Movement for Human Rights), which enabled him to introduce himself to Naga Hoho president, many Naga leaders, through whom he gained access to Rongmei village.Guangpuanang conducted many interviews, storytelling sessions and group discussions to collect data.

In this excerpt from Guangpuanang’s research diary, he discusses his feelings about gaining access and building trust in Rongmei village and the culture in which he grew up, but has not lived in for several years, since moving interstate for his education:

It is very difficult to gain the trust of a marginalized community as they have experienced many deceptions in the past. Some of the questions they put to me were that ‘how will they know that whatever they share with me will not be distorted?’ In the past, many people have come and do research about them but when they publish, they totally write a different story or even some people take the idea and used for their advantage. Therefore, all they asked of me was at least give a reference that that information is collected from them so that in future if anybody wants to know about them let them come to us.

… I was feeling uneasy to go to Langthabal Chingkha village as I’m not accustomed to their culture and I know not even to a single person in the village but I was compelled to go to them because this is the only village who still practices the age-old tradition called TIngkao-Raguang-Kariak (TRK). I was wondering what language should I use to communicate to them because they are little different from the common population in the Zeliangrong region mainly because of their religious practices (They might think that I might condemn their faith because I’m Christian and many Christian do). Therefore, I took some friend to accompany me during my first visit. To my surprise, I find that they are the kindest people I ever meet thus far in my entire life, I observed that younger one give utmost reverence to the elder in the Morung (it is where I do the most interaction). For example, when I asked some question about their practices addressing to my age group who are present there, even if they know if someone who is older than him present in our midst he will simply say ‘may the elder speak’ or in case if he to answer he will start saying something like ‘though there is a respected elder’ and answer the query.

Activity: Guangpuanang’s diary entry

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Recommended reading

Butcher, T. (2013) ‘Longing to belong’, Qualitative Research in Organizations and Management, 8(3): 242–57. Available at: permalink/ f/ gvehrt/ TN_emerald_s10.1108/ QROM-05-2012-1065 (accessed 1 October 2019).

Cunliffe, A.L. (2016) ‘“On becoming a critically reflexive practitioner” redux: what does it mean to be reflexive?’, Journal of Management Education, 40(6): 740–46. Available at: permalink/ f/ gvehrt/ TN_sage_s10_1177_1052562916668919 (accessed 1 October 2019).

Manning, J. (2018) ‘Becoming a decolonial feminist ethnographer: addressing the complexities of positionality and representation’, Management Learning, 49(3): 311–26.