What do interviews tell me?

Here is a fundamental question in qualitative research (I think). What do interview data tell us? What claims can we make on their basis?  I’ve been thinking about this post for some time, putting it off. It’s because I think it’s one of the crucial aspects of doing the ‘story-telling’ research. So, here is my take, very likely to be disagreed with and challenged.

When I tell students about the problem, I tell them a story. It’s a true story, one of the pivotal stories of my family; I heard it more times than I care to remember. It was always told by my mother, in fact, when my father tried to tell it, my mother would immediately interrupt saying he told it wrong.

First the context.  When I was boy (by now it’s almost in the olden days), my parents bought their first car. It was called Syrena (model 104L) and it was just about the worst car that was ever produced. It was wildly unreliable, with brakes which the driver had to pump hard with her or his foot before s/he could get any braking action. At 80 km/h (it’s 50 mph for you thinking in imperial terms), you had the impression it would either take off into outer space or just fall apart. Still, my parents were never as happy and proud of any other car they had. They also kept saying it had really good long beams. At least something, I guess.

And so, one day they decided to go down to Silesia in the south of Poland. We lived in the north of Poland, it was a trip of about 400 km, and a major logistic endeavour. We not only had to have the car checked thoroughly, we also had to take a couple of 20-litre (I think) canisters of petrol and oil (filling stations in  the 1970s’ communist Poland were rare and often closed), which occupied most of our pride’s boot. And so, praying to all the available gods, we set out.

Amazingly, after many hours we arrived at the limits of the huge Silesian conurbation. The challenge of crossing it was not lost on us. And yet, my father, who was from Silesia (till his death he spoke with the High Silesian accent), somehow was able to navigate the highly urbanised coal-mining towns and cities (with the cleanest windows in the world) all the way to my grandmother’s house. Bloody hell, I don’t think NASA’s conquest of the moon was on a par with us getting there.

It was this epic first-ever 400-kilometre family journey that became the subject of my mother’s story. It was a story of success, relief and my father’s ultimate bravery and skill. The story inevitably ended with his navigation of Silesian conurbation and one of the final sentences of the story was something like:

And all the drivers around looked at Janusz with admiration as he knew which way to go.

to which my father (Janusz) nodded vigorously, agreeing with my mother. All those who heard the story (and some of our closest family members easily heard it a few dozen times), looked at my father with admiration and envy, while he received the adulation with grace, knowing that for those few seconds he really was the man. So here is the story. I share it publicly because I think it’s a wonderful story, it’s a story of so many good feelings in the family and marriage, and at the same time, it’s just bonkers. Incidentally, there is another part of this story when I, an utterly stupid idiot, many years later asked my mother ‘How did you know?”, but that requires a different post.

It is on the basis of this narrative I say that, as researchers, the stories we hear are just that. They are stories and no more. When our informants tell us their stories, accounts, narratives and whatever else, this is exactly what we get. And, to my mind, the leap between the story and the world cannot be made. Why? Well, my mother took care of this, and there are two aspects of it.

First, my mother’s story is obviously untrue.  Did ‘all the drivers around’ admire my father’s topographical skills? I’m afraid the answer to this question is: No, they didn’t. And for quite a variety of reasons, from ‘They really didn’t care’ all the way to ‘They didn’t know where Janusz actually wanted to go”.  It is also very doubtful my mother could observe their jaws dropping as we passed them turning right or left. But, second, that actually didn’t matter. Though I have no evidence at all as to what my family and our friends thought, they all inevitably congratulated my father praising his drivership, offering either stories of similar and, let’s face it, unbelievable success or, alternatively, stories of others’ failure clearly aimed to underscore Janusz’s achievement. They somehow understood that the story’s truth claim is not about the other drivers (who, to be completely honest, could and should have paid attention!), but about how it all made us feel. Because my mother was genuinely proud of my father (and much relieved my father’s non-existent mechanic skills didn’t have to be tested) and her story was rendering this. Reality of the admiring drivers? Oh, who cares about reality?!

And here we come to the crucial bit in what I want to say. By making a claim that a story is more than a story, that it lay a truth claim to reality, we, as researchers, make a claim (in my view, unwarranted) that we know how the story is meant. And, in my view, we don’t. The leap from the story to the world it describes is considerably more difficult than might appear. Qualitative research, at least the way I understand it, is about exploring the lived experience of our informants, in most cases as it is narratively constructed. Espousing their stories is in the centre of what we do and, in my view, we should not pin those stories down with the nails of reality we think they refer to.

Now, of course, I understand that ‘in real life’, like in a supermarket, when a shop-assistant tells you that unsalted butter two aisles down on the right, you are unlikely to suspend your belief and start looking for the butter on your own. Also, you are unlikely to produce a map after a bus driver explained to you when to alight from the bus, because he or she just ‘told you a story’.  But, the point is that I’m not talking about buses or supermarkets, I’m talking about research, a structured activity which is underpinned by a series of assumptions.

And for me, one of those assumptions is that stories we’re told, in interviews or otherwise, are only stories. And no matter how they’re intended, their claim on reality is not for us, the story tellers, to consider. Incidentally, just like we challenge the simple (or simplistic) positivism of the number crunchers, we should afford the same courtesy to our informants.

Now, all that does not mean that just because we choose not to make claims about what is referred to in a story, doesn’t mean that we can do with it as we please. Have a look, for example, at a tweet from @RoseAnnieFlo, who tells me about aggression and identity theft by qualitative research (I know the piece Rose refers to and I will blog about it). The stories we get from our informants are not ‘just stories’, they are part of the narrative fabric of life. And qualitative research should follow them and not take from them. How to do it is an important question and I have written about it for example in the piece of how not to do qualitative research.

And so, in my view, qualitative research, and certainly the one I am engaged with, is to do with stories and not the world beyond them. This is because I am interested in how the world is experienced, how it is made sense of. And this is precisely why I think about the stories I get as getting “as much as people’s stories”. And it’s difficult enough to give them justice, talking about the world outside goes beyond what I can do.


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