In a moment in which social research is embracing ‘big data’, it is timely to reflect on the status of the qualitative interview.
We must query how different types of data are valued. Qualitative data has long been misunderstood as a feminine form of knowledge production, by virtue of its association with sensitivity and openness rather than reason and logic (Davies and Dodd 2002).
Part of the problem is that the power and knowledge of women continues to be regarded as always entwined with the body (Letherby 2003). The skills and abilities of women are rarely recognised as such because women are imagined as only doing what their bodies ‘naturally’ enable them to do. Rather than steering away from the body, the paper brings it into central focus to emphasise the complexities of its negotiation in interviewing practice.
The discussion is framed around two key concerns.
First, it raises pertinent questions about how women researchers have been interpellated in very particular ways – as empathetic passive enquirers. The paper discusses the broader implications this has for how women are represented and objectified both inside and outside the academy.
Second, the paper argues that more attention needs to be paid to the role and dynamic of sexualisation in research interactions in order to challenge the emphasis on objectivity over situated knowledge. Drawing from my own experiences I demonstrate how it is in the very practice of listening and asking questions that opens up a space in which male respondents think it in some way appropriate to respond in a sexually provocative way – by flirting, making comments about presumed sexuality and private life, propositioning sex, touching, using terms of endearment and behaving with over familiarity.
However, the paper argues that we must also think about sexualisation beyond individual events and aside from imagining male interviewees merely as conduits for oppressive discourses (Presser 2005). It suggests that this entails reaching beyond the description of the performance of gendered roles within the interview and moving away from giving one-size-fits-all type advice on how to manage research relationships. In short, the paper argues that we should not exclude the relevance of the way our interactions develop, but consider how knowledge is ‘the result of a particular engagement in a particular context as a continuous way of ‘becoming’ (Davids and Willemse 2014: 2).
The paper argues that, rather than conceive of the interview as a ‘natural’ encounter, it is better to consider how the interview is composed of a mixture of both the familiar and unfamiliar. It suggests that it is the slippage between the familiar and unfamiliar that can give us deeper understanding of the context in which our research takes place because it opens up a space in which what might otherwise go unsaid is revealed.