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Round table: Identifying and overcoming methodological challenges associated with interviewing in academia

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  • Tine Wirenfeldt Jensen, Denmark
  • Center for Undervisningsudvikling
I would like to discuss some of the challenges specific to interviewing in academia and to propose an adapted version of the concept of the elite interview (Leech, 2002, and Aberback & Rockman, 2002) as one way of articulating the challenges the interview poses for the “novice researcher” (Gunasekara, 2007) in the field. I suggest the vignette technique (Barter & Renold, 1999) as one especially useful strategy for overcoming some of these challenges in semi-structured interviews with focus on the themes provocation, power and establishing alternative frameworks for discourse. I draw on experiences with interviewing 20 Master’s thesis supervisors at a Danish university about their conceptualization of the Master’s thesis as a form of assessment and its meaning and role in HE.

On the basis of the interviews performed for my PhD project and prior academic interview experiences (Andersen & Jensen, 2007), I draw on the concepts of the elite interview (Leech, 2002, and Aberback & Rockman, 2002) and the active interview (Holstein & Gubrium, 1995) as well as others’ experiences (Gunasekara, 2007) in order to identify some of the specific factors that should be taken into consideration when interviewing teachers and supervisors in HE.
An elite interview is an interview with “people in decision-making or leadership roles” (Leech, 2002), which has implications for interviewing, as “a good many well-informed or influential people are unwilling to accept the assumptions with which the investigator starts: they insist on explaining to him how they see the situation, what the real problems are as they view the matter”(Dexter, 1969, in Leech, 2002). In this sense, Master´s thesis supervisors certainly qualify as elite interview candidates. However, the academic interview situation is complicated by the position of the interviewer within the very hierarchy to which the supervisors belong.

As Gunasekara’s (2007) work reveals, hierarchy and accompanying power structures are a central part of academic life: “Hierarchical structures in academia are often linked to seniority and perceived experience, at least in terms of certain norms that subsist in academe.” This means that the PhD student or young researcher interviewing a supervisor assumes the position of the “novice researcher” (Gunasekara, 2007). In this context, the roles of subject/interviewer have many similarities to the supervisor/student relationship, and as a consequence, the roles of ‘supervisor/student’ might interfere with the roles of ‘supervisors as subject’/’PhD student as interviewer’. For the novice researcher, the academic interview is therefore an elite interview in more than one respect, and the consequences of the potential overlap between the roles of participants should be considered when planning and carrying out interviews in this setting. Possible subject reactions which should be anticipated include unwillingness to be “put in the straightjacket of closed-ended questions” (Aberback & Rockman, 2002), wanting to know everything about the research project and the research questions ‘behind’ the interview questions, wanting to know about the hypothesis shaping the research, what the final dissertation or report will conclude (se also Gunasekara, 2007) and questions about who the supervisor of the project is.
Because interviews with supervisors are elite interviews in this double sense, the interviews need to be framed as active interviews (Holstein & Gubrium, 1995) and the active, contributing and meaning-making role of the subject needs to be emphasized. This means that semi-structured interviews shaped in a conversational manner can be a good strategy, as they gives the subject a sense of freedom from “the straightjacket of closed-ended questions” referred to above.

The use of vignette technique in semi-structured interviews: provocation, power and alternative frameworks for discourse: Interviewing as a method in HE research must be conducted with an awareness of the aspect of hierarchy in academic culture. But on a very basic level, it is also important to be aware of the fact that when interviewing in HE we are by definition doing research in our own cultural backyard; more likely than not, the interviewer shares a lot of tacit knowledge with the subject. We therefore need strategies and methods to help us avoid interviews dominated by vague references and implicit understanding.
To avoid this trap, I have explored several strategies. Employing the vignette technique (Barter & Renold, 1999) in semi-structured interviews with supervisors about the Master’s thesis as a form of assessment has proved most successful.
During the interviews, I offered the supervisors six alternatives to the current Master’s thesis form (for example a shorter Master’s thesis, acceptance of website/films/performances with no requirement to submit other written work or discontinuation of the Master’s thesis altogether). Some of these were deliberately designed to provoke the supervisor and as a result to provoke critique. The norms, criteria and values revealed by such critique are of interest, as they reveal how the subject understands the Master’s thesis as a form of assessment. Instead of a conventional approach to the interview based on accounts of the role and justification of the existing Master’s thesis, I offered the subjects an alternative framework which allowed them to articulate their understandings in terms of negation and critical reflection rather than simple affirmation or declaration.

The vignette technique placed the supervisors in a position of power and invited them accept and reject the alternatives I proposed and to offer their reasons for doing so. I chose this approach for several reasons: it highlights the supervisors´ active role in the interview, it accommodates the elite subjects’ understanding of themselves as decision-makers, it offers an alternative framework for discussing the topic that makes simple reproduction of the dominant discourse on the topic impossible, and as a result it forces the supervisors to actively reflect on and articulate the values and criteria they base their decisions on.
I would like to discuss the challenges specific to interviewing in academia and the relevance of my adaptation of the concept of elite interviews to an academic setting for preparing and conducting interviews in HE. I would also like to discuss the potential pitfalls of using this version of the vignette technique with regard to the quality of the interviews and the process of analyzing them.

Andersen & Jensen, 2007. Specialevejledning – rammer og roller (Master’s Thesis Supervision:Framework and Roles). Samfundslitteratur, Denmark.
Barter, C & E. Renold. 1999. “The Use of Vignettes in Qualitative Research”, Social Research Update, vol. 25. Department of Sociology, University of Surrey, England.
Gunasekara, C., 2007. Pivoting the Centre: Reflections on Undertaking Qualitative Interviewing in Academia . Qualitative Research 7(4):pp. 459-473.
Holstein & Gubrium, 1995, The active Interview, Qualitative Research Method Series 37, Sage.
Leech, B., 2002. “Asking Questions: Techniques for Semistructured Interviews” in Leech B. et al. ”Symposium: Interview Methods” in Political Science and Politics, Vol 35, no. 4, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge Journals.
Aberback J. & Rockman B, 2002. “Conducting and Coding Elite Interviews” in Leech B. et al. ”Symposium: Interview Methods” in Political Science and Politics, Vol 35, no. 4, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge Journals.

Original languageEnglish
Publication year1 Sep 2011
Publication statusPublished - 1 Sep 2011
EventÅrlig konference i EARLI - Eureopean Association for research on Learning and Instruction - Exeter, United Kingdom
Duration: 28 Aug 20113 Sep 2011


ConferenceÅrlig konference i EARLI - Eureopean Association for research on Learning and Instruction
CountryUnited Kingdom

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