The Interview: Control, Power, Popularity

In my book, The Problem with Survey Research, (p. 219) I discuss the interview in terms of control: Interviewers do all they can to “maintain control” of all aspects of interviews s[Grovel, The Art of the Interview, pp. 133-36]; they “exert . . . control over the communication process” and direct the flow of the narrative so that the exact words needed to fulfill their purpose are obtained [Cannell and Kahn, in Lindsey and Aronson, eds., The Handbook of Social Psychology, 2ed ed. (1968), p. 578].

Steiner Kvale, in a 2002 conference paper, “Dialogue as Oppression and Interview Research”, advances my discussion by calling attention to the interview in terms of power; specifically, “the asymmetrical power relations of the research interviewer and the interviewed subject” [p. 9].  Kvale also writes:

“The research interviewer . . . defines the interview situation.  He initiates the interview, determines it theme, poses questions and critically follows up the answers, and terminates the conversation.  The research interview is not a dominance-free dialogue between partners; the interviewer’s research product and knowledge interest rules the conversation”.

“An interview is a one-way questioning.  The role of the interviewer is to ask, and the role of the interviewee is to answer.  It is in bad taste if the interview subject breaks with his ascribed role and starts to question the interviewer.  We are here far from the reciprocal [ex]change of questioning and answering in a spontaneous conversation and in the Socratic dialogue” (p. 12).

“A research interview purses often a more or less hidden agenda.  The interviewer may want to obtain information without the interviewee knowing what the interviewer is after, attempting to–in Shakespeare’s terms–`By indirections find directions out'” (p. 12).

“In the research interview an instrumentalization  of the conversation takes place. . . . The interview is an instrument for providing the researcher with descriptions, narratives, texts, which the researcher then alone interprets and reports” (p, 13).

“In social science research the interviewer has obtained a monopoly of interpretation over the interviewee’s statements. . . . [T]he research interviewer, as the `big interpreter’, maintains an exclusive privilege to interpret and report what the interviewee really meant” (p. 13).

What explains the popularity of such a one-sided, manipulative, mono-power survey research procedure?  Here’s Kvale’s answer: “one reason for the current popularity of the interview as a research method is that it provides liberal humanistic researchers with an illusion of equality and common interests with their interview subjects, while they at the same time retain . . . control of the interview situation and the later use of the interview produced knowledge” (p. 13).

About georgebeam

George Beam is an educator and author. The perspectives that inform his interpretations of the topics of this blog–-as well as his other writings and university courses -–are system analysis, behaviorism, and Internet effects. Specific interests include quality management, methodology, and politics. He is Associate Professor Emeritus, Department of Public Administration; Affiliated Faculty, Department of Political Science; and, previously, Head, Department of Public Administration, University of Illinois at Chicago
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