When interviews are conducted, there is the assumption that the researcher is receiving information from the interviewee. The interview is a staged conversation that will be interpreted by the researcher, who is sometimes placed in a position of superior knowledge.
The outputs of an interview are usually a recording and some kind of transcript that is then interpreted by the researcher as a representation of reality. Actor-network theory (ANT) rejects the idea that reality can be represented: ANT asserts that reality cannot be separated from any kind of interpretation and representation, as this creates its own reality.
As Law (2004) suggests, practice precedes reality, not the other way around. Mulcahy (1999:81) relates that “I came to understand that the tale I was telling of my network was complicit with the tale it was telling of itself”. ANT focuses on the description of everyday minutiae, and the idea of humans and non-humans assembling and ordering into networks of practice.
The equal treatment of humans and non-humans presents the question: who, or what, are you interviewing? And if ANT isn’t in the business of representing reality, why interview at all?
One of the essay questions I came across when undertaking my undergraduate degree in Biology was about how evolution could have come about if we accept the second law of thermodynamics; in other words, how could matter organise itself if it is on a trajectory from matter to energy, from order to chaos? One answer is that the world is not a closed system, it is an open system. Evolution can occur because entropy can accelerate elsewhere, rather than having to balance within the system of the earth.
For ANT methodology, it would be useful to consider interviews as an open system rather than a closed system. This may also address the arguments about where to ‘cut the network’. Critique has been levelled at where and when to stop following connections in a network as these could go on forever.
But an open system, such as an ecological system, has no beginning or end. An interview is not just about a researcher talking to a participant, but must also consider the sociomaterial. This includes the email that was sent to set up the interview; the prior websearch to find the participant’s contact details; the chair, desk, office and PC where the researcher conducted their search; the road they travelled to get there; the recording device, the method of communication….and so on. The medium of the interview, such as a Skype interview, may create a greater need to consider materials: if Wi-Fi is weak, for example, the connection breaks and the interview stops.
The equal treatment of humans and non-humans in ANT is described as symmetry. Asymmetry occurs when humans privilege something over the other, such as the status of humans (which can be considered agentic and intentional) or assumed ‘truths’. McLean and Hassard (2004) describe the treatment of symmetry in research as either overblown (absurd) or glossed over (absent).
Symmetry in the context of interviews becomes absurd only if the interview is considered as a closed system. However, if we accept an open system, then who – or what – are researchers interviewing? The ‘human’ you think you are interviewing is actually part of a human and non-human network that they cannot extract themselves from, just as the writing you produce as a researcher is the result of the academic network with forces that shape what you do: Mulcahy (1999:82) describes the body “as an ambivalent form of materiality”.
What I will claim to have done in my research, through interviewing, is to create a space for the participant to speak, and for this to be a way for me to hear accounts about interactions and associations that I couldn’t directly witness.
Researchers might consider the interviewee as a ‘conduit’, as a node in the network where knowledge gathers. But these nodes are not one person or one thing: they are hybrids and assemblages. If researchers are to consider the textures of the practices in which their human participants are entangled (i.e., learning), we must sensitise to the feel of it, the smell, the sound, the noise. This helps to situate the interviews and fieldwork, seeing the interviews as an extension of insights from insiders of the networks.
Law, J. 2004, After method: mess in social science research, Routledge, London.
McLean, C. & Hassard, J. 2004, “Symmetrical absence/symmetrical absurdity: Critical notes on the production of actor‐network accounts”, Journal of Management Studies, vol. 41, no. 3, pp. 493-519.
Mulcahy, D. 1999, “(actor-net) Working bodies and representations: Tales from a training field”, Science, technology, & human values, vol. 24, no. 1, pp. 80-104.