Research Methods

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Can interview method be decolonised? Some reflections!

By Riadh Ghemmour

‘All of the things I’ve learned about in academia don’t come from an Indigenous paradigm. Even the idea of interviews, I was writing about that and thought, ‘Well, we don’t do interviews in Aboriginal culture. We have discussions and talks’’

(A conversation with Kathy Absolon and Margaret Kovach, adopted from Kovach (2010), p. 152)
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We all have been interviewed at some point in our lives, at schools, at universities, for jobs, by the police – if it happened-, watched or read an interview of a renowned celebrity or scholar. We also all know the format of interviewing where the interviewer asks specific questions and the interviewee responds accordingly. In this reflective piece, I invite you to move away from our everyday experience of interviewing and reflect on the use of interviews, as a research method commonly used in research within social sciences, taking into consideration its historical as well as paradigmatic, methodological and axiological shifts. In addition, this reflection is an attempt to consider whether mainstream practices of interview method can be decolonised to better suit cultural and ethical practices of transnational and Indigenous communities.

Historical and paradigmatic developments of interview method

Interview method is best associated with qualitative research which has its roots in early practices of anthropology and sociology. Indeed, interview has been a popular method of research for many qualitative researchers to elicit people’s lived experiences, stories and perceptions about a particular social phenomenon (Kvale, 2005). Denzin & Lincoln (2011), two influential scholars in social sciences, explain that interview method praxis has been shaped by distinct waves of epistemological theorisations from positivistpostpositivist objectivity and value-free to interpretive subjectivity. Therefore, using interview method in each philosophical view would have a different practice and goal. Early explanation of Kvale (1996), who wrote extensively about interviews, used an interesting metaphor to refer to interviewer as miner or traveller; the miner would wish to ‘discover’ knowledge which is ‘out there’ through uncovering nuggets of truth while the traveller would engage in a mutual interaction and journey, alongside interviewees, through experiences and stories to co-construct knowledge.

In what follow, I briefly discuss the philosophical shifts of interviews over the years and interrupt our thinking for a while to reflect on dominant praxis of interview method in research, and consider whether such method could be decolonised (or de-centred?) through inviting other ways of knowing and being in theorizing the method.

Kvale’s metaphor of the interviewer as a minor is more applied in the positivist approach. The basic tenet of this philosophy of knowledge production is based on ‘facts’ and ‘truths’ through maintaining objectivity and careful measures. Positivist researchers use interviews to generate knowledge which is objective and value free through adhering to systematic steps. For example, interviewees are all asked same questions in the same way. The credibility of data gathered from interviews are checked through comparing and contrasting what interviewees share alongside researchers’ observations and records. So, the positivist approach is grounded in mechanistic framework, also known as ‘triangulation’. The end goal is to generate knowledge and results which should be replicable.

However, positivists’ practices of interviews received many critics. For instance, interpretivist researchers came against the objectivity and value-free of knowledge production of positivists. Interpretivists are concerned with meaning-making of social phenomena to reach understanding. Thus, using interviews in interpretive research require inter-subjectivity and inter-connectedness of researcher and participant. Kvale’s metaphor of the interviewer as traveller is likely to fit this approach. The researcher and the participant journey together to explore social experiences through dialogue and empathy. Thus, knowledge and ‘truth’ are co-constructed through ‘fusion of horizons’ (Gadamar, 2014).

Another group of researchers who theorised and used interviews differently are feminist researchers. Indeed, feminist researchers contributed in shaping and re-shaping interview praxis, hence writing extensively on the topic (see e.g. Doucet & Mauthner, 2007; Hesse-Biber, 2012). Many feminist researchers believed that the practices of interview method were still ‘male-dominated’ nor did they fully capture the accounts of women. As a result, they developed their own feminist principles in conducting interviews which challenge power relations between the researcher and the participant; the researcher invites reciprocity through sharing personal accounts of a social phenomenon with the participant to reduce power dynamics (see Oakley, 1981; Stanley & Wise, 2002 for excellent discussion). Feminists’ contribution to developing and stimulating such discussions is undeniable, which also clearly have implications on knowledge production.

Clearly, interview method traversed and witnessed several historical and epistemological shifts which had -and still have- implications on the nature of knowledge production and the overall research process. In what follow, I provide a personal reflection to challenge mainstream epistemologies and practices of interview, and consider whether the method can be theorised, and eventually used following a decolonising standpoint.

Challenging mainstream praxis of interview method: a decolonising turn?

