Interviews are a highly popular research method. In fact, people who adopt WPR frequently offer interviews, often with “key informants”, to supplement the analysis. There are difficulties with this approach. As I’ve argued elsewhere, with Jennifer Bonham (Bacchi and Bonham 2016; Bonham and Bacchi 2017), since WPR challenges any sense of a sovereign subject who stands outside power and who can access “true” meaning, researchers who use interviews as a source of “truth” about an event or an individual’s “experience” face a major theoretical challenge. Atkinson and Stillwell (1997: 306) argue that we live in an “interview society”, where interviews represent a “technology of biographical construction” (think of Oprah Winfrey, ABC’s “One on One”, news reports etc, etc). They put the poststructuralist perspective that such “personal narratives” are not “any more authentic or pure a reflection of the self than any other socially organized set of practices” (Atkinson and Stillwell 1997: 322). It follows that, as St Pierre (2011: 620) notes, if poststructuralists “no longer believe in a disentangled humanist self, individual, person, we have to rethink qualitative methods (interviewing and observation) grounded in that human being as well as humanist representation”.
There are at least four areas where conventional interviewing analytic techniques prove problematic for poststructural researchers:
- The “status” of “the subject” as “authentic self”;
- The “status” of “data”, in the sense of accessible “information”;
- The “status” of “experience” as a static and accessible category (see Scott 1992);
- Assumptions about “memory” as (again) accessible and “truthful”. By contrast, Smith and Watson (2010: 22 in Moon 2016: 37) postulate that remembering is meaning-making by “a reinterpretation of the past in the present”.
Clearly all these areas are interconnected, and none is straightforward.
Several recent contributions explore the possibility of poststructural interview analysis(Niemi and Jahnukainen, 2019; Renedo et al. 2019; Bay et al. 2019). A major challenge in these analyses is the need to avoid lapsing into language use that reinstalls a “choosing” and hence autonomous subject – for example, by talking about “subjects” negotiating among or “drawing upon” (Scharff 2016: 108) competing discourses, or about “subjects” as choosing a particular subject position. There is a need also to be wary of appealing to a subject’s “experience” or “perceptions” as if these stand outside discourse.
Alvesson (2002) offers something he calls “discursive pragmatism” to assist poststructuralists who wish to draw on interview material in their research. This framework allows the use of a post-structuralist framework alongside an interpretive approach:
“where it seems reasonable, interview findings are indeed interpreted as reflections of social practices or the ‘inner life’ of interviewees. In other instances, interviews are seen as a combination of localist influences (such as the position/role of the interviewer/interviewee, location of interviews, gender, age, professional background) and the drawing upon dominant discourses, ‘operating behind and on the subject’ (Alvesson, 2002: 114)”. (Swirak 2013: 55).
The question I broach in this entry is whether or not WPR can be adapted to analyse interview material. I suggest that a “sister strategy” to WPR, which Bonham and I call Poststructural Interview Analysis (PIA; Bacchi and Bonham 2016), provides a useful alternative to Alvesson’s “discursive pragmatism” and illustrates how postructuralists can include interviews among other research materials. Put simply, this approach (PIA) examines precisely “what is said” in interviews and looks to explain how it was/is possible to say those things – what meanings and practices need to be in place for “what is said” to be “sayable” (Rhodes and Lancaster 2021: 7). I describe such meanings and practices as reflecting “conceptual logics” or “cultural logics” (see also “cultural imaginaries” in Spivakovsky and Seear 2017, next Research Hub entry).
In a PIA account, as in WPR, “objects” and “subjects” are not essences but are in “ongoing formation”. Interviews are drawn upon to provide insights into how “subjects” are produced in discourse. This analytic task is accomplished through examining how interviewees “interact” with “subject positions”. Note that I have problematized “interact” (and below “encounter”) to signal how difficult it is to find language that does not reproduce the implication that “subjects” stand outside discourse (see above re the need to be careful with the languages of “negotiating” or “drawing upon” which in my view are more problematic since they clearly situate the subject outside the discourse/s).
The concept of “subject position” is widely used in policy analysis to refer to the “identity categories” made available to “subjects”, categories that reflect specific cultural logics. Think, for example, of some of the common categories “subjects” need to “take up” in order to live and work in Western industrialized democracies – e. g. “citizen”, “migrant”, “welfare recipient”, “single parent”, “male” and “female”. PIA directs attention to how interviewees “encounter” subject positions, where they accept and reinforce them, and at times where they disrupt them. Importantly, there is no implication that acceptance or disruption are intentional interventions, a stance that would reinstall a sovereign subject.
