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Gubrium, Jaber F. and Holstein, James A., eds. Handbook of interview research: context & method. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2002. xiii, 981 pp. ISBN 0-7619-1951-1 $125.00

To call this weighty volume a 'handbook' is something of a misnomer - one needs a bookstand to manage it! Perhaps 'encyclopedia' would have been a better word, and the Preface notes that the book is 'both an encyclopedia and a story'. Whatever we call it, however, it is the most comprehensive compilation I have ever seen on the subject of interviewing and the list of authors reads like a Who's Who of the field. The sixty-five authors come from Australia, Canada, Norway, Sweden, the UK and, the majority, the USA and include such well-known names as David Altheide, Barbara Czarniawska, Norman Denzin, John Johnson, Jennifer Platt and Roger Shuy. The list of fifty-five reviewers also includes many luminaries. In other words, this is not only a big book - it is also a very authoritative one.

The forty-four chapters are divided into six groups:

  • Introduction;
  • Forms of interviewing;
  • Distinctive respondents (that is, interviewing particular kinds of persons - children, men, women, older persons, etc.);
  • Auspices of interviewing (that is, the circumstances under which interviewing may be carried out for reasons other than academic research);
  • Technical issues (ranging from Internet interviewing to the 'reluctant respondent');
  • Analytic strategies (analysing the data); and
  • Reflection and representation (that is,

Rather than trying to survey the whole book, whether 'handbook' or 'encyclopedia', I shall comment on one paper from each section.

First, Jennifer Platt's paper on 'The history of the interview' adopts what might be called a 'great works' approach, surveying texts in research methods from Odum and Jocher's 'An introduction to social research' (1929) to Taylor and Bogdan's 'Introduction to qualitative research methods' (1984), as well as instancing 'key works' on research and analysis on interviewing, from Cantril's, 'Gauging public opinion' (1947) to Biemer et al.'s 'Measurement errors in surveys'. Platt concludes:

...the interview remains an area of richly diverse practice about which few convincing generalizations can be made. Some of the changes that have taken place over time have arisen internally, from methodological concerns—although just which methodological concerns have been salient has depended on the problems studied and on the organizational and technological frameworks within which particular studies have taken place. Other changes have responded to broader intellectual movements and to agendas defined in sociopolitical rather than methodological terms.

The 'Forms of interviewing' section covers survey interviewing, qualitative interviewing, in-depth interviewing, the life story interview, focus group interviewing, and 'postmodern trends in interviewing'. Not being particularly drawn to postmodernism, which in this context reminds me more of storytelling than of research, I chose the chapter on focus groups, by David L. Morgan, who defines the technique as:

...a research technique that collects data through group interaction on a topic determined by the researcher.

Morgon goes on to describe the origins of the focus group in marketing research and their transfer into academic social science reseach, dealing with such topics as how focus groups should be moderated, and the degree of structure that should be imposed on the process by the resarcher. His 'ideal' focus group would be one in which the initial question caught the interests of the participants who would then go on to deal with the topic exactly as the researcher would have wished, without intervention. Morgan also compares individual and group interviews and the extent to which focus groups are more or less valid than individual interviews and hopes for more studies that set out to compare the benefits of each. In all, this is an interesting and enlightening paper on the subject, and Morgan is an acknowledge authority on the subject.

The 'Distinctive Respondents' section covers a wide range of types of person, from children to the ill. (I wonder why, as an aside, the authors of the chapter on interviewing homosexual and lesbian persons, felt the need to call it "Queering the interview'? I had not known that there was a verb, 'to queer' and to construct on seems to do violence to the language.)

As I shall never be a member of an 'elite', I thought that 'Interviewing elites' might be interesting. However, it wasn't so very interesting; the answer to the question, 'How do you interview members of elite groups?' turns out to be, 'Very, very carefully.'

This did not seem to be interesting after all, so I turned to 'Interviewing older people'. This turns out to include a lot of people, given that the definition covers persons aged anywhere from 45 to 100 or more. The paper discusses sampling problems (e.g., the fact that many of the very old live in residential homes), problems of access to older people, where 'access' can also mean simply being heard, and the special challenges the interviewer faces, such as sensory and/or cognitive impairment, and other factors. In all, this is a well-written and helpful chapter for anyone tackling this particular problem.

'Part III - Auspices of interviewing' seems to be rather oddly titled. I understand 'auspices' to be related to patronage, and expected the chapters to be concerned with the organizations that might support or finance interview-based research, but the word is used here to mean the circumstances within which the interviewing is carried out. That is, cross-cultural interviewing, therapy interviewing, journalistic interviewing and so on. 'Auspices' hardly seems the appropriate word.

Because journalistic interviewing is so different, at least to my mind, from research interviewing, I turned to that chapter. This is David Altheide's chapter and I expected it to be full of insights. And so it is. As Altheide says:

In this chapter, I examine how the interview has been transformed into an entertainment vehicle driven by media logic that has developed since the early days of print journalism.

The chapter illustrates the problems that the journalistic model presents for researchers as a result of the entertainment mode and one of the author's conclusions is:

The journalistic interview has been transformed via media logic so that it now provides evocative scenarios that are quite effective. Such changes make interviews more interesting and more entertaining, but, with exceptions, such evocative approaches are less useful for truth seeking.

