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The only way to get a context free interview

The only way to get a context free interview

I’ve been working as a qualitative interviewer for over a year now. Throughout my training and into my ongoing development I am continually meant to be striving for the perfect, methodologically pure interview, but what is a pure interview?  The textbook view, as May (1997) summarises, is that:

The theory behind this method is that each person is asked the same question in the same way so that any differences between answers are held to be real ones and not the result of the interview situation itself

I have however, come to the conclusion that the perfect interview is in fact an impossibility. All interviews are affected by context.

Take the following example, which is something which comes up surprisingly often:

Interviewer: “On which days did you work on the week ending the 19th on April?”

Respondent: “Oh you know everyday”

Interviewer: “You mean Monday to Friday?”

Respondent: “Yes”

This small example highlights an important part in the dynamic between interviewer and respondent, the idea that beyond what is said there are taken-for-granted shared understandings. The respondent is assuming here that the interviewer shares the understanding that by saying they worked everyday they do not mean mean literally everyday, but mean Monday to Friday – what is a typical working pattern in the UK. So what is said and what is meant are in fact two different things.

The interviewer however, cannot assume this as they know that in some instances a person may well work everyday over a seven day period so they are right to intervene and clarify, but this clarification is based on the interviewer actually having an understanding that in this area what is said is not necessarily what is meant. Had the interviewer not understood this – and it may well have been possible that they didn’t – they may well have taken the literal meaning and recorded the respondent as working from Monday to Sunday. The questions which arise here are: what if, for example, the interviewer had had a perfect command of the English language, but had arrived that same morning from outer-space, or what if the conversation had occurred in a place, or time where a six, or even seven day working week was common?

What you have is a situation where it is impossible for the interview to be free of context and for the interviewer to be passive recording instrument. Wherever an interviewer is based on an interaction between an interviewer and respondent the interviewer is required to interpret the meaning to answers and to decode these. Context is everything and therefore methodological purity can only ever be a fallacy – an ideal which much the same as the notion of a ‘pure’ free market can never practically exist in reality.