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Stories of the unspoken

Lookup NU author(s): Dr Stefanie ReissnerORCiD


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Normal 0 false false false EN-GB X-NONE X-NONE Research interviews, a common form of data collection in qualitative organisational research, focus on the spoken word through which researchers want to learn from the interviewee about the phenomenon in question. Typically, they are recorded for analysis purposes and often also as evidence. However, the research interview is a bounded space (Mishler 1986), which implies that not everything that could be said is indeed being said, making the more symbolic unspoken an integral part of the research interview. Yet, the unspoken does not feature prominently in the research literature which hinders both debate among experienced researchers and an opportunity for novice researchers to learn the ropes of the trade. I wonder whether researchers take the unspoken for granted or whether it is symptomatic of a more general reluctance among researchers to share our struggles. But why should we, the research community, be concerned with the unspoken in the first place? The unspoken does not exist, there is typically no evidence on an interview recording. In that sense, the unspoken differs from silence which has been raised in the research literature, albeit rarely (e.g. Mazzei 2003). Silence is often tangible – a pause in a flow of words, reluctance to answer a particular question, perhaps even a clear statement by the interviewee that they do not wish to talk about something. The reasons for silence are manifold – fear of being penalised for saying the wrong thing, a lack of confidence that one has something to say at all, or a lack of trust in the interviewer. The unspoken is much less tangible, much more difficult to identify and express. It can be present in very long, wordy and, at first glance, rich interviews and it does not necessarily have to be present in unsatisfyingly short ones. However, in many instances, the researcher has some kind of hunch that there is something missing. This, of course, is not very scientific, and even though qualitative researchers tend to acknowledge their involvement in and shaping of the research, there seems to be some reluctance to admit to being guided by some kind of feeling, which may turn out to be completely unjustified. So, should we, the research community, continue to ignore the unspoken or should we share our stories of the unspoken among ourselves, discuss them and learn from them? The difficulty with the unspoken is epistemological – how can we know and conceptualise something that does not exist as such? And this epistemological conundrum may be the prime reason behind the reluctance among the research community to discuss the unspoken. On the other hand, discussing the unspoken may help researchers to make previously tacit assumptions explicit and to become more aware of the unspoken in their research, which in turn can draw their attention to more symbolic meanings of the data. This would provide a real opportunity to enhance both research practice and the development of new researchers. The unspoken has ‘no clear boundaries, no hard analytical edge of definition’ (Mazzei 2003, 255) and from an epistemological perspective it remains unclear how researchers can create knowledge from something of whose existence and meaning they cannot be certain. From an ethical perspective, the unspoken is problematic, too, because it remains unclear how researchers can interpret the unspoken as intended by the interviewee rather than filling in something that the researcher perceives as remaining unspoken with something that they want to say (drawing on Mazzei 2003). Let me tell you a story from the field to illustrate my concerns: In 2010 I interview Eveline, a young clerical worker in a public-private partnership for my research into the dynamics of managerial storytelling. I am interested in how she learns about what is going on in her organisation and how her line manager communicates with her (i.e. in list or in story form, see Browning 1992). The interview is largely open-ended to allow her and her fellow interviewees to tell me their story (Czarniawska 2004). Eveline explains her daily work to me, which involves routine processing, and sketches out what she knows about forthcoming changes to her department. The following is an excerpt from our conversation, which is typical for the interview: Interviewer: How has change been communicated, how do you get to know about what’s going to happen in your department? Respondent: It’s mainly emails and they do sometimes do these events, like a communication thing, but the majority of things come through the email. Interviewer: Do you have team meetings? Respondent: Yes, but we always had team meetings, even as being part of the [public sector parent], so that hasn’t really changed. Um, I know our CEO does round table events, but it’s just if you want to turn up, if you’ve got anything to comment on. So, I haven’t actually been to one. Interviewer: Are they popular among your colleagues, do you know? Respondent: I don’t. Well that has just changed as well, it used to be like all departments together, and because people weren’t turning up, they’ve split it down and each department gets to go on their own round table now. So I don’t know if they will become more popular now that it’s not as many departments in one. Interviewer: Why do you think that turnout hasn’t been