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From the individual interview to the interview society

Handbook of Interview Research
1 From the Individual Interview to the Interview
Contributors: Jaber F. Gubrium & James A. Holstein
Edited by: Jaber F. Gubrium & James A. Holstein
Book Title: Handbook of Interview Research
Chapter Title: "1 From the Individual Interview to the Interview Society"
Pub. Date: 2001
Access Date: May 30, 2017
Publishing Company: SAGE Publications, Inc.
Print ISBN: 9780761919513
Online ISBN: 9781412973588
Print pages: 2-32
©2001 SAGE Publications, Inc.. All Rights Reserved.
This PDF has been generated from SAGE Knowledge. Please note that the pagination of
the online version will vary from the pagination of the print book.
1 From the Individual Interview to the Interview Society
Jaber F.Gubrium
James A.Holstein
At first glance, the interview seems simple and self-evident. The interviewer coordinates a
conversation aimed at obtaining desired information. He or she makes the initial contact,
schedules the event, designates its location, sets out the ground rules, and then begins to
question the interviewee or “respondent.” Questions elicit answers in more or less
anticipatable format until the interviewer's agenda is completed and the interview ends.
The respondent provides the answers. She or he is usually well aware of the routine and
waits until questions are posed before answering. The respondent's obligation is not to
manage the encounter or to raise queries, but to offer information from his or her personal
cache of experiential knowledge. Respondents are relatively passive in their roles, which are
delimited by the interviewer's coordinating activity and the available repository of answers.
Should a respondent ask questions in his or her own right, the interviewer typically treats
these questions as requests for clarification. The interviewer's responses are merely a means
of keeping the interview and the respondent on track.
This is the familiar asymmetrical relationship that we recognize as interviewing. Except for
technical nuances, we are conversant with either role in the encounter. Most educated
urbanites, for instance, would know what it means to interview someone and would be able to
manage the activity adequately in its broad details, from start to finish, if asked to do so.
Likewise, most of us readily respond to demographic questionnaires, product-use surveys,
public opinion polls, and health inventories in considerable detail; we are willing and able to
provide all sorts of information to strangers about the most intimate aspects of our lives. We
carry out such encounters time and again with little hesitation and hardly an afterthought. The
individual interview has become a commonplace feature of everyday life.
The Democratization of Opinion
As familiar as it seems today, the interview, as a procedure for securing knowledge, is
relatively new historically. Indeed, individuals have not always been viewed as important
sources of knowledge about their own experience. Of course, we can imagine that particular
forms of questioning and answering have been with us since the beginning of talk. As long as
parental authority has existed, for example, fathers and mothers have undoubtedly
questioned their children regarding their whereabouts; children have been expected to
provide answers, not questions, in response. Similarly, suspects and prisoners have been
interrogated for as long as suspicion and incarceration have been a part of human affairs.
Healers, priests, employers, journalists, and many others seeking immediate, practical
knowledge about everyday life have all undertaken interviewlike activity.
Nevertheless, not so long ago it would have seemed rather peculiar for an individual to
approach a complete stranger and ask for permission to discuss personal matters. Daily life
was more intimate; everyday business was conducted on a face-to-face basis between
persons who were well acquainted with one another. According to Mark Benney and Everett
Hughes (1956), there was a time when the interview simply didn't exist as a social form; they
noted more than 40 years ago that “the interview [as we now refer to it] is a relatively new kind
of encounter in the history of human relations” (p. 139). Benney and Hughes were not saying
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that the activity of asking and answering questions was new, but rather that information
gathering did not always rely upon the interview encounter. Although centuries ago a father
might have interrogated his children concerning their whereabouts, this was not interviewing
as we have come to know it today. The interview emerged only when specific information-
gathering roles were formalized. This encounter would hardly be recognizable in a world of
close relationships where the stranger was more likely to signify danger and the unknown
than to be understood as a neutral conduit for the transmission of personal knowledge
(Benney and Hughes 1956).
