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The Complexity of Memory

Even the most lucid and intelligent of respondents has imperfect recall of events of the past. Dates can be particularly difficult to remember. Whenever noticeable omissions or contradictions occur, interviewers should question respondents to make sure their accounts are as accurate and complete as possible.

Lapsed Memory

Interviewer: When did you get married?

Domenico: I got married in 1973. (I questioned this.) Oh no, 1953.

Italian Interview #10

Interviewer: When was the last time you visited Canada before this time?

Antonella: We came two or three years ago.

Daughter-in-law yells from the kitchen: No, 1988.

Antonella: Oh, I don't remember exactly but she says 1988. She remembers better than I do.

Italian Interview #2

Fallible Memory: A Source of Insight

The fallibility of the human memory is often considered as a limitation on what researchers reliably can know through interview methods. What respondents remember or fail to remember, however, can be thought of as a source of insight rather than an impediment to gaining research knowledge.

Memory as Reconstruction

Memory is always a reconstruction, never a reflection of actual events. Consider how even direct observation is partial and selective. We cannot possibly perceive and process the infinite details of our experience in every moment. Moreover, our immediate perceptions of events are filtered through layers of emotion, expectation, language and cognition that omit or amplify aspects of "reality." If experience itself is partial, memory is even more subject to selective processes.

The Problem of Selective Memory

Among the many facets of experience, respondents, guided by the interviewer and their mutual expectations, choose what to talk about and how to talk about it. When researchers see their task as reconstructing historical events as completely as possible, selective memory can be a problem. As a corrective, researchers may interview several people and carefully check for congruity between different accounts.

Selective Memory as Meaningful Performance

Oftentimes, qualitative researchers are more interested in the meanings respondents want to convey than in the bare factuality of their words. Such researchers understand their task as interpretation. Selective memory is always meaningful. What was omitted? What was emphasized? What was exaggerated? And what do remembered accounts tell us about how respondents understand themselves and their worlds?

Selective Memory

Marco: After my 3 month absence from the lumber yard, I returned to find that I still had a job, but at reduced wages, so I looked for other work. I found a job at another lumber yard. I worked there for 27 years. I worked with the shipper, then I became head shipper. Then I retired. The owner liked me a lot. He had a lot of faith in me. Now I'm retired.

Isabela (interrupts): In those 27 years you got very ill, but you continued to work—until he retired. He never once collected unemployment insurance. Late in his work career, the Workman's Compensation Board recognized that his illness had developed on the job. His lungs were "dirty" from the sawdust there. The place lacked proper safety. He was the type of person who enjoyed working. He used the saw a lot. His lungs are still full of the stuff.

Italian Interview #1


Marco's discussion of his work in the lumber yard emphasizes his longevity on the job, promotion to a responsible position and the satisfying work relationship he enjoyed with the owner. He did not speak about the impact of the work on his health, but his wife, Isabela, brought it up emphatically. She would not allow Marco's account of his work history to stand without mentioning how he persisted on the job in spite of serious health hazards and physical hardship. Why did Isabela recall his illness, but not Marco? Reading the whole interview suggests that Marco wanted to convey an image of himself as a capable, reliable family provider who values hard work. Isabela, on the other hand, conveyed that her life work has involved caring for her husband's health and well-being. Therefore, Marco's work-related illness was what she most vividly remembers of his career.

«Emotions as Data Simplifications as a Source of Contradiction»