Reflexivity »

The Research Relationship

"Interviewing is currently undergoing not only a methodological change but a much deeper one, related to self and other. The "other" is no longer a distant, aseptic, quantified, sterilized, measured, categorized, and catalogued faceless respondent, but has become a living human being, usually a forgotten or an oppressed oneā€¦up to now sociologically invisible, finally blossoming to full living color and coming into focus as real persons, as the interviewer recognizes them as such. Also, in learning about the other we learn about the self. That is, as we treat the other as a human being, we can no longer remain objective, faceless interviewers, but become human beings and must disclose ourselves, learning about ourselves as we try to learn about the other." Fontana and Frey, Handbook of Qualitative Research, 1998, p. 73

Trust and Rapport

Interviews require a high level of cooperation and at least a basic level of trust between the interviewer and respondent. Rapport between interviewer and respondent is created through friendliness, openness, respectful and sympathetic listening, and a learner's attitude on the part of interviewer. Tacit knowledge of the respondent's culture and some aspect of shared identity can be helpful to establishing rapport, but social differences also create opportunities for rich and informative interactions.

Indicate Interest through Attentive Listening

Some respondents are nervous about their performance in the interview. The interviewer should attempt to reassure them that their thoughts and stories are valuable. Attentive listening will build rapport and encourage the respondent to speak freely. Here are some techniques to indicate that the interviewer is listening with interest:

Tacit Knowledge

Interviewers will share some common understandings with the respondent, which are gained through immersion in a common cultural milieu, or prior personal knowledge of the respondent. Tacit understandings help create rapport. However, respondents may be inhibited or insulted if they feel they are being asked "obvious" questions to which the interviewer already knows the answers.

Shared Identity

There are many facets of identity (race, gender, sexuality, age, language, social class, etc.), some shared, and others sources of social difference. Prior to the encounter it is difficult to predict which characteristics will be most important to the dynamics of the interview. For example, if the interviewer and respondent may identify with one another as women, but have a different racial identity. A woman interviewing a man might connect through having a shared cultural or religious identity. There is mixed evidence about the success of same-sex, same-race interviews compared to interview pairs that cross the obvious categories of social identity.

Although interviewers seek rapport, it is not always possible. Even when there is poor rapport because of lack of identification between interviewer and respondent, there can be much to learn from responses to one another. Such research can provide unexpected and valuable findings.

Social IdentificationSocial Difference
AdvantageEmpathy, trust, access, availability.
  • Interviewer can take a learner's attitude towards the research.
  • Interviewer is not expected to know; respondents must make an effort to explain aspects other members of the group take for granted.
  • Emotional distance can provide clarity and fresh insight.
  • Members may be confused about your switch from a familiar role to that of researcher.
  • The interviewer may experience conflicting commitments.
  • Interviewer may be too familiar to take a learner's attitude towards the research.
  • Challenges in gaining trust.
  • Lack of tacit knowledge. Over-reliance on stereotypes and assumptions.
  • Difficulty gaining access.

Perceived Status Inequality

Interviewer: Aside from their careers, what qualities would you like to see in them [your children]?

Raja: High level. I don't mean they should only become doctors or engineers. My opinion is they should become very popular in the community and also in the country. But not as a politician. In some careers they can do that [become popular]. For example, in Canada, everybody should know Peter Mansbridge, everybody knows Barbara Fromm. Maybe they could write something. If the book is published they put their picture on the first page. There are many ways to be popular. Not like usual people. They should be different than everyone. I have that kind of opinion, but for my age, I got here late. I don't have enough English background. I don't have enough money. I don't have enough subsidy. If I had those things I should become popular here. I must. I know which way to go. But still, with my quality and my poor condition, I did my maximum. But if I was born in Canada, I don't want to sit and talk to you! I don't think so. Never.

Tamil Interview #1


Here Raja reveals his feelings of frustration and discontent about his status relative to the interviewer. Even though this may be taken as an instance of poor rapport, Raja's reaction to the interviewer is interesting. Raja associates the asymmetry of the interview situation with his relatively disadvantaged position as a Tamil immigrant in Canadian society. If his status was higher, he feels he would not submit to being interviewed. He mentions many reasons for why he is not "popular": late age at migration, inadequate "English background, lack of money, and lack of sponsors. In the end, he sums it up in a comparison between himself and the interviewer: he was not born in Canada, whereas she was. It is as though in this moment her Canadian-born status holds up a mirror to Raja's feelings of inferiority and the obstacles he faces to being "popular."