The modern interview changed all of this. Especially after World War II, with the emergence of
the standardized survey interview, individuals became accustomed to offering information and
opinions that had no immediate bearing on their lives and social relations. Individuals could
forthrightly add their thoughts and feelings to the mix of “public opinion.” Indeed, it became
feasible for the first time for individuals to speak with strangers about all manner of thoughts
concerning their lives, because these new strangers (that is, interviewers) didn't tell, at least in
personally recognizable terms. Individualsno matter how insignificant they might seem in the
everyday scheme of thingscame to be viewed as important elements of populations. Each
person had a voice and it was imperative that each voice be heard, at least in principle.
Seeking everyone's opinions, the interview has increasingly democratized experiential
The Modern Temper
David Riesman and Benney (1956) considered the interview format to be the product of a
changing world of relationships, one that developed rapidly following the war years. The new
era gradually accepted routine conversational exchanges between strangers; when people
encountered interview situations, they were not immediately defensive about being asked for
information about their lives, their associates, or their deepest sentiments, even though, in
certain quarters, defensiveness was understandable because of perceived linkages between
interviewing and oppression. Within this world, we have come to recognize easily two new
roles associated with talking about oneself and one's life with strangers: the role of the
interviewer and the role of the respondentthe centerpieces of the familiar interview.
This is an outgrowth of what Riesman and Benney called “the modern temper,” a term that we
take to have both cultural and interpersonal resonances. Culturally, it denotes a shared
understanding that the individual has the wherewithal to offer a meaningful description of, or
set of opinions about, his or her life. Individuals, in their own right, are accepted as significant
commentators on their own experience; it is not just the “chief” community commentator who
speaks for one and all, in other words, or the local representative of the commonwealth whose
opinions are taken to express the thoughts and feelings of every mind and heart in the vicinity.
This modern temper is also interpersonal, in that it democratizes the interpretation of
experience by providing a working space and means for expressing public opinion.
Everyoneeach individualis taken to have significant views and feelings about life that are
accessible to others who undertake to ask about them. As William James ([1892] 1961) noted
at the end of the 19th century, this assumes that each and every individual has a sense of self
that is owned and controlled by him- or herself, even if the self is socially formulated and
interpersonally responsive. This self makes it possible for everyone to reflect meaningfully on
individual experience and to enter into socially relevant dialogue about it. The modern temper
has made it reasonable and acceptable to turn to a world of individuals, most of whom are
likely to be strangers, as a way of understanding the social organization of experience.
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Just as the interview itself is a recent development, the selection of ordinary individuals as
sources of information and opinions is also relatively new (see Kent 1981; Oberschall 1965;
Selvin 1985). As Pertti Alasuutari (1998) explains, it was not so long ago that when one
wanted to know something important about society or social life, one invariably asked those
considered to be “in the know.” In contrast to what seems self-evident todaythat is,
questioning those individuals whose experiences are under considerationthe obvious and
efficient choice for very early interviewers was to ask informed citizens to provide answers to
their questions. Alasuutari provides an example from Anthony Oberschall's work:
It was natural that the questions were posed to knowledgeable citizens, such as
state officials or church ministers. In other words, they were informants in expert
interviews. For instance, in a survey of agricultural laborers conducted in 1874–1875
in Germany (Oberschall 1965: 19–20), question No. 25 read: “Is there a tendency
among laborers to save money in order to be able to buy their own plot of land later
on? Does this tendency appear already among the unmarried workers or only after
marriage?” … The modern survey would of course approach such questions quite
differently. Instead of asking an informed person whether married or unmarried
workers have a tendency to save money to buy their own plot of land, a sample of
workers would be asked about their marital status, savings, and plans about how to
use them. (Pp. 135–36)
Those considered to be knowledgeable in the subject matter under consideration, Alasuutari
notes, were viewed as informants, not respondents, the latter being superfluous under the
An Individualizing Discourse
The research consequence of the subsequent democratization of opinion was part of a trend
toward increased surveillance in everyday life. The growing discourse of individuality
combined with an increasingly widespread and efficient apparatus for information processing.
Although interviewing and the resulting production of public opinion developed rapidly after
World War II, the widespread surveillance of daily life and the deployment of the category of
the individual had begun centuries earlier.
Michel Foucault's (1973, 1975, 1977, 1978) iconoclastic studies of the discursive organization
of subjectivity shed fascinating light on the development of the concepts of the personal self
and individuality. Time and again, in institutional contexts ranging from the medical clinic and
the asylum to the prison, Foucault shows us how what he calls “technologies of the self” have
transformed the way we view the sources and structure of our subjectivity (see Dreyfus and
Rabinow 1982; Foucault 1988).