The 'Technical issues' of Part IV cover such issues as dealing with the reluctant respondent, in-person versus telephone interviewing, Internet interviewing, transcription quality and computer-assisted data analysis. Given the medium in which this journal is published, I couldn't resist 'Internet interviewing' by Chris Mann and Fiona Stewart. The authors make an interesting pairing, given the topic: Mann is at the University of Cambridge researching on aspects of equal opportunities in education, while Stewart works for an Australian online research company, Brands Onine Ltd.

Following a brief introduction to the nature of computer-mediated communication, the authors look at some of the costs and benefits of Internet interviewing, including sampling and recruitment (acknowledging that the unrepresentative nature of Internet users is a problem), expense and time, and working with digital data - including problems of authentication and legal issues. They then explore technical issues, that is e-mail surveys and Web-page surveys, suggesting that with the increasing use of purpose-built software, the latter will become more and more common. The chapter also covers the Internet implications of general interviewing issues, such as the development of rapport and trust, and the interactive skills of giving reassurance and listentin. In all, this is a very useful introduction to the subject and, as usual in the book, the references provide the reader with ready sources of further information.

Part V, Analytic strategies deals with a wide range of techniques for analysing interview data from the use of 'grounded theory' approaches to 'institutional ethnography' and ethnomedological analysis. I chose to read Barbara Czarniawska's chapter on, 'Narrative, interviews, and organizations'. I'm reminded here of Terry Pratchett's invention of 'narrativium' as a fundamental element on his Discworld, which, '...takes care of narrative imperatives and ensures that they are obeyed.' (Pratchett, 2002: 24), while on the Roundworld - our Earth (approximately) - 'Our minds tell us stories about the world, and we base a great many of our actions on what those stories say.' (Pratchett, 2002: 26)

This is essentially Czarniawska's position (but she isn't as funny as Pratchett).

I must confess to finding the current vogue for 'storytelling' to be problematic. When I was growing up, to be asked, 'Are you telling stories?', meant 'Are you telling me a lie?' and there is in the idea of the 'story' implications of fiction, deceit, invention, deception. And when Czarniawska tells us that:

The process of organizing is also, and perhaps primarily, a process of narration. 'Organizations' may be treated as a subgenre of a modern narrative, and each organizing process produces many such narratives. (p. 734)

I have some difficulty in figuring out what she means. Her position is illustrated by reference to her work on government reform in Warsaw, based on 18 interviews (how many 'stories', then, were missed?), official documents and press releases. Of course, the 'story' appears here as an analytical device - a way of taking qualitative data and making sense of it: the analyst, therefore, is telling her own story and, just as many participants may report different understandings of what happens in an organization, so many analysts may tell many stories of their own. I imagine that a very different 'story' about the reorganization of government in Warsaw could be told by an analyst who interviewed different people and chose to access different documents.

I have been involved in constructing a narrative account of organizational life (Wilson & Streatfield, 1980) but that account was designed to bring life to a predominantly quantitative analysis of interview and questionnaire data. Behind the story was a great deal of evidence - 5,835 communication 'events' and 150 interviews. When all we have is the 'story', how certain can we be that it is a valid account?

The final part, 'Reflections and representation' is a bit of a mixture: its intention is to examine, '...how to construe and represent interview material' and this results in chapters on the relationship between participant observation and interviewing, cultural representation by personal and folk narratives, the reflexive interview, including the researcher's experience in the interview, poetic representation of interviews, interviews at the border of fact and fiction, and the relationship between interviewing, power and social inequality. Quite a range of ideas!

I chose to read Laurel Richardson's study of the 'Poetic representation of interviews'. Richardson claims that,

I do not contend that poetic representation is the only or even the best way to represent all social research knowledge. But I do claim (a) that for some kinds of knowledge, poetic representation may be preferable to representaiton in prose, and (b) that poetic representation is a viable method for seeing beyond social scientific conventions and discursive practices, and therefore should be of interest to those concerned with epistemological issues and challenges. (p. 877)

Poetry, of course, is probably the oldest way of representing 'knowledge', whether that knowledge was of the history of a people or of the playtime of the Gods. The Icelandic sagas, the poetry of Homer, and Beowulf, have all played their part in the definition of Western culture. There is, therefore, a strong tradition for regarding poetry as a valid mode of communicating what we know.

However, to write poetry, one must become a poet. And although Richardson's makes a strong case, a number of the examples she quotes are not from researchers who represent their interviews in poetry, but are the poetry of others - in one case, for example, the poetry of a social worker who also maintained a journal of her life. And I'm not sure how poetic I would regard the example of poetic analysis of a research project, nor to what extent the five poems are more powerful (or more illuminating) than the original thirty-six pages of prose.

In short, I accept the case for poetry, but am not convinced by the cases.

How can one summarise this volume? It is, simply, the essential reference work on interviewing. At $125.00 (or just over 80.00) it is a bargain. No social researcher should be without at least access to it - get your library to buy a copy.


How to cite this review

Wilson, T.D. (2003) Review of: Gubrium, Jaber F. and Holstein, James A., eds. Handbook of interview research: context & method. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2002.    Information Research, 8(3), review no. R088    [Available at: http://informationr.net/ir/reviews/revs088.html]