This is my third post on how not to do things. This time it is about how not to analyse interview data. I guess, I’ve prepared to write it for years. It’s been written many a time in article and chapter reviews, always with much frustration.
Let me set the scene first. Below I show you a piece of analysis that was quoted in a Twitter exchange I took part in. It was an example, used by a research participant, of how bad qualitative research can be (to put it very mildly – much much stronger words were used). When I looked at the book extract, I…agreed. I think the analysis stretches the data as if they were spandex, with no regard to what the informant actually says. The authors simply ram the data into their interpretation and you can barely the interview through the sawdust.
The problem is that I have seen more such analyses than I care to remember. The claims which are made by researchers cannot possibly be sustained on the basis of their data. To be honest, I have this urge to say: qualitative psychologists for you, but I am exercising restraint. … And this is why I am not identifying the source. I really, really don’t want to offer a polemic with a chapter! I do believe that the chapter is part of larger ‘analytic mode’ which simply, shall I say, takes liberties with interview data. And I just want to suggest caution in analysing.
Needless to say, usual reservations apply. No, I don’t think I am the wise man speaking words to heed. I’m only offering my perspective which does not claim to yield the truth. But I offer a perspective which is transparent. And in a way, I am looking for transparency of the analytic approach.
So, here is the fragment I refer to.
What’s wrong with it? Ok, I’ll be blunt: just about everything. But before I offer a comment on the analysis itself, let me say two things about the interview itself.
I assume that in the first half of the first line, we see a question a researcher asked in the interview. I’m sorry to say that I find such a question just about unacceptable. It cannot be more loaded and leading. You cannot impose your own views/ideology on the informant, for pity’s sake! And the reference to ‘a useful label’ is exactly this. You cannot assume that a participant sees their diagnosis as ‘a label’! And given that the participant is consistently described as accepting her ADHD diagnosis, how do you ask such a question?! You must not, MUST NOT, undermine her worldview. And this is precisely what such a question does. Incidentally, I was also wondering about the extent the answer ‘I’m ashamed’ is actually a result of such questioning. But, in contrast to the researchers, I only wonder about the interviewee and do not make claims about her. The second point I want to make is about the number of deletions in the fragments (I assume that the square brackets indicate deletions). Six deletions in eleven lines is a bit excessive, no? What was there?!
So, let’s have a look about the analysis. This is the first sentence:
Here, the grounds for diagnosis are accomplished using a biological explanation, and this is underwritten by the authority of medical expertise as ‘something unfinished with your brain’.
It’s such an interesting sentence. Who is accomplishing ‘the grounds of diagnosis’? Reading the fragment, I think it’s the ‘professor’, but the researchers seem to suggest that it’s the interviewee, don’t they? And I challenge anyone to offer a cogent argument that this fragment offers evidence that the interviewee argues for her diagnosis. The interviewee makes use of an accessed voice (Hartley) in her narrative and the references to biology come from that voice. How does she argue?
Here is the second sentence:
Her account displays reluctance and embarrassment about the possibility of an adult diagnosis.
No, it doesn’t. No! It doesn’t! In this sentence, the authors make a claim about some psychological reality of the participant. How on earth do they know? I, on the other hand, would ask the researchers if it had crossed their minds that their participant wanted to get them off their back. With the loaded question they asked, I would, really, say anything, to end the interview! You want me to disagree with my diagnosis, fine, here you go, just **** off. But the researchers don’t stop there:
It performs the function of a discovery story where Anna reinterprets her own childhood and the events and experience of her life story in terms of an ADHD diagnosis.
I mean: really? I understand everything is about childhood and the mother, but, really?!?! Where is the childhood in the story? I understand that the psychologist-authors are interpreting stuff, but I do wonder how this (presumably psychoanalytic) interpretation sits with the discursive psychological approach they take. I’m no expert, but I think discursive psychology was precisely a reaction in opposition to such interpretations!
And so, we come to the crucial bit:
The doctor’s remark about the age of his patients normalises her claim to a diagnosis in later life.
Does it? Does she have a claim to a diagnosis? Where is it in the story? Please, do enlighten me! All I can see is an accessed story of a ‘professor’, which (probably) makes adult ADHD normalised. The doctor normalises adult ADHD – the claim that it is about the participant’s diagnosis comes from the authors’ imagination!
I despair at the simplicity of the claim that accessing the professor’s narrative must be about legitimising the participant’s diagnosis. Where is the evidence? Did the authors consider other possibilities? Like, you know, distancing? You know, does the participant need to say: “Hey, look, I’m not talking as myself here!”? Incidentally, have you noticed how a professor was miraculously transformed into a doctor? Are the researchers really saying that Anna is incapable of telling the difference? Bloody hell, do they really have to undermine the participant in such a way? For yes, I have really little doubt that it is about undermining. Not only is Anna constructed as not knowing what she is talking about, but, importantly, a mere doctor hasn’t got the gravitas of a professor. So, let’s just make sure that Anna talked to someone less important?
And, sigh, we come to the final sentence of the paragraph:
Anna works hard to maintain her position that she had no motive to obtain this diagnosis and, as the following extract reveals, that should be set in the context of her own life difficulties.
Where? Where is it? Where is Anna ‘working hard’ to maintain her position? To be honest, I would like to know what ‘her position’ is in the first place. It’s not spelled out by the authors and it’s hardly clear. No, I’m not even going to ask how the authors understand the position. Is it just a throwaway remark or are they referring to positioning theory (Davies and Harré)?
But what really irritates me is the little implication that, in fact, there was ‘a motive’. Oh yes, the psychologists did discover it after all. Anna tried to hide it, but, not from us! No, no, we have the Superman eyesight, we can see through walls and, obviously, through stories. We just know what people’s motives are. I mean, sorry, what people’s real and true motives are. It’s clear to us, as if they said it themselves. Where are ‘her own life difficulties’ that the next fragment reveals? Beats me. The section ends – there is no ‘next extract’. But who cares, we can just combine two extracts, from different sections, who knows how separated they were in the interviews, and make a claim that we feel so comfortable with. Anna? Oh, who cares about Anna. She provided us with the extracts.
Harsh? I don’t think so. Let me spell out the points I am trying to make here.
1. I think that making a claim as to what people feel, think want etc. on the basis of what they say, just cannot be done. People say things for all sorts of reasons and unless there is evidence as to what they think at the time, what they say is the evidence of….what they say.
2. No, I do not believe that the participant has the right to cancel our analyses, but I also believe that we should leave them be. I think it is not only patronising, but it is also very presumptuous to make claims about what our participants think. I think we should focus on text. Well, the narrative, if you like.
3. I really would like to see reference to the exact elements of the fragments that the researchers analyse to see the basis on which they make they claims.
4. How about making it clear what your analysis is (discursive psychology, you will be surprised to know, does have a set of analytical tools) and what your interpretations are of what the participant said? Analysis and interpretation are not the same and, I’m sorry to say, in the fragment above, they are beaten to joint pulp.
5. And finally, just because you think that your interviewee ‘means’ something doesn’t mean they do. So, do let’s remember: evidence, evidence, evidence. I mean, evidence!!