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Workshop review: analysing the language of interviews
Article Type: Practitioner perspectives From: Qualitative Market Research: An International Journal, Volume 13, Issue 2
Workshop organisers: Greg Myers and Sofia Lampropoulou, Lancaster University, Birkbeck College, London, 13 November 2009
This workshop on analysing the language of interviews was organised by Greg Myers, a discourse analyst and Sofia Lampropoulou, a sociolinguist. Both are working at Lancaster University finishing a year-long study on the role of stance in the analysis of research interviews. Their work is funded by the ESRC.
A total of 20 people attended the workshop and there was a healthy mix of disciplines represented, ranging from qualitative practitioners working in commercial environments, through management consultants, university academics, PhD students, counselling psychologists and a GP. In my experience it is quite rare for academics and commercial research practitioners to be present in roughly equal numbers in this type of event. It was refreshing and created a climate which fostered multiple perspectives and lively debate.
The workshop was organised in two parts. The first part dealt with discourse analysis and provided a very useful introduction for those new to the subject. The organisers offered a list of the following pointers for carrying out interviews:
Let people talk.
Say umm (or something similar) to encourage participants to continue.
Pay attention to your “third turn”, i.e. when it is the first speaker’s turn to speak again. (Greg made the interesting observation that John Humphreys often misses the third turn – and leaves it to the audience to fill in the gap).
Repeat words that link back to the previous turn – this provides continuity.
Be aware that people do things other than answer questions – they complain, justify, blame, entertain and so on.
Use “pre-sequences” before introducing sensitive topics, e.g. “Can I now ask you about your sexual behaviour?”.
Even a bad interview can be a good interview (You may not judge it correctly whilst you are engaged in it and you can learn from your mistakes).
Greg and Sofia emphasised that conversation is orderly, even when it seems disorganised and messy. They pointed out that interviews are not like everyday natural conversations because there are constraints on who can say what and when. This comment provoked a lively discussion about naturally occurring conversation within the group. Often we use the term loosely, without clearly defining the criteria for “naturally occurring conversation”. Can an interview be described as a naturally occurring conversation or not? Some participants argued that an interview is intrinsically “unnatural” because the agenda is set by the researcher. Others pointed out that there are constraints on all conversation, depending on the participants and the context. Interviews are not intrinsically different from other conversations. Differentiating between naturally occurring and interview conversations was, they argued, rather contrived. The issue is further complicated by the increasing emphasis on “co-creation” (Keegan, 2009) within commercial qualitative research, i.e. in which research agendas and outcomes are jointly constructed between researchers and research participants - and so cannot easily be attributed to one party.
Greg and Sofia went on to discuss how interviews, once completed, can be best analysed and meaning made of the content. They recommended:
listening to tapes rather than reading transcripts;
focusing on times when interviewees interrupt one another (something is going on there);
look for “well” and other little non-words at the beginning of turns as these can signal, “this answer is not what you expected or wanted but I am doing it anyway”;
looking for “OK” and “Right” which signal the closing of one topic and the opening of another.
The second part of the workshop focused on stance taking. Greg and Sofia adopted Du Bois’s definition of stance, which is “a public act by a social actor, achieved dialogically through overt communicative means, of simultaneously evaluating objects, positioning subjects and aligning with other subjects with respect to any salient dimensions of the socio-cultural field” (Du Bois, 2007, p. 220). Essentially this means publically positioning oneself in relation to the other, adopting a viewpoint in the knowledge that others may adopt a different viewpoint. Adopting a stance is common in interview situations and is often indicated by grammatical features such as stance verbs (I think, I believe), stance adverbs (actually, really…) stance nouns (opinion, belief, attitude…), model verbs (could, must…) or discourse features; the generic you, or reported speech, e.g. “some days you couldn’t deal with it”.
Greg and Sophia described how understanding the stance that interviewees adopt can help us to make sense of their experience and, in particular, how they interpret the topic under discussion. For example, if an interviewee does not use stance features this may indicate that he or she regards the question as factual rather than about opinion or belief, i.e. “This is the way home” versus “I think this is the right road”. Equally, if the interviewee uses a cluster of stance features and/or is hesitant in their use near the beginning of the turn, e.g. “I think, I’m not sure, it’s just my view … ” this may indicate that the topic is sensitive. Shifts from I or they to the generic you are ways of marking this particular phenomenon or experience as generalised and therefore potentially of greater weight than mere personal experience, e.g. “You could never be sure of the facts”.
The notion of stance itself generated a good deal of interesting discussion in the workshop. Some participants adopted Greg and Sofia’s interpretation of stance which privileged the “snapshot” of interaction. Others viewed stance as an evolving or emergent position; in the course of a conversation, a research interviewee could develop a particular stance as they considered the topic in more detail. Equally their stance might change, as they were subject to the views of others. For commercial researchers this was particularly fertile ground in that much of their work involves exploring how stance can be shifted, e.g. how to change perceptions, attitudes and, ideally, behaviour in relation to road safety, drink driving or even towards a brand. Indeed deliberative inquiry – which is increasingly used in government research and involves educating research participants on a topic before they are asked to express their opinions – is a very specific attempt to develop and often shift stance.
Given the diverse mix of participants: practitioners and academics in their varied roles and occupations, it was interesting to observe the aspects which different groups focus on and how they “used” the content of the workshop. Academic researchers deal with established theory on a day-to-day basis and are accustomed to working with the theories of others. Commercial researchers have quite a different mindset. They are required to develop working theory on an ongoing basis: challenging, questioning their thinking and that of others, making connections, building on ideas and developing concepts. Often, theory is implicit, not explicit. This way of working is not a respecter of protocol or tradition. In the workshop the commercial researchers, myself included, were keen to play with the notion of stance, exploring how it could be utilised in a real life research setting. I suspect, for academics, this might seem disrespectable, but this is not the intent. It is the excitement of ideas and moulding them into usable propositions that drives commercial research.
It was a good workshop and a timely reminder that we need to be constantly reflecting on, analysing and articulating the way in which we approach our research and analysis, and specifically, how we make sense and meaning from the material we generate.
Sheila KeeganCampbell Keegan Ltd, London
About the author
Sheila Keegan holds a PhD and is a Chartered Psychologist and Founding Partner of Campbell Keegan Ltd, a business and social research consultancy, working with multi-national, blue chip companies and government departments providing a psychological grounding for understanding people’s motivations, drives, fears and motivations. Sheila is a fellow of the MRS, a regular speaker at MRS, ESOMAR, AQR, BPS conferences and teaches on MRS and AQR research training courses. She has written and presented programmes for BBC Radio 4. She has written for various publications including The Sunday Telegraph, The Times, The Psychologist, Psychologies Magazine and Mensa Magazine. She is a committee member and a newsletter editor for the British Psychological Society in the “Qualitative Methods in Psychology” section. Sheila Keegan can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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