Problems with being a person while studying people

One of the problems of doing qualitative social research is that you are trying to study people while also being a person. This can get very complicated. As a researcher, I can’t take myself out of the equation, as I need myself to be present while I design the project, write a questionnaire and interview schedule, and carry out interviews/observations/focus groups with other people. And then I also need myself to do the analysis of the material gathered. But people will react to me in certain ways because I’m a tall, confident, white, normatively feminine, New Zealand-accented woman. Some people will trust me, and others will think I’m annoying, privileged, or just a bit strange, and this will mean that the data I gather is going to be partly dependent on these reactions. Also, I will probably react in various ways to the people I encounter as part of my research, thanks to my political commitments, my spiritual background, my class, race and gender identity, and the kinds of spaces I feel comfortable in and less comfortable in. So, I’m starting to do some of the reflexive work that researchers need to do in order to be aware of the ways in which we ourselves might affect the data gathered.

The selection bias that comes from some people feeling comfortable with being involved in research, and with talking to me as a researcher, was clearly visible in my PhD research with young, mainly white, middle-class classical musicians in England. I played in various youth music groups, and carried out interviews with some of the young musicians, trying to get as wide a variety of interviewees as I could within the groups in question. However, while most of the young people were very happy to be interviewed, there were a few who were reluctant to participate in an interview, or when I did interview them, gave minimal answers and didn’t seem at ease in the encounter. All three of the people with whom this happened were young men, and two were British Asian young men. I think this is significant – i.e. this pattern wasn’t by chance. I don’t know precisely why it happened, but I can speculate that either they felt uncomfortable talking to me (maybe because of my overwhelming good looks), or they felt uncomfortable with talking about their lives. Or there may have been another reason. Either way, it affected the story I was able to tell about these groups, because I was not able to represent the experience of British Asian participants in these groups (this happened with the only two British Asian young people in any of my groups).

There is some really excellent work on the problems with using interviews as a method for doing research with certain groups, most notably those in more precarious positions in society who are surveilled with similar techniques to those used by social research, including interviews. I’m going to quote at length from Emma Jackson’s new book on young homeless people in London (Jackson, 2015), because she makes the point much better than I could:

I’m in the counselling room with Pete. I’ve known Pete for a few months and during this time I have see him go from being withdrawn and institutionalised, following a stint in prison, to becoming a stalwart of the centre [for young homeless people]. Before starting the interview with Pete, I do my customary briefing. I explain the purpose of the interview, assure anonymity, etc… Pete stops me in my tracks with a wave of the hand. ‘It’s fine’, he says, ‘I’ve been in enough police stations’. I explain in a flustered manner that this is different. Pete agrees. They have much bigger tape recorders in the police station. (Field Notes)

EMMA: Do you ever feel like you’re asked too many questions all the time?

PETE: No, if people ask me personal things I’ll tell them. But if they want to hear something else I’ll tell them what they want to hear… don’t tell them nothing else, just what they want to hear.

EMMA: Really? Like, what kind of people are you talking about?

PETE: Psychiatrists and all that. Keyworkers in my hostel.

EMMA: So how do you know what they want to hear?

PETE: [cheery voice] ‘Oh it was good!’ [Emma laughs] because if I say ‘It’s good,’ it’s quicker, it’s over. If I say, ‘It’s shit,’ then they go ‘Why?’


This extract highlights one of the issues in using interviews for social research. For those who have experienced being questioned by people in positions of authority (school, police, health professionals, social workers, and a particularly scary one – immigration officers) then the interview may take on these resonances. The interviewee is being asked to account for themselves and their lives in ways that seem to us as researchers entirely benign, but may not be experienced as such. I suspect this may have been the case with one of the young men in my research. I found out after I had – somewhat unsuccessfully – interviewed him that he had dropped out of sixth form college (although he hadn’t volunteered this information to me). Presumably he was having to account for himself to various adults at this juncture in his life, and I was just another of them. No matter how friendly and unthreatening I tried to be, I was still asking him lots of questions about his life. He didn’t have any reason to trust me, and after reflecting on this interview I found myself surprised that most of the young people in my research were, in fact, very comfortable in an interview encounter.