We use the term subjectivity here to indicate the type(s) of subject(s) that individuals and
cultures might comprehend and embody. With respect to the interview, we are referring to the
putative agent who stands behind the “facades” of interview participants, so to speak, the
agent who is held practically and morally responsible for the participants’ words and actions.
Most of us are so familiar with the contemporary Western image of the individualized self as
this agent that we find it difficult to comprehend alternative subjectivities. Clifford Geertz
(1984), however, points out that this is “a rather peculiar idea within the context of the world's
cultures” (p. 126). In other societies and historical periods, agency and responsibility have
been articulated in relation to a variety of other social structures, such as the tribe, the clan,
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the lineage, the family, the community, and the monarch. The notion of the bounded, unique
self, more or less integrated as the center of awareness, emotion, judgment, and action, is a
very recent version of the subject.
Foucault offers us new insights into how this sense of subjectivity evolved. Technologies of
the self, in Foucault's terms, are the concrete, socially and historically located institutional
practices through which a relatively new sense of who and what we are as human beings was
constructed. These practices advanced the notion that each and every one of us has an
ordinary selfthe idea being that each one could acceptably reflect on his or her individual
experience, personally describe it, and communicate opinions about it and its surrounding
world in his or her own terms. This transformed our sense of human beings as subjects. The
now self-evident view that each of us has opinions of public significance became intelligible
only within a discourse of individuality.
Foucault argues that the newly formed technologies of surveillance of the 18 th and 19th
centuries, the quintessential manifestation of which was Jeremy Bentham's all-seeing
panopticon, did not just incorporate and accommodate the experiences of individual subjects
who populated the contemporary social landscape, but, instead, entered into the construction
of individual subjects in their own right. Foucault poignantly exemplifies this transformation in
the opening pages of Discipline and Punish (1977), a book that is as much about the
individuation of society as it is about “the birth of the prison” (its subtitle). In the opening
pages, we cringe at a vivid account of the torture of a man condemned to death for attempting
to assassinate King Louis XV of France. We despair as the man's body is flayed, burned, and
drawn and quartered in public view. From contemporary commentary, Foucault (1977)
describes the events:
On 2 March 1757 Damiens the regicide was condemned “to make the amende
honorable before the main door of the Church of Paris,” where he was to be “taken
and conveyed in a cart wearing nothing but a shirt, holding a torch of burning wax
weighing two pounds”; then, “in the said cart, to the Place de Grève, where, on a
scaffold that will be erected there, the flesh will be torn from his breasts, arms,
thighs and calves with red-hot pincers, his right hand, holding the knife with which
he committed the said parricide, burnt with sulphur, and, on those places where the
flesh will be torn away, poured molten lead, boiling oil, burning resin, wax and
sulphur melted together and then his body drawn and quartered by four horses and
his limbs and body consumed by fire, reduced to ashes and his ashes thrown to the
winds.” (P. 3)
Foucault asks why criminals were subjected to such horrible bodily torture. Why were they
made to beg for forgiveness in public spectacles? His answer is that the spectacle of torture
was an event whose political culture was informed by a sense of the seamless relations
among the body of the king (the crown), social control, and subjectivity. As all people were,
Damiens was conceived literally and legally as a subject of the king; his body and soul were
inseparable extensions of the crown. An assault on the body of the king had to be attacked in
turn, as a red-hot iron might be used to cauterize a festering wound. The spectacle of torture
did not revolve around an autonomous agent who was regarded as an independent subject
with a self, feelings, opinions, and experiential reality uniquely his own. This might have
caused others sympathetically to consider Damiens's treatment to be cruel and unusual
punishment, to put it in today's terms.
The disposition of the times, however, offered no sympathy for what Damiens might have
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been “going through.” In the eyes of others, Damiens's feelings and opinions had no standing
apart from the man's station in relation to the sovereign. The spectacle of punishment rested
on a discourse of knowledge and power that lodged all experiential truth in the sovereign's
shared embodiment. As Hubert Dreyfus and Paul Rabinow (1982) explain: “The figure of
torture brings together a complex of power, truth, and bodies. The atrocity of torture was an
enactment of power that also revealed truth. Its application on the body of the criminal was an
act of revenge and an art” (p. 146). The idea that a thinking, feeling, consequential subject
occupied the body of the criminal was simply beyond the pale of contemporary
understanding. Individuality, as we know it today, did not exist as a recognizable social form.
