Embodiment / Participatory research / Phenomenology / Psychosis / Research methodology / User/Survivor Research

Interrogating the qualitative interview

[On the plane again...seemingly the only chance I have, nowadays, to blog...]

Over the past weekend I’ve been reviewing audio recordings of recent interviews and in the process have been forced—in potentially productive as well as deeply uncomfortable ways—to acknowledge my own weaknesses and confusions as an interviewer.

This is certainly not the first time I’ve conducted qualitative studies; the two projects in question nevertheless diverge from my past research in important ways.  First, our focus—the “phenomenology” of psychosis–has forced me (all of us, ultimately, I hope) to grapple with unusually pronounced, perhaps even uniquely determinate, epistemological limitations.  (I say this as much as an ‘experiencer’ as a researcher or theorist: in no other experiential domain or context—including the undeniably strange and intense ‘altered states’ I entered into during mid-Winter sesshin as a Zen monastic in Japan—have I ever felt so totally abandoned in a ‘zone’, an existential space, in which not only language, but thought itself, appeared not merely limited, inadequate or incomplete, but absent and unreachable.  Throughout my countless, obsessive attempts to articulate ‘it’ in spite of this failure, I have been painfully aware of the fictional nature of my discursive elaborations.  If, following Derrida, plenitude is ‘obviously’ and structurally impossible but nevertheless the enabling condition of language, my own failure to ‘believe’ or invest in these stories as even potentially successful acts of communication, is telling.

Second, in these current projects I find myself personally implicated—automatically and by design—in ways that have proved surprisingly difficult to negotiate.   At every decision point in interviews, that is, I catch myself asking: who is in control here?  What structure, what goals, what values are being imposed, suspended, buried, occluded?  What does the rhetoric of participation, ‘disclosure’, or transparency, in fact mask, perhaps even more powerfully than methodologically ‘traditional’ projects?  Is the subject any less (a) subject, any less disempowered in the immediate context of this interview?


To return to the audio recordings, it is not only my awkward questions, pauses, confusion, poor follow-ups, and general inarticulateness that bother me, not only the lie(s) of neutrality and ‘objectivity’ (pretending, or trying to pretend, that I don’t have particular motivations when I do), but also the richness of the exchanges not included in the formal interviews, never recorded, outside the audiological box.  Exchanges, specifically, in which my interviewees turn around to ask me the (difficult, penetrating, ‘dangerous’) questions: what was your experience, do you take medications now, do you think it might be possible for me to stop my medications, do you think your delusions are real, do you think mine are?  Something changes–most pointedly, I think, when I become the vulnerable one, no longer able to hide behind questions, citations or silence; human in this vulnerability, but also truly at risk of alienating, ‘influencing’ or even coopting the singularity of participant’s ‘own’ narratives.  And yet it is only then that the dialogue becomes real–that the struggle to say things one can’t is acknowledged and in some very small way surmounted in this acknowledgment.

Then again—we all know this and so let me not reify the myth of the self-owning ‘individual’—discourse is fundamentally social, fundamentally dialogic, even when we are speaking only to ourselves.  Silence, neutrality and ‘open-ended’ questions shape interviews as profoundly as anything else (personal and political disclosure, spontaneous affect, ‘loaded’ questions, etc.).  Ultimately, each dialogue is its own agencement (‘assemblage’), a cathected synergistic embodied ‘thing,’ exceeding any individual speaker or assumed bounded self.  Our desire for conformity and control and regularity, in this sense, itself verges on a kind of pathology—a mad and desperate desire to truly become the carefully entrained “instrument” of the scientific project (“the interviewer is the instrument” as virtually every qualitative textbook states, where instrument, as per the OED,  reads as “that which is used by an agent in or for the performance of an action; a thing with or through which something is done or effected”) rather than another subject.  We are another subject; this we cannot escape.  But what changes when we acknowledge this, are open about it, rather than attempt to hide it?


“You enter into it,” I’ve heard many experienced clinicians say with respect to therapy (in the context of psychosis), “it’s almost impossible to describe…as if you become temporarily crazy yourself.”  But if this is good therapy—a loss or willed foreclosure of certain boundaries; loss that potentiates intuitive or extra-discursive entrées into ‘exceptional’ experience—it remains taboo in conventional qualitative research.   That I am pulled so strongly in this direction, and yet recoil from it (internalized warnings about bias and ‘validity threats’ harassing me with the force of hallucinated voices), alarms me deeply.

If we think about what phenomenology really is or might be (in a braver world)—by which I mean the ‘science’ of phenomenology in its ‘originary’ Husserlian sense as well as ‘its’ many post-Heideggerian permutations (permutations in which discourse, dialogue and interpersonal ethics are central, structuring features)—when, really, are we “doing” it?  How real is the epoche, the bracketing, the suspension of a priori categories of experience, language and interpretation?  How ‘embodied’ (if, say, we consider the literature on the so-called ‘phenomenological turn’ in ultra-contemporary continental philosophy) are we in the ‘practice’ of qualitative interviewing and interpretation?  For all our testimonials, have we really heard the prophet on the mountain proclaiming the death of the ‘author,’ are we really willing to grapple with the messiness of all that remains, and all that does not?


Mort often than not, I think, we are not.


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3 thoughts on “Interrogating the qualitative interview

    • Steve,

      Checked out your website–awesome list of resources on interviewing and reflexivity!

      Re an interview excerpt, I suppose I can’t actually think of one that would capture or illustrate my concerns. I suppose this is more because these concerns stem from the more overarching positioning of the interviewer vis-a-vis the interviewee, the nature of discourse/dialogue (and the extent to which it is in some sense unavoidably bastardized in any qualitative interview), and the perhaps more unique limitations of language in phenomenological explorations of psychosis…

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