Multiple Agendas

Franca: …the other [son] is doing well. He is very intelligent. The only thing is, he is not married. He thinks he has to find the perfect woman. He fears divorce.

Interviewer: You want him to get married?

Carmelo: As parents, before we die we want to see them married.

Franca: We fight. Back then there were few teaching jobs. He applied to teach at [Catholic school in Toronto] and in [southwestern Ontario]. He got both jobs but accepted the one in [southwestern Ontario], but it was too far for him to travel every day. He taught a year there. He wanted us to sell this house and move to there but my husband didn't want to move. So, he wanted to rent an apartment there. We lent him some money and we convinced him to buy a house. At least it was not a flat. [Note: Because of their past history as tenants most Italian parents don't want their children to rent a home. Most parents encourage their children to buy a home of their own. Most parents financially assist their children to do so.] He bought himself a nice house there. But after that they gave him a job around here. He wanted to buy a home in Toronto but we told him he could come live with us again. He refused. So he bought himself a home at [downtown Toronto neighbourhood]. That home costs a million dollars.

Carmelo: See all this work (pointing to his sun room). He did all this. He studied art.

Franca: He is really intelligent only he's not married.

Carmelo: He said he will find himself a girl, but when?

Franca: On Monday he was over for lunch. I told him that a girl was coming over (referring to me). He said, "What's her name?"

Carmelo: Now he is on vacation in England with the school.

Franca: He wants a girl who is perfect. He has to close his eyes a bit [meaning 'nobody's perfect']. He wants everything to be perfect. He won't find her today. You should see his house. He does everything for himself. He only hates ironing... He cooks... The woman who he gets will be able to go into that house and keep her hands in her pockets [meaning not have to do house work]. He has good furniture...When we go to his house it is spotless.

Interviewer: Is he going to find a woman?

Franca: No… If he finds a woman, he will go as far as to serve her dinner…

[They both talked at length about their son's merits as a potential husband and speculating about why he has not married.]

Carmelo: He sees his co-workers getting divorced and he fears this.

Franca: He wants a good woman and you know how Canadian woman are, wishy-washy. He wants an Italian woman (she laughs). I tell him, today it is a stew.

[They both begin asking me questions]

Franca: Where did you learn to speak Italian so well?

Carmelo: What part of Italy are you from?

Franca: So, you were born in Italy? Even your brothers? How many brothers? Do your brothers work? What does your younger brother study? What would you like to drink?

Italian Interview #4


This excerpt reveals that the interviewer is not the only party with an agenda in the interview situation. The Italian couple attempt to interest the young, single, female Italian interviewer in their unmarried son. The couple "advertises" their son and interviews the interviewer about her eligibility. She allows their questions because learning about their aspirations for their son's marriage, and how they would pursue setting him up is relevant to her research agenda.

Exercise: "Are We in This Together?"

Look for indications of the rapport between the interviewer and the respondent in the following excerpt.

  1. How much was the interview affected by the interviewer and respondent's shared identities and experiences? How much was it shaped by their social and personal differences?
  2. Ultimately, how does the relationship between interviewer and respondent contribute to your understanding of the respondent's views and social world?

Interviewer: Was the thinking before migration based on the understanding that you or your relatives would join the Canadian community or would you join a transplanted St. Vincent and the Grenadines community?

Ruth: I thought I would be integrated, live the life that Canadians do, but we found that they didn't want us! Excuse me for saying that. Maybe I'm wrong. It's hard to fit into the culture, but there's not a close relationship between the Black and White, even if you're married... I wonder if we know each other even among the Blacks because we're different culturally.

Interviewer: Who is your community then?

Ruth: That's a hard question to answer. I would say that I belong to the West Indian community but at the same time I'm in a white area, maybe they're Jewish or what, it doesn't matter. People are people no matter where you're from. I can live anywhere and not feel inferior. Here, they're all very nice.

Interviewer: What is your personal identity? How do you want to be perceived by others, among members of your own community and by the larger society?

Ruth: I'm a human being made in the image the same way you were made, regardless of colour, creed or class. I just know myself as a human being not as West Indian, Black, or Arab, whatever. I'd just leave it.

Caribbean Interview #9

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