great? Respondent: I don’t know. I mean personally, I just think it’s a bit of a waste of time. Well I wouldn’t like to sit in a room full of people and make my point, because sometimes you would feel like you are coming across as being a bit stupid if you ask something that other people will look at you and say – what are you asking that for? So it might not be so bad now that it’s just your department, because at least you will know the people that you are going to be sitting with. Interviewer: How would you like make your views heard? Respondent: I would probably go through my line manager and expect that they would take it higher if it needed to be, but I don’t really have any pressing issues that I do want to go to the CEO about anyway (laughter). It is probably not surprising that this interview only lasted 30 minutes in comparison to an average of almost 75 minutes. Eveline appeared nervous throughout the interview as frequent short laughs suggest. Just before she slipped quietly out of the room, Eveline said to me ‘I’m probably not the best person to have spoken to, it’s just [pause] I haven’t enjoyed my job for a while, and that’s nothing to do with [the organisation] [laughs nervously].’ With that statement, Eveline has helped me greatly because it explains why she seemed to have so little to say. It provided a clue to what remained unspoken in the interview to contextualise it and aid my interpretation. Without that statement, I would have wondered throughout the analysis stage about what was going on in that interview (something that I wondered about throughout the interview itself). Without it, I may have suggested that Eveline did not trust me, did not want to tell me what was going on. I may even have suggested that Eveline was afraid to tell me about communication in her organisation. More worryingly, I may have used this interview to challenge others on the wrong premise by overinterpreting it (Mishler 1986 drawing on Schuman 1982). But not all interviewees make it as easy for the researcher to pinpoint to what remained unspoken in the interview, as the following story from the field illustrates: A few days after my interview with Eveline I interview Tom, another young, clerical worker at the same organisation who works in a different department. He agreed at short notice to take up the place of a colleague who was scheduled at a particular date by mistake. Before the start of the interview, I explain the interview procedure, including how I ensure anonymity and confidentiality, and ask him if he has any further questions. Tom answers in the negative, signs the consent form and the interview begins. It goes well (I think), Tom has a lot to say about change and communication in his organisation and is generally quite positive about his work and employer and he does most of the talking. Then this happens: Respondent: Who’s going to listen to this by the way? Interviewer: That’s me and the person who’s transcribing it, but she won’t know who you are. Respondent: And this information then goes where, does it go together rather than individuals said this and that? Interviewer: Yes, it goes together, it’s a computer programme called NVivo where I can interpret what’s going on. Respondent: Any everyone’s comments will be inserted into that? Interviewer: Everyone’s will be analysed, interpreted individually, but then obviously the thing bringing together what everyone has said. I think that there’re two if not three main outputs, one is a report back to [the organisation] saying look this is what I’ve found. ... The bulk will be communicated through academic journals, ... again it’s about themes that emerge from the data, and I may use excerpts from the interviews, but then it would be said that it was a manager or a frontline employee. So you won’t be identified. Respondent: I’m not saying anything out of turn like, but I just, you always worry about how far things can be [pause]. Interviewer: You know, my interest is mainly analytical. Now part of that as I promised to the funders, the findings will be communicated to practicing managers, to consultants, about what is this story-telling thing all about, what might be some of the strategies that are being used quite effectively, what are the things that don’t work, because managerial story-telling being portrayed as all singing, all dancing and I don’t think it is. But you know that is probably two years down the line from now. The other thing is, again that’s a promise to the funders, they are quite interested in the data in case anybody would like to go over the data again. That’s held in a database called the Economic and Social Data Service, ESDS, and all they get is a copy of the transcript, without knowing who you are. It might say that the interviewee was a male, frontline employee, age group [x] working for that particular organisation for [y] years kind of thing. They won’t know who the organisation was either, it would be described as a private/public sector partnership, but it’s all anonymous to protect the company and also yourselves, and I think that is only fair to do. After this exchange, the plot and tone of Tom’s story changes, much to my surprise. Tom talks about his concerns about forthcoming changes in his department, how he fears that his role (which he enjoys) may change and that there is an atmosphere of concern among his colleagues. The interview is almost split in half – the first half is about the story that management would want Tom to tell and the second half is about Tom, his