A few pages later in Discipline and Punish, Foucault presents the new subject who comes into
being as part of a discourse that is more in tune with “the modern temper.” Discussing the
evolution of penal reform, he describes the emergence of the “house of young prisoners” in
Paris a mere 80 years after Damiens's death. Torture as a public spectacle has gradually
disappeared. The “gloomy festival of punishment” is dying out, along with the accused's
agonizing plea for pardon. It has been replaced by a humanizing regimen, informed by a
discourse of the independent, thinking subject whose criminality is correctable. Rehabilitation
is replacing retribution. Scientific methods of scrutiny and courses of instruction are viewed as
the means for returning the criminal to right reason and back to the proper fold of society. The
subject is no longer a selfless appendage of a larger entity; this is a new agent, one with a
mind and sentiments of his or her own. With the proper regimen, this new agent is incited to
individual self-scrutiny and responds to corrective action.
In time, this same subject would duly offer his or her opinions and sentiments within the self-
scrutinizing regimens of what Foucault calls “governmentality,” the archipelago of surveillance
practices suffusing modern life. As James Miller (1993: 299) points out, governmentality
extends well beyond the political and penal to include pedagogical, spiritual, and religious
dimensions (see also Garland 1997). If Bentham's original panopticon was an efficient form of
prison observation, panopticism in the modern temper becomes the widespread self-scrutiny
that “governs” all aspects of everyday life in the very commonplace questions and answers
posed about ourselves in both our inner thoughts and our public expressions. These are
seemingly daily inquiries about what we personally think and feel about every conceivable
topic, including our deepest sentiments and most secret actions.
We can readily view the individual interview as part of modern governmentality, impressed
upon us by myriad inquiries into our lives. Indeed, the interview may be seen as one of the
20th century's most distinctive technologies of the self. In particular, it gives an “objective,”
“scientific” cast to the notion of the individual self, terms of reference that resolutely echo
modern times. As Nikolas Rose (1990, 1997) has shown in the context of the psychological
sciences, the private self, along with its descriptive data, was invented right along with the
technologies we now associate with measurement.
“Scientific surveillance” such as psychological testing, case assessments, and, of course,
individual interviews of all kinds have created the experiencing and informing respondent we
now take for granted. The category of “the person” now identifies the self-reflective
constituents of society (see Carrithers, Collins, and Lukes 1985; Lidz 1976); if we want to
know what the social world is like, we now ask its individual inhabitants. The individual
interview on a personal scale and the social survey on the societal level serve as
democratizing agents, giving voice to individuals and, in the process, formulating “public”
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Learning from Strangers
The title of Robert Weiss's (1994) book on interviewing, Learning from Strangers, points to the
shared expectations that surround the face-to-face experience of interviewing, as the book
lays out “the art and method of qualitative interview studies.” Although qualitative interviews
especially are sometimes conducted with acquaintances (see Warren, Chapter 4, this
volume), much of Weiss's advice on how an interviewer should proceed is based on the
premise that the interviewer does not know the respondent. Behind each bit of advice about
how to interview effectively is the understanding that each and every stranger-respondent is
someone worth listening to. The respondent is someone who can provide detailed
descriptions of his or her thoughts, feelings, and activities, if the interviewer asks and listens
carefully enough. The trick, in Weiss's judgment, is for the interviewer to present a caring and
concerned attitude, expressed within a well-planned and encouraging format. The aim of the
interviewer is to derive, as objectively as possible, the respondent's own opinions of the
subject matter in question, information that the respondent will readily offer and elaborate
when the circumstances are conducive to his or her doing so and the proper methods are
The full range of individual experiences is potentially accessible, according to Weiss; the
interview is a virtual window on that experience, a kind of universal panopticon. In answering
the question of why we interview, Weiss offers a compelling portrayal of the democratization of
Interviewing gives us access to the observations of others. Through interviewing we
can learn about places we have not been and could not go and about settings in
which we have not lived. If we have the right informants, we can learn about the
quality of neighborhoods or what happens in families or how organizations set their
goals. Interviewing can inform us about the nature of social life. We can learn about
the work of occupations and how people fashion careers, about cultures and the
values they sponsor, and about the challenges people confront as they lead their
We can learn also, through interviewing, about people's interior experiences. We can
learn what people perceived and how they interpreted their perceptions. We can
learn how events affect their thoughts and feelings. We can learn the meanings to
them of their relationships, their families, their work, and their selves. We can learn
about all the experiences, from joy through grief, that together constitute the human
condition. (P. 1)
The opportunities for knowing even strangers by way of their opinions are now ubiquitous. We
find interviews virtually everywhere. We have come a very long way from the days when
individuals’ experiences and voices simply didn't matter, a long way from Damiens's “unheard”
cries. The interview itself has created, as well as tapped into, the vast world of individual
experience that now constitutes the substance of everyday life.
