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?
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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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