Sunday, 18 October 2015

Interviewees are not automatons

Reading from:

Foddy, W. (1993). Interviews and questionnaires: Theory and practice in social research. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.

This information is taken from chapter 2 of this book. The chapter is entitled: A theoretical framework.

This paper links to the session we undertook on questionnaires and interviews. In it, Foddy discusses the issues associated with both a quantitative method of survey and also qualitative. Foddy introduces symbolic interactionism (SI) as a way of social actors in a social situation negotiating a shared definition of the situation.

An overview

Foddy introduces the positivist approach which attempts to discover the 'real world' 'out there'. To do this they use a 'stimulus/response' model of questioning, with carefully controlled questions and also answers. They aim for standardised understanding and standardised responses, to provide validity.

Foddy discusses ten key assumptions associated with positivistic surveys, primarily that the researcher provides clear definitions and the respondent is able to provide appropriate standardised answers in the specific situation, and that answers from different respondents can be meaningfully compared.

Pawson (n.d.) suggests that questions and answers are simplified to a 'lowest common denominator' approach. This is a very behaviourist approach. Control is by the researcher, trying to formulate standardised questions and limiting the respondent to standardised answers.

In contrast, 'qualitative field researchers' are interested in how human beings 'experience' their world, for example through the use of non-directive, open questions. They are committed to understanding the respondent's 'meaning' so use near-to-naturalistic unstructured interviews. The researcher and respondent should come to a joint construction of meaning. The data are narrative. Questions have been asked about he 'validity' of qualitative researchers' data, and the fact that it is difficult to replicate studies.

Within quantitative research, they still cannot control for the respondent not understanding the question 'correctly'. This is equally true for qualitative research, with the respondent often looking to the interviewer to show evidence of arriving at a "shared understanding" of questions and answers.
[Note: may need to consider Lyotardian paralogy here, to go past this shared understanding - see my notes on Lather].

Symbolic Interactionist (SI) theory

SI was coined by Blumer (1967, 1969).
- Humans interpret and define each other's actions; they do not react in a stimulus/response way.
- Humans can be the objects of their own attention - the concept of 'self';
- Conscious social behaviour is intentional. We construct and rehearse different possible lines of action before choosing how to act in a given social situation;
- These are ongoing processes, occurring at every stage of a social interaction. Both parties take part in this. Each social actor takes their view of the other into account but also the other's view of themselves, when constructing and choosing possible lines of action.
- Human intelligence is, in part reflexive, for example when you 'take the role' of the other.

SIs claim that social actors in any social situation are constantly negotiating a shared definition of the situation.

Implications of SI theory for social research

Survey researchers and qualitative field researchers have paid little attention to respondents 'taking the role' of the researcher when framing answers. Similarly the reason for asking the question. SI theory suggests that respondents will constantly try to reach a mutually shared definition of the situation with the researcher. Respondents search for clues if the information they require are not forthcoming. Different respondents may attach to different 'clues' and so differently interpret a question - so there is little reason for comparing respondents' different answers.

There are at least four additional sources of response variability that the researcher should keep in mind when formulating questions. Different respondents can interpret the same question in many different ways and give many different answers to it.

My thoughts

In the questionnaire exercise in the first weekend, it was clear to see that including free text answers in such a questionnaire led to a wide range of interpretations of the question. The questionnaire wasn't designed particularly well, but even so the relatively straightforward questions were open to different interpretations. It's probable that the same respondent could answer differently at a different time. So, quantitative work is subject to this issue.

The SI viewpoint seems to be to accept/embrace this multitude of potential answers. The participant will take their cues from the researcher and respond to the researcher to try and reach concordance.

Relevance to me? Again, I think this highlights the importance of thinking about my own frames of reference and being aware of them throughout an interview process, from writing the questions to the questioning itself and then on to the analysis. Just to be aware that the respondent is not only responding to the question I ask but more particularly the question they think I asked, and looking to me to help them provide the answer they think I want. Difficult!


No comments:

Post a Comment