The Interview Society
If the interview has helped to constitute the modern individual, has it simultaneously
transformed society? It certainly has transported the myriad details of the most personal
experience into the public domain. Indeed, it has established these realms as important sites
for securing answers to what it means to be part of everyday life. Our social world now
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comprises viable and consequential individual opinions, assembled and offered up by actively
agentic subjects, whose responses convey the individual particulars of modern society. With
the spread of the discourse of individualized subjectivity, we now are prepared as both
questioners and answerers to produce readily the society of which we are a part. The modern
temper gives us the interview as a significant means for realizing that subjectivity and the
social contexts that bring it about.
The Mediation of Contemporary Life
Interviewing of all kinds mediates contemporary life. Think of how much we learn about
today's world by way of interviews conducted across a broad spectrum of venues, well
beyond research practice. Interviews, for example, are a source of popular celebrity and
notoriety. Television interview host Larry King introduces us to politicians and power brokers
who not only share their thoughts, feelings, and opinions with a mass audience but cultivate
their celebrity status in the process. This combines with programming devoted to exposing the
deepest personal, not just political or social, sentiments of high-profile figures. Celebrity news
commentators/interviewers like Barbara Walters plumb the emotional depths of stars and
pundits from across the media spectrum. To this, add the likes of talk-show hosts Oprah
Winfrey, Geraldo Rivera, Ricki Lake, and Jerry Springer, who daily invite ordinary men and
women, the emotionally tortured, and the behaviorally bizarre to “spill their guts” in front of
millions of television viewers. Referring to all of these, the interview is becoming the
experiential conduit par excellence of the electronic age. And this is only the tip of the iceberg,
as questions and answers fly back and forth on the Internet, where chat rooms are now as
intimate as back porches and bedrooms.
Interviews extend to professional practice as well. As the contributions to Part III of this
Handbook indicate, myriad institutions employ interviewing to generate useful and often
crucial information. Physicians conduct medical interviews with their patients in order to
formulate diagnoses and monitor treatment and progress (see Zoppi and Epstein, Chapter
18). Employers interview job applicants (see Latham and Millman, Chapter 23).
Psychotherapy has always been a largely interview-based enterprise. Its varied psychological
and psychiatric perspectives have perhaps diversified the interview more than any other
professional practice. As Gale Miller, Steve de Shazer, and Peter De Jong show in their essay
on the therapy interview (Chapter 19), this ranges from traditional forms of in-depth
interviewing to more contemporary solution-focused encounters that center on “restorying”
experience. Even forensic investigation has come a long way from the interview practices of
the Inquisition, where giving the “third degree” was a common feature of interrogation (see
McKenzie, Chapter 21).
As interviewing has become more pervasive in the mass media and in professional practice,
the interviewing industry itself has developed by leaps and bounds. Survey research, public
opinion polling, and marketing research lead the way. Survey research has always been
conducted for academic purposes, but today it is increasingly employed in service to
commercial interests as well (see Platt, Chapter 2, this volume). The interviewing industry now
extends from individual product-use inquiries to group interviewing services, where focus
group discussions quickly establish consumer product preferences. Movie studios even use
focus groups to decide which versions of motion picture finales will be most popularly
received. Indeed, the group interview is among the most rapidly growing information-gathering
techniques on the contemporary scene (see Morgan, Chapter 7, this volume).
