Some thoughts on interview data from Silverman (2013)

This from Silverman (2013):

What status do you attach to your data? Many interview studies are used to elicit respondents’ perceptions. How far is it appropriate to think that people attach a single meaning to their experiences? May not there be multiple meanings of a situation (e.g. living in a community home) or of an activity (e.g. being a male football fan) represented by what people say to the researcher, to each other, to carers and so on (Gubrium, 1997)? As mentioned earlier, this raises the important methodological issue of whether interview responses are to be treated as giving direct access to ‘experience’ or as actively constructed ‘narratives’ involving activities which themselves demand analysis (Silverman, 2011b: 161–206; Gubrium and Holstein, 2009; Riessman, 2011). Both positions are entirely legitimate but the position you take will need to be justified and explained. Is your analytic position appropriate to your practical concerns? Some ambitious analytic positions (e.g. hermeneutics, discourse analysis) may actually cloud the issue if your aim is simply to respond to a given social problem (e.g. living and coping in a community of elderly people; students’ views of evaluation and feedback). If so, it might be simpler to acknowledge that there are more complex ways of addressing your data but to settle on presenting your research as a descriptive study based upon a clear social problem. Do interview data really help in addressing your topic? If you are interested in, say, what happens in old people’s homes or school classrooms, should you be using interviews as your major source of data? Think about exactly why you have settled on an interview study. Certainly, it can be relatively quick to gather interview data but not as quick as, say, extracting data from documents or the internet. How far are you being influenced by the prominence of interviews in the media (see Atkinson and Silverman, 1997; Silverman, 2013: Chapter 5)? In the case of the classroom, couldn’t you observe what people do there instead of asking them what they think about it? Or gather documents that routinely arise in schools, e.g. pupils’ reports, mission statements, and so on? Of course, you may still want to do an interview study. But whatever your method you will need to justify it and show you have thought through the practical and analytical issues involved in your choice.

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