In a recent research project, I interviewed 20 practicing further education college lecturers about their experiences in initial teacher education programmes. The point of the interviews was to try and understand how the early ‘training’ (a contentious term, but still widely used in the further education sector in the UK) had impacted on their engagement with, and choices of, continuing professional learning. The research was successful in yielding several important insights into the complexity of professional learning in colleges and the effects that early professional formation has on continued career long engagement with learning.
However, post interview and several months after the research was completed, I received emails from three of the lecturers who had been respondents. All described how they had continued to consider their responses and consequently, their practice, after their interview.
Each had gone away from the interview, and in the months between their engagement in the research project and contacting me, had signed up for various courses or events to enhance their learning. These three stated that as a direct result of being interviewed they had made professional choices they would not have otherwise made.
Thankfully these examples are all positive: they were happy and engaged with their career development, however, what if the outcome had been different? What if someone had emailed to say that as a result of the interview process they had realised they no longer wanted to teach or had quit their job?
As Kvale (1996) highlights, it is not surprising that an interview can become a cathartic experience or bring about change in an individual. After all a dedicated listener showing interest in your experiences, interests and professional desires shares many of the same hallmarks as a counselling session or work with a coach or mentor.
The problematic is perhaps better thought of in terms of the fully informed consent of respondents. Issues relating to revealing lived and personal experiences and exposure to unanticipated profoundly changing possibilities are quite real. Through communication with a researcher in an interview designed to understand the lived experiences of a respondent, the chance that some change may come about post interview are quite likely.
This is a useful reminder that interviews are not passive data collecting exercises but human interactions, with as we shall see, consequences.
How does this then come about and why is it important?
In the realm of human interaction, this is particularly well explained from a hermeneutic perspective, Heidegger (1962) asserted that all meaning depends on interpretive context, and as such any interpretation or translation of encounter or information we make (in the process of understanding) then ultimately can only result from the projection on our experience of a background of expectations. Simply, we can only understand and interpret new knowledge and experience through a lens of our already lived and formed history and culture.
This tells us that we our history, culture and beliefs have been constructed through the cumulative effects of encounters (Gadamer (1998) describes this as our horizon) and in encountering this in others (a strange horizon) we seek to gain an understanding or to know, or indeed, get to know (fusion of horizons). This is of central importance when planning and undertaking research using interview based enquiry.
In the hermeneutic tradition, research interviews move beyond the transactional notion of the interviewer requesting knowledge and the respondent being the dutiful supplier. If viewed as a fusion of horizons, it is possible to see that the researcher, through enquiry and interaction, begins to form an understanding of the respondent’s history, culture and beliefs which are interpreted through a lens of personal experience and taken in as a new part of the personal horizon, new knowledge.
However, there is no reason to suggest that this is a one-way street. The respondent in the interview also engages in the interaction and in trying to interpret the question, its context, in formulating an answer and communicating it, they interact. Through the act of engaging with another person, in this instance as a research respondent, there is the possibility that the individual’s horizon (or view and perspective of their world) may be changed.
As humans, we accept (albeit subconsciously) that as we meet, talk with and undertake engagement we begin to know the other person; as we get to know we can take on some of their history, knowledge and beliefs. Indeed, this is the formation of a relationship. This is the same with a research interview, with the exception that the balance of power is tilted in favour of the researcher and as such, the burden of ethical responsibility is taken as given.
Acknowledgement in the early stage of projects that interviews are not data mining activities but meaningful interactions for both parties, is critical in the ethical approach to research design.
Meaningful and informed interaction between individuals in the form interviews, aimed at forming a collaborative understanding of lived experience may offer significant opportunity to explore new learning for researchers and professionals alike. Utilising research projects for opportunities in professional learning may be a way of opening new dialogue between researchers and professionals. After all, as Gadamer eloquently states, understanding is understanding differently.
Gadamer, H. (1998). Truth and Method 2nd ed. Continuum, New York
Heidegger, M. (1962). Being and Time. Blackwell, London.
Kvale, S. (1996). The Interview Situation. Interviews: An Introduction to Qualitative Research Interviewing, pp.124–159. Sage, Thousand Oaks, California