The ubiquity and significance of the interview in our daily lives has prompted David Silverman
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(1997) to suggest that “perhaps we all live in what might be called an ‘interview society,’ in
which interviews seem central to making sense of our lives” (p. 248; see also Silverman 1993).
Silverman's reasoning underscores the democratization of opinion that interviewing has
enhanced. Silverman (1997) identifies three conditions required by an interview society. First,
an interview society requires a particular informing subjectivity, “the emergence of the self as a
proper object of narration.” Societies with forms of collective or cosmic subjectivity, for
example, do not provide the practical basis for learning from strangers. This is possible only in
societies where there is a prevalent and shared sense that any individual has the potential to
be a respondent and, as such, has something meaningful to offer when asked to do so.
Second, Silverman points to the need for an information-gathering apparatus he calls the
“technology of the confessional.” In other words, an interview society needs a practical means
for securing the communicative by-product of “confession.” This, Silverman (1997) points out,
should commonly extend to friendship not only “with the policeman, but with the priest, the
teacher, and the ‘psy’ professional” (p. 248).
Third, and perhaps most important, an interview society requires that a mass technology be
readily available. An interview society is not the product of the age-old medical interview, or of
the long-standing practice of police interrogation; rather, it requires that an interviewing
establishment be recognizably in place throughout society. Virtually everyone should be
familiar with the goals of interviewing as well as what it takes to conduct an interview.
Silverman argues that many contemporary societies have met these conditions, some more
than others. Not only do media and human service professionals utilize interviews, but it has
been estimated that fully 90 percent of all social science investigations exploit interview data
(Briggs 1986). Internet surveys now provide instant questions and answers about every
imaginable subject; we are asked to state our inclinations and opinions regarding everything
from presidential candidates to which characters on TV serials should be retained or ousted.
The interview society, it seems, has firmly arrived, is well, and is flourishing as a leading
context for addressing the subjective contours of daily living.
The Romantic Impulse
Paul Atkinson and Silverman (1997) point out that the confessional properties of the interview
not only construct individual subjectivity but, more and more, deepen and broaden the
subjects’ experiential truths. We no longer readily turn to the cosmos, the gods, the written
word, the high priest, or local authorities for authentic knowledge; rather, we commonly
search for authenticity through the in-depth interview. The interview society not only reflexively
constructs a compatible subject, but fully rounds this out ontologically by taking us to the
proverbial heart of the subject in question.
This reveals the romantic impulse behind the interview and the interview society. If we desire
to “really know” the individual subject, then somehow we must provide a means to hear his or
her genuine voice. Superficial discussion does not seem to be adequate. Many interviewers
explore the emotional enclaves of the self by way of “open-ended” or “in-depth” interviewing.
Although, technically, “open-endedness” is merely a way to structure the interview process,
Atkinson and Silverman suggest that the term also flags a particular social understanding,
namely, that the true, internal voice of the subject comes through only when it is not externally
screened or otherwise communicatively constrained.
But, as Atkinson and Silverman advise, authenticity in practice is not an ultimate experiential
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truth. It is itself a methodically constructed social product that emerges from its reflexive
communicative practices. In other words, authenticity, too, has its constructive technology.
Recognizable signs of emotional expression and scenic practices such as direct eye contact
and intimate gestures are widely understood to reveal deep truths about individual selves (see
also Gubrium and Holstein 1997; Holstein and Gubrium 2000). In in-depth interviews, we “do”
deep, authentic experiences as much as we “do” opinion offering in the course of the survey
interview. It is not simply a matter of procedure or the richness of data that turns researchers,
the interview society, and its truth-seeing audiences to in-depth and open-ended interviewing.
It is also a matter of collaboratively making audible and visible the phenomenal depths of the
individual subject at the center of our shared concerns.
The Leading Theme
It would therefore be a mistake to treat the interviewor any information-gathering techniqueas
simply a research procedure. The interview is part and parcel of our society and culture. It is
not just a way of obtaining information about who and what we are; it is now an integral,
constitutive feature of our everyday lives. Indeed, as the romantic impulses of interviewing
imply, it is at the very heart of what we have become and could possibly be as individuals.