My idea of potentially decolonising interview method started when I felt that some of its practices and ethics protocols, which I was introduced during my MSc programme in the UK and through consulting the scholarship, might not always be relevant in transnational contexts, well at least in Algeria (where I am originally from and did my fieldwork for my PhD). Smith (2012), a renowned scholar who wrote extensively in decolonisation, states, ‘most of the ‘traditional’ disciplines are grounded in cultural world-views which are either antagonistic to other belief systems or have no methodology for dealing with other knowledge systems.’ (p.65). On this note, there clearly is a need to re-think and develop culturally appropriate methodologies and methods which are relevant to transnational and Indigenous communities. If we take the example of PhD programmes in social sciences, namely education, many doctoral students in the UK are encouraged to reproduce some kind of learning inputs which are likely to be mainstream and conventional. But have we, as social scientists and educators, thought of those implications on culturally diverse societies? Let’s take the example of anonymity and confidentiality which are key ethical practices in interviewing. Chilisa (2020), an African postcolonial scholar, believes that anonymity and confidentiality are open to critics because participants should be given the option to either reveal their names or not. She further explains, in line with Wilson’s (2008) viewpoint, that stories lose their power and authenticity, and can no longer be traced back to their originators if researchers take decisions to anonymise them. Such claims lead us also to re-think institutional ethical policies which are likely to be viewed as the ‘norms’ by many researchers. However, Wilson (2008) challenges his own claim and believes that participants revealing sensitive accounts about their lives should still be treated with care and cautiousness. In other contexts, the use of interviewing cause cultural inappropriateness. For instance, in Confucian context, it could be culturally inappropriate to ask people, especially elders, to share personal accounts and experiences with researchers (Park & Lunt, 2015). Therefore, there is an urgent need to understand the complexities of local and cultural settings to develop culturally derived methodologies and methods than following, religiously, the ‘recipes’ of interview textbooks.

Indeed, there were some attempts and contributions of some non-Indigenous and Indigenous researchers who propose a decolonial standpoint to using interviews. Kovach (2010) is one of them. I have quoted the author at the beginning of this piece who claims that in many Aboriginal cultures, people have discussions and talks. This reminds me of my own community too- Algeria! Algerians enjoy talking- sometimes long talks! When I did my fieldwork in Algeria, I was capturing my participants’ stories through conversations where we mutually engaged in discussions which did not feel like interviews at all. Doing so, I sensed that participants, including myself, were more relaxed, open, and engaged. Therefore, I described my ‘interviews’ as ‘conversations’. Other Indigenous scholars described theirs as ‘yarning’ (Bessarab, 2008) or ‘collaborative storying’ (Bishop, 1999) or sharing circles (also known as focus groups in mainstream discourse) (Chilisa, 2020; Wright, 2017). In addition, it is worth highlighting that those discussions around decolonising interviews have been developed alongside a new paradigm known as, Indigenous research paradigm which according to Wilson (2008) supports interviews’ paradigmatic justifications. The philosophy behind this decolonial approach is based on relationality and relational accountability (See Wilson, 2008 for excellent discussion).

Clearly, Indigenous and postcolonial scholars are shaping the way interviews are theorised and conducted in Indigenous and transnational contexts. Therefore, we, as social scientists, educators and curriculum developers, need to acknowledge different ways of being and knowing, and legitimise them in research. But most importantly, re-think the way universities (either in the UK or abroad) teach research methods, especially with the diversity of international students doing research degrees and undertaking fieldwork in their respective home countries. 

Reference list

Arksey, H., and Knight, P. (1999). Interviewing for social scientists: An introductory resource with examples. London: SAGE.

Bessarab, D. (2008). Yarning about different types of yarning in the doing of Indigenous  research.  Fourth International Congress of Qualitative Inquiry, Illinois, USA, May 14-17

Bishop, R. (1999). Collaborative storytelling: Meeting Indigenous people’s desires for self determination. Paper presented at the World Indigenous People’s conference, Albuquerque, New Mexico, June 15-22

Chilisa, B. (2020). Indigenous research methodologies. [S.l.]: SAGE Publicatons INC.

Denzin, N., & Lincoln, Y. (2011). The Sage handbook of qualitative research. Los Angeles: Sage Publications.

Doucet, A., and N. Mauthner. (2007). “Feminist Methodologies and Epistemologies.” In The Handbook of 21st Century Sociology, Vol. 2, edited by C. D. Bryant and D. L. Peck, pp, 32-46. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Gadamer, H. (2014). Truth and method. London: Bloomsbury Academic.

Hesse-Biber, S. (2012). Handbook of feminist research. Thousand Oaks: SAGE.

King, N., & Horrocks, C. (2010). Interviewing in qualitative research. London: SAGE

Kovach, M. (2010). Indigenous methodologies. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Kvale, S. (2005). InterViews. Sage.

Kvale, S. (1996). Interviews: an introduction to qualitative interviewing. London: Sage.

Kvale, S., and Brinkmann, S. (2009). Interviews: Learning the craft of qualitative research interviewing. 2d ed. Los Angeles and London: SAGE.

Oakley, A. (1981). Interviewing women: a contradiction in terms. In H. Roberts, Doing feminist research (pp. 30-61). London: Routledge.

Park, S., & Lunt, N. (2020). Confucianism and Qualitative Interviewing: Working Seoul to Soul. Retrieved from (accessed on 27 March 2020)

Scannell, P. (2007). Media and Communication, London: Sage. 

Stanley, L., & Wise, S. (2002). Breaking Out Again. Hoboken: Taylor and Francis.

Travers, M. (2001). Feminism and qualitative research. In Travers, M. Introducing Qualitative Methods: Qualitative research through case studies (pp. 132-150). London: SAGE Publications Ltd doi: 10.4135/9781849209724

Wilson, S. (2008). Research is ceremony. Black Point, N.S.: Fernwood Pub.

Wright, R. (2017). The Stain of Colonialism’ Is Educational Psychology ‘haunted’ by the effects of Colonialism? Using Decolonised Methodologies to Interrogate Practice  (Doctoral Thesis). The University of Sheffield.

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