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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.


In a slight departure form my usual type of article here I write about a trip, earlier today, around my local high-street. I’ve always had an interest in retail and think one of my dream jobs is as a retail analyst. This is my unconsidered opinion…. 

Some of my earliest memories are of being reluctantly dragged up and down the high street on a Saturday afternoon; Principles, Richards, Dorothy Perkins, Etam, Chelsea Girl, Fosters, Woolies and if I was lucky a toy shop at the end, or even as a special treat a Wimpy, Burger King or McDonalds at the end.

Gaining my independence later-on I became a mall-rat. Getting the bus into town and hanging out all day with the rest of the ‘cool’ kids outside HMV trying to get the attention of the Queen-of-the-scene who worked there. I watched as new shopping centres were built (I even helped build the biggest West Quay) and new brands came to town Tower Records, H & M, Karen Millen, Office, Schu and a whole host of others. It was a boom time.

But times change and the high-street boom has turned to a bust. The brands which for years seemed all-conquering are struggling and the weakest have been wiped from the retail map. For me too; A wife, kids and better things to do as well as an aversion to gridlock and sky-high parking charges mean I’m a a less frequent visitor to the town-centre than I used to be.

So it was unusual unusual that earlier this afternoon I found myself with just over an hour to spare on the high-street, and what better way of spending my time than carrying out some observation. My research question for the day is to find what retailers are on the danger list.

My first port of call is HMV. In the Old days music took centre stage, but these days it’s relegated to the basement. I’m here looking for an old Dr Dre album, but they don’t have it. In anycase it would probably be more expensive than online. Only three other, rather elderly, people are browsing the isles at the moment and I leave wondering when was the last time I bought anything here.

In the old days food on the high-street meant a burger, but these days there’s a whole world of choice. Places like Nandos, Wagamama and Yo Sushi quietly all expanding amidst the downturn. There’s also nibbles like donuts and cookies available in most shopping malls. Krispy Kreme donuts however never looks that busy and today is no exception. Two members of staff behind the counter and one customer sat own. It’s not looking good.

Waterstone’s is next. I love Waterstone’s, and by the look of the number of people in here I’m not alone.  But the question is does anyone buy in here anymore? Or do, like me, they simply use Waterstone’s to browse and then buy online. You can’t blame Waterstone’s for feeling hard-done by. Maybe they should charge an entry fee of, say 50p and let you walk around with pencil and paper making notes. The truth is that online might be cheaper, but for browsing it’s rubbish – I’ve lost count of the times I’ve been disappointed with an Amazon purchase which has turned out to be not quite what I’m looking for.

The shops which seem most quiet on my walk-round are the high-priced clothing stores; Karen Millen, French Connection, Monsoon, All Saints and the Levi’s shop barely muster a handful of customers between them. Goldsmith’s the jewellers is also empty, though jewellers always tend to be so it’s hard to read anything into this.

The Apple store is, as ever, heaving. Its probably the coolest shop on the block right now. It has no window which invites people to just walk in and the design is unorthodox which exudes this maverick silicon-valley charm – the place where CEO’s show up to work in Nike trainers. Young, fresh, cool it says. HMV take note.

I duck into Paperchase to look at the Valentines cards. The shop assistant smiles at me and two young women giggle over the cards which are all quite hip, and for the time being a step ahead of the supermarkets whose competition swallowed Clinton’s like a tidal wave – though the gap seems to be closing. I leave sensing they’ll be ok for the moment, they’re still cool. Clintons weren’t. Tatty Teddy and Me to You were just too 1980s. They’ll be all the rage in Paperchase in 5 years time.

Curry’s opposite looks dead. A huge store and I can’t see any customers, just lots of bored looking sales staff twiddling their lanyards.

My grandparents always had shares in BHS. Steady and dependable. I never go in there and within a second of setting foot I know why, I’m not a 60 year old woman, but plenty of people are and BHS seems to be ticking-over nicely. Strangely theres a Dorothy Perkins in there too. This sort of shop-within-a-shop seems to have become more widespread as retailers seek to share costs, like some 20-something young professionals in a shared house, but Dorothy Perkins and BHS seem too different to be comfortable flatmates.

Primark, or Primani as some would call it is seems busy with queues at the tills. The men’s section looks bang on trend with some sonic the hedgehog and Donald Duck sweaters. They’re clever, and they must do good research knowing their market and their customers – all important in a downturn.

Last of all WhSmith’s. A few years ago this was reportedly struggling, trying to find a place in the world after someone had moved its cheese. I bought one of my first records in WhSmith I like it by DJ H Featuring Steffi along with a Cathy Dennis record. The record section is roughly where the post office is now. A girl passes me on her way to the check-out clutching some binders. I browse the magazines, still the most impressive collection on the high-street – regaining their crown after the demise of Borders. The store is cluttered, but it’s busy so I suspect there is life in the old girl yet.

This brings to an end my un-scientific sojourn along the high-street. I’ve learned a lot in this short time. The high-end stores seem to be struggling, as do the stores which have lost their cool like HMV, or were never cool like Curry’s. Others though seem to be if not thriving then doing reasonably well. As bad as news of job losses are  the recession is performing the function of clearing out struggling retailers, providing opportunities for new businesses whilst forcing others to up their game. The high street isn’t in decline, its just changing.