That is the leading theme of this Handbook: “No method of research can stand outside the
cultural and material world” (Silverman 1997:249). Whereas some would view the interview
primarily as a research technique, we would do well also to consider its broader social,
institutional, and representational contours. At the same time, we must be cautious lest the
latter overshadow the interview's information-gathering contributions, which have been
brilliantly and extensively developed by interview researchers for decades. To recognize,
elaborate, and deconstruct the broad contours of the interview is not at all to suggest that we
pay less attention to its technology in the conventional sense of the term. Rather, it implies
just the opposite; we must think carefully about technical matters because they produce the
detailed subject as much as they gather information about him or her. Taken together, the
chapters of this Handbook provide a balance of related concerns, extending from aspects of
the conventional technology of the interviewincluding forms of interviewing and diverse data
gathering and analytic strategiesto the various ways interviewing relates to distinctive
respondents, its institutional auspices, and representational issues.
The Subjects behind Interview Participants
We began this introductory chapter by noting that the interview seems simple and self-
evident. In actual practice, this is hardly the case. If the technology of the interview not only
produces interview data but also simultaneously constructs individual and public opinion,
what are the working contours of the encounter? What does it mean, in terms of
communicative practice, to be an interviewer? What is the presumed subjectivity of this
participant? Correspondingly, what does it mean to be a respondent? What is the presumed
subjectivity of that participant? These, of course, are procedural questions, to a degree, and
several authors who contribute to this Handbook address them in just these terms. As the
chapters that follow show, there is nothing technically simple about the contemporary practice
of asking and answering interview questions. But the questions also broker discursive and
institutional issues related to matters of contemporary subjectivity. This complicates things,
and it is to these issues that we turn in the rest of this chapter as a way of providing a more
nuanced context for understanding the individual interview and the interview society.
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Let's begin to unpack the complications by examining competing visions of the subjects who
are imagined to stand behind interview participants. Regardless of the type of interview, there
is always a working model of the subject lurking behind the persons assigned the roles of
interviewer and respondent (Holstein and Gubrium 1995). By virtue of the kinds of subjects
we project, we confer varying senses of epistemological agency upon interviewers and
respondents. These, in turn, influence the ways we proceed technically, as well as our
understanding of the relative validity of the information that is produced.
As we noted at the outset, interviewing typically has been viewed as an asymmetrical
encounter in which an interviewer solicits information from an interviewee, who relatively
passively responds to the interviewer's inquiries. This commonsensical, if somewhat
oversimplified, view suggests that those who want to find out about another person's feelings,
thoughts, or activities merely have to ask the right questions and the other's “reality” will be
revealed. Studs Terkel, the legendary journalistic and sociological interviewer, makes the
process sound elementary; he claims that he merely turns on his tape recorder and asks
people to talk. Using his classic study Working (1972) as an example, Terkel claims that his
questions merely evoke responses that interviewees are all too ready to share:
There were questions, of course. But they were casual in nature … the kind you
would ask while having a drink with someone; the kind he would ask you…. In short,
it was a conversation. In time, the sluice gates of damned up hurts and dreams were
open. (P. xxv)
As unsophisticated and guileless as it sounds, this image is common in interviewing practice.
The image is one of “mining” or “prospecting” for the facts and feelings residing within the
respondent. Of course, a highly sophisticated technology tells researcher/prospectors how to
ask questions, what sorts of questions not to ask, the order in which to ask them, and ways to
avoid saying things that might spoil, contaminate, or bias the data. The basic model, however,
locates valued information inside the respondent and assigns the interviewer the task of
somehow extracting it.
The Passive Subject Behind the Respondent
In this rather conventional view, the subjects behind respondents are basically conceived as
passive vessels of answers for experiential questions put to them by interviewers. Subjects are
repositories of facts, feelings, and the related particulars of experience. They hold the
answers to demographic questions, such as age, gender, race, occupation, and
socioeconomic status. They contain information about social networks, including household
composition, friendship groups, circles of care, and other relationships. These repositories
also hold a treasure trove of experiential data pertinent to beliefs, feelings, and activities.
