The Research Interview as Performance

The research interview can be viewed in dramaturgical terms and the concept of performing in interview contexts is explored albeit somewhat superficially by Pam Shakespeare in her work on the subject of the confused talk of people with dementia (Shakespeare, 1993: 95).  She uses the metaphor of theatrical imagery to understand the processes behind her interviews and uses the metaphors of ‘overture and beginners’, ‘researcher as actor’, ‘scene stealing’, ‘improvising’, ‘researcher as director’, ‘dying on stage’, ‘out of the spotlight’, ‘asides’ and ‘the final curtain’.   Whilst she readily admits that this is not a disciplined dramaturgical interpretation qua Goffman (Shakespeare, 1993: 97),  Goffman on the other hand proposes a number of concepts which have a significant resonance in the processes of the research interview: these include The Drama, Front, Credibility, Signs and Signifiers, Appearance and Manner, Risk Taking, Front Stage, Back Stage and Off Stage amongst others (Goffman, 1959).

In performance terms, the interview  can also be conceived of as a combination of varying degrees of structure, flow, and rapport which the interviewer needs to control by the judicious use of structured moments, improvised moments and free form. As such, the interview resembles  a  jazz composition more than a pop song or symphony, both of which are highly structured events, albeit spread over significantly different periods of time.

The challenge for the semi-structured research interview is to find the balance between structure and improvisation, itself a common issue in the performing arts; too much structure can make a piece predictable and boring; too little can produce chaos, confusion and end up leaving the listener disconnected from the performance experience.  A similar heuristic applies to the performance of the interview too; a balance of structure and improvisation is important for both participants’ continued interest and engagement in the process although what cannot be forgotten in that balance is the question of who initiated the interview and for what purpose. Paynter (200:8)  offers another interpretation from the practice of musical composition: On the subject of children’s poem David Holbrook (1967:8) says, ‘the least piece of writing, if the teacher has established the context for proper ‘giving’, will be a ‘meant gift’’.  We can apply that to school pupils’ composing.  The music they make is ‘offered’ to us and should be received in that same spirit.  In my experience there is always something of genuine musical worth to be discussed as seriously as we would with recognised master-works.

Paynter’s view of composition as a gift of improvisation, redolent of the structure of a piece of jazz music suggests that the interview process can be viewed in a similar light: a form of expression,  a gift,  which speaks of that artist’s (or interviewee’s) hopes, fears and emotions albeit  in a response to questions by the viewer (or inter-viewer).  In this interpretation, the interview process is potentially a constructive process as a  synthesis of new ideas and knowledge arises as a result of the interactions between interviewer and interviewee.

Author: drnicko

Awarded an MBE for services to arts-based businesses, I am passionate about generating inspiring, socially engaging, creative practice within educational contexts both nationally and internationally.

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