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The Journal of Higher Education 75.1 (2004) 127-132

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Interviews and the Philosophy of Qualitative Research

Patrick Dilley
Southern Illinois University

Interviewing as Qualitative Research: A Guide for Researchers in Education and the Social Sciences, by Irving Seidman (2nd ed.). New York: Teachers College Press, 1998.

InterViews: An Introduction to Qualitative Research Interviewing, by Steinar Kvale. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 1996.

Qualitative Interviewing: The Art of Hearing Data, by Herbert J. Rubin and Irene S. Rubin. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 1995.

Interviewing is key to many forms of qualitative educational research; we interview respondents for oral histories, life histories, ethnographies, and case studies (see Tierney & Dilley, 2002, for an overview of interviewing in education). Despite the primacy of verbal data in qualitative research, basic introductions to qualitative research (including Glesne & Peshkin, 1992; Merriam, 1998; and Rossman & Rallis, 1998) and "how to" guides for conducting qualitative projects (such as Goodall, 2000) include only sections on interviewing. Only within the past decade have book-length explorations of interviewing been produced for an audience of educational researchers (as opposed to, say, anthropologists or sociologists). Of those, three specifically acknowledge the philosophical foundations of interview methodologies. Each examines, in complementary [End Page 127] ways, the relationships between philosophy and protocol, epistemology and research, words and meanings.

Irving Seidman's Interviewing as Qualitative Research (1998) is grounded in the phenomenological tradition of three distinct, thematic interviews designed to question meanings of experience. I find his work is a good starting point for training new researchers, not because the structure of phenomenological interviewing is better than other forms of qualitative interviewing, but because Seidman ties the core of phenomenology to the qualitative philosophy. "Interviewing," Seidman writes,

provides access to the context of people's behavior and thereby provides a way for researchers to understand the meaning of that behavior. A basic assumption in in-depth interviewing research is that the meaning people make of their experience affects the way they carry out that experience. . . . Interviewing allows us to put behavior in context and provides access to understanding their action. (1998, p. 4)

Meaning is not "just the facts," but rather the understandings one has that are specific to the individual (what was said) yet transcendent of the specific (what is the relation between what was said, how it was said, what the listener was attempting to ask or hear, what the speaker was attempting to convey or say). Just as language signifies and is constituted by specifics and abstracts, so too does qualitative research—and interviewing in particular. There are skills—physical, social, mental, communicative—that embody the act of interviewing, but those alone will not determine answers to research questions. For such determinations, budding researchers must learn the skill of comprehension, the complex aptitude and competence of reflection and representation which are perhaps ultimately unteachable by any method than trial and error. As Seidman states,

Researchers must ask themselves what they have learned from doing the interviews, studying the transcripts, marking and labeling them, crafting profiles, and organizing categories of excerpts. What connective threads are there among the experiences of the participants they interviewed? How do they understand and explain these connections? What do they understand now that they did not understand before they began the interviews? What surprises have there been? What confirmations of previous instincts? How have their interviews been consistent with the literature? How inconsistent? How have they gone beyond? (Seidman, 1998, pp. 110-111)

Those are questions for the interviewer, a continuing conversation with one's self about the nature of how we have learned what we know. Interviews should allow us to investigate, in critical ways, our respondents' comprehensions of their experiences and beliefs—as well as our own. Of course, the structure of the interview event shapes the meanings [End Page 128] made (and conveyed) by both the interviewer and the respondent. Seidman emphasizes structuring interview projects and protocols in particular ways to develop this understanding, but appears open to the notion that different questions, which would require different ways of knowing or comprehending, would require different ways...


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