An example best illustrates the dynamic I describe here. The example comes from the 2017 article written with Bonham, and I refer you to that piece for additional context and detail (Bonham and Bacchi 2017). The issue we examine is how some women interviewed for a project studying their return to cycling spoke about themselves as “cyclists”. When asked explicitly if she considered herself a “cyclist”, one interviewee replied that she did not see herself as fitting that category because she doesn’t cycle much on weekends or join groups of people cycling. At another point in the interview, the same interviewee describes some traffic conditions that disturb her:
“The other thing I don’t like is if you’re getting [pause] if you’re stuck at traffic lights a lot, I don’t like getting exhaust in my face. Sometimes it feels a bit unsafe ’cos you’ve got big buses in your bike lane and you’ve got them parked very close to cars [in the adjacent lane]. So as a cyclist you can’t go up the middle … so you have to think so ‘what am I going to do now?’ … I really feel unsafe in this circumstance; there is not provision here for cyclists”. (from Bonham and Bacchi 2017: 697; emphasis added)
In this extract, the interviewee identifies herself as a “cyclist”.
The point in drawing attention to the contrast in the two references to “cyclist” is not to suggest that the interviewee is being inconsistent. Rather, the two uses of the term indicate that the subject position of “cyclist” is fluid and relational. It follows that “subject positions” are not determinative; nor are they fixed. They are not imposed on people but delimit possible ways of being. Furthermore, they are in “ongoing-formation” and hence susceptible to variation, signalling the ever-present possibilities for change.
As illustrated in the case of “cyclist” just discussed, interviews can provide one research site where it is possible to study the production and mutation of subject positions and hence of “subjects”. What becomes important are the factors that lead different meanings to emerge. In the first case the interviewee adopts a normative understanding of “cyclist” as defined by group membership and certain kinds of performance; in the latter case “cyclist” is defined in relation to and in reaction to automobile and bus road occupancy. The two uses of “cyclist” also clearly have important political implications. In the first case, a conventional understanding of “cyclist” as recreational road user (weekends, clubs) is reinforced; in the second case, “cyclists” are located in “traffic”, demanding a space as road users.
The question that arises is – what are researchers to do with the kinds of insight provided in this analysis? In contrast to “discursive pragmatism” (see Alvesson above), PIA highlights the role played by researchers in interpreting and disseminating the “findings” they “extract” from interviews. Instead of seeing researchers as (simply) reiterating and conveying the presumably transparent views of interviewees, Poststructural Interview Analysis emphasizes the political role of interviewers, given the significant political implications of what they distribute and how it is distributed in terms of interpretation and format (Bonham and Bacchi 2017: 698).
Annemarie Mol (2002: 154) reminds us that research methods “are not a way of opening a window on the world, but a way of interfering with it”. Researchers, in this view, are necessarily involved in “ontological politics”, making different or multiple versions of reality (Mol 1999: 74; see Research Hub entry, 10 Dec 2017). In Rhodes and Lancaster’s (2021: 5) terms, “science does not observe a reality, as if ‘from a bridge’, but is ‘immersed’ in its making”. As we have just seen in relation to “cyclists”, how interviewers/researchers approach the material collected in interviews can produce quite different realities – in this case, either reinforcing conventional road usage or, by contrast, developing a potentially transformative alternative.
With Bonham, I conclude that, if interviews are approached solely in terms of providing “access” to “information” or “experiences”, the opportunities for observing and detecting disruptions to dominant narratives are minimized. Poststructural Interview Analysis opens up interviews in new ways to make it possible to consider their transformative potential. Such a stance necessarily alerts researchers to the need to reflect on their own views on issues and how they might easily miss the kinds of “creative tensions” we discover through approaching interviews as political resources rather than as transparent scripts.
Why, I’m asked, did I feel it necessary to develop PIA? Why not simply call it WPR? My decision to develop PIA hinged on the conviction that interviews do not usually provide “guides to conduct” in the ways in which materials adopted for a WPR analysis do. They are not “prescriptive” or “practical texts” (Bacchi 2009: 34). Hence, the basic precept in WPR that proposals contain implicit problem representations (because what we propose to do about something indicates what we think needs to change) would not form a part of these analyses. If “proposals” (to alter conduct) do appear in interviews, these proposals tend to reflect the opinions of interviewees. Hence, the analysis would become an interpretive study of competing understandings (opinions) or perceptions of a “problem” (Bastian and Coveney 2013: 162) rather than a critical analysis of governmental problematizations, as in WPR. At the same time, PIA replicates the poststructural analytic perspective deployed in WPR – a relational ontology based on “how possible” questions (how certain things are “sayable”) and a productive view of power that prescribes to the primacy of politics – which is why I describe it as a “sister strategy” to WPR.
In the next entry I look at some novel applications of WPR to legislative debates and other statements by politicians and legislators.
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