Historically, as Jackson goes on to describe and Steedman (2000) also documents, it has been the working class who were subject to this surveillance. For the Get Creative research project, the risk of appearing to be in a role of surveillance is potentially exacerbated if we bring up the idea of ‘the arts’. An early, provisional title for the Get Creative campaign was, ‘Where the art is’. While the campaign eventually became ‘Get Creative’, it is still hosted online by BBC Arts and a lot of the organisations involved are self-declared arts organisations. This is important for us to be aware of as some individuals and groups in the research may be put off by talk of ‘the arts’. As Jermyn and Desai (2000) found, drawing on in-depth group discussions with African, Caribbean, South Asian and Chinese people, many thought the arts had an off-putting and elitist image, and assumed that such events were mainly for ‘posh’ people, those over 35 years old and white people. It remains to be seen whether ‘creativity’ elicits similar associations or not. However, as a white, middle-class person from an academic institution, asking people in close detail about how they spend their leisure time, I can expect some people to feel intimidated, uncomfortable, or to avoid the encounter entirely. A further danger in asking about the arts and/or creative practices in interviews is that the interviewee feels they need to present themselves in a particular light. The technical term is interviewer bias, but for me this phrase implies that it is possible to get rid of the sources of bias to acquire untarnished ‘data’, whereas in fact what is required is to reflect on how the conditions in which the interview is carried out, and the nature of the interview encounter itself, will affect the type of knowledge that is formed on the basis of it.

These problems with interviews are one of the reasons for including ethnography in the project. Ethnography is a method from anthropology which basically just means hanging out with people over a period of time, doing what they’re doing, being where they’re being. One of the advantages of this is that both the researcher and the participants in the research can get beyond their initial judgements of the other, and the research can therefore get much closer to what usually goes on in a particular setting than an interview can, as is evident in Emma Jackson’s ethnography (above). This is particularly interesting in relation to ethnographic work across classes. Recent research by Vincent et al. (2015) found that both adults and children (in London) were more likely to make friends across ethnic differences than across class differences. This makes sense to me – I’m constantly amazed by how frequently and how subtly British people make judgements – even semi-conscious ones – around class. (My favourite one is how often British people tell me ‘You’re not wearing any shoes’, as though I might not have realised this. I only recently realised that this was one of these judgements. In the UK, it seems that not wearing shoes is associated with poverty or not being respectable, whereas for New Zealanders, it’s just that we aren’t particularly into shoes. We’re on the beach all the time, you see). So, given that people may not make friendships or hang out in mixed-class groups, then we may underestimate how big a cultural gap there can be. Ethnography can be a way of helping to get around this. I say ‘helping’ because the judgements of what is ‘normal’ and what is not may take some time to unpick, and the histories of surveillance and accountability that are directed at the working classes may take a long time to become visible to those (such as myself) who have rarely been subjected to them.

The biggest advantage of ethnography, I think, though, is that it can get to the difference between what people say they do, and what they actually do. I know that I would not be totally honest with an interviewer about many things in my life – I’m not even that honest with myself about certain things in my life (yes, I exercise fairly regularly…). So when we’re talking about questions of cultural value, as we will be in this research, it will be helpful to see this in action.

There’s plenty more reflexive thinking to be done around this project. I’ve also been thinking about a comment from Belfiore and Bennett’s in relation to arts research, that it often tends towards advocacy (Belfiore and Bennett, 2008). I assume that this is because people who do research in the arts tend to also have some commitment towards the arts. This is also the case for me – I used to work as a professional musician, a very long time ago – but I have a somewhat ambivalent relationship with it, so I think this is less of an issue than the very real danger of appearing like an interfering middle-class numpty.


Belfiore, E., Bennett, O., 2008. The Social Impact of the Arts: An Intellectual History. Palgrave Schol, Print UK, New York.

Belfiore, E., Bennett, O., 2007. Rethinking the Social Impacts of the Arts. Int. J. Cult. Policy 13, 135–151. doi:10.1080/10286630701342741

Jackson, E., 2015. Young Homeless People and Urban Space: Fixed in Mobility. Routledge.

Jermyn, H., Desai, P., 2000. Arts – what’s in a word? Arts Council England.

Steedman, C., 2000. Enforced narratives: stories of another self, in: Coslett, T., Lury, C., Summerfield, P. (Eds.), Feminism and Autobiography, Transformations : Thinking through Feminism. Routledge, London.

Vincent, C., Neal, S., Iqbal, H., 2015. Friendship and Diversity. Children’s and Adults’ Friendships Across Social Class and Ethnic Difference.

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