hopes, fears and expectations. There are two plausible interpretations of these dynamics. Firstly, Tom may have been suspicious of my motives and those of his employer to invite him to participate in the research. He may have been overwhelmed by the invitation to be interviewed at short notice and did not want to decline for some reason. If he had been invited formally to the interview and with more notice (as was the norm), he would have had more time to prepare and may even have declined (like several of his colleagues). It seemed vital to him that he could not be identified and therefore could not be penalised for telling me what he really thought. In both halves of the interview, Tom seemed to tell me what he thought I wanted to hear: in the first half, about how great the organisations is (perhaps mixed with some fear about being deviant) and in the second half, about his real experiences (after having been reassured of anonymity) – even though this strongly coincided with his own agenda of expressing frustration and fear. Stories can and do change as the interview progresses as interviewer and interviewee (re)construct meaning (Kvale 2007) and by doing so reconstruct reality (Berger and Luckmann 1966, Bruner 1991). This implies that there is no hidden, objective and rich treasure of observations, stories and nuanced meanings – all these emerge in conversation if the researcher has built trust and personal credibility with the interviewee. Secondly, Tom may have become aware while talking to me that he no longer believes the story he was telling me. As happens occasionally in research interviews, interviewees can discover something new about themselves and their organisation (Author), and the moment when Tom stopped and asked me about what would happen to the data may have been such an instance. My reassurance of anonymity and confidentiality may have helped him to build the trust necessary to allow me a glimpse into his real experiences and feelings. Goffman’s (1969) distinction between the front region and back region may help to conceptualise the unspoken in this context. In the front region, the organisational actor performs on a stage. In the research interview, this stage is the interview room with the researcher and his/her equipment. In Tom’s case, the performance was convincing, even though I would probably have wondered if Tom might have been a bit too positive if the interview had continued in the way it started. In the back region, everything that made the performance possible in the first place is happening. In the research interview, these are the organisational and personal events that the interviewee has made or is making meaningful (Weick 1995). Organisational actors do only rarely share the back-region ‘stuff’ with outsiders, and the above incidence in Tom’s interview was one of them. Such rare moments speak of the interviewee’s trust in the researcher and perhaps faith that the researcher can make their story heard to bring about positive change in what are often very difficult circumstances for the individual. However, in other research interviews, the researcher may get even smaller glimpses into the back region which is not being contextualised by the interviewee and therefore difficult to identify and understand for the researcher. It is an integral part of what Watson (2011) calls ethnography as a way of studying organisational phenomena. Yet, it is such instances that I am concerned about from an epistemological and ethical perspective: how do I know that something remains unspoken and how do I do justice to the interviewee? Despite my attempts to create my research interviews as a genuine dialogue, power asymmetries in the relationship with my participants do exist (Kvale 2006): It is I who assigns meaning to what my interviewees tell me during the interview and more problematically what they may not say. I therefore have a real interest in minimising what remains unspoken and have developed strategies to encourage my interviewees to tell me what I came to learn about. This includes rephrasing the question, revisiting the topic at a later stage, inviting the interviewee explicitly to tell me more, sharing my own experiences or using silence and unfinished sentences. Sometimes this is not enough and I need to look at ‘the bigger picture’, i.e. any fears or unmet expectations that the interviewee may have, any mismatch between verbal and non-verbal communication, any symbolic statements or gestures as well as the atmosphere and dynamics of the interview – all of which I tend to capture in memos that I analyse together with the interview on which they reflect. This gives my research an ethnographic dimension, adding to the thick description (Geertz 1973; Denzin 1989) that many qualitative researchers aspire to. But all of this does not always help and I suggest that such difficulties ought to be debated more widely among the research community. Discussion about such instances takes place in universities all the time, informally with colleagues, with doctorate supervisors or in research seminars but we should share them with our fellow researchers more openly to raise awareness of our research practice, to discuss it and to experiment with new and potentially more fruitful approaches to enhance it. Now may be the right time to make a start.

Publication metadata

Author(s): Reissner SC

Publication type: Conference Proceedings (inc. Abstract)

Publication status: Published

Conference Name: 27th EGOS Colloquium

Year of Conference: 2011