The vessel-like subject behind the respondent passively possesses information the interviewer
wants to know; the respondent merely conveys, for better or worse, what the subject already
possesses. Occasionally, such as with sensitive interview topics or with recalcitrant
respondents, interviewers acknowledge that the task may be especially difficult. Nonetheless,
the information is viewed, in principle, as the un-contaminated contents of the subject's vessel
of answers. The knack is to formulate questions and provide an atmosphere conducive to
open and undistorted communication between interviewer and respondent.
Much of the methodological literature on interviewing deals with the facets of these intricate
matters. The vessel-of-answers view leads interviewers to be careful in how they ask
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questions, lest their method of inquiry bias what lies within the subject. This perspective has
prompted the development of myriad procedures for obtaining unadulterated facts and
details, most of which rely upon interviewer and question neutrality. Successful
implementation of disinterested practices elicits objective truths from the vessel of answers.
Validity results from the successful application of these techniques.
In the vessel-of-answers model, the image of the subject is not of an agent engaged in the
production of knowledge. If the interviewing process goes “by the book” and is nondirectional
and unbiased, respondents can validly proffer information that subjects presumably merely
store within. Contamination emanates from the interview setting, its participants, and their
interaction, not from the subject, who, under ideal conditions, is capable of providing
accurate, authentic reports.
The Passive Subject Behind the Interviewer
This evokes a complementary model of the subject behind the interviewer. Although not
totally passive, the interviewer/subject nonetheless stands apart from the actual “data” of the
field; he or she merely collects what is already there. To be sure, the collection process can
be arduous, but the objective typically is to tap into information without unduly disturbingand,
therefore, biasing or contaminatingthe respondent's vessel of answers. If it is not quite like
Terkel's “sluice gates” metaphor, it still resembles turning on a spigot; the interviewer's role is
limited to releasing what is already in place.
The interviewer, for example, is expected to keep the respondent's vessel of answers in plain
view but to avoid shaping the information that is extracted. Put simply, this involves the
interviewer's controlling him- or herself so as not to influence what the passive interview
subject will communicate. The interviewer must discard serious self-consciousness; the
interviewer must avoid any action that would imprint his or her presence onto the respondent's
reported experience. The interviewer must resist supplying particular frames of reference for
the respondent's answers. To the extent such frameworks appropriately exist, they are viewed
as embedded in the subject's world behind the respondent, not behind the researcher. If the
interviewer is to be at all self-conscious, this is technically limited to his or her being alert to
the possibility that he or she may be contaminating or otherwise unduly influencing the
research process.
Interviewers are generally expected to keep their “selves” out of the interview process.
Neutrality is the byword. Ideally, the interviewer uses his or her interpersonal skills merely to
encourage the expression of, but not to help construct, the attitudes, sentiments, and
information in question. In effect, the image of the passive subject behind the interviewer is
one of a facilitator. As skilled as the interviewer might be in practice, all that he or she
appropriately does in principle is to promote the expression of the actual attitudes and
information that lie in waiting in the respondent's vessel of answers.
In exerting control in this way, the interviewer limits his or her involvement in the interview to a
specific preordained rolewhich can be quite scriptedthat is constant from one interview to
another. Should the interviewer go out of control, so to speak, and introduce anything but
variations on specified questions into the interview, the passive subject behind the interviewer
is methodologically violated and neutrality is compromised. It is not this passive subject who is
the problem, but rather the interviewer who has not adequately regulated his or her conduct
so as to facilitate the expression of respondent information.
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Activating Interview Subjects
As researchers have become more aware of the interview as a site for the production of
meaning, they have increasingly come to appreciate the activity of the subjects projected
behind both the respondent and the interviewer. The interview is being reconceptualized as
an occasion for purposefully animated participants to construct versions of reality
interactionally rather than merely purvey data (see Holstein and Gubrium 1995). This trend
reflects an increasingly pervasive appreciation for the constitutive character of social
interaction and of the constructive role played by active subjects in authoring their
Sentiments along these lines have been building for some time across diverse disciplines.
Nearly a half century ago, for example, Ithiel de Sola Pool (1957), a prominent critic of public
opinion polling, argued presciently that the dynamic, communicative contingencies of the
interview literally activated respondents’ opinions. Every interview, Pool suggested, is an
“interpersonal drama with a developing plot” (p. 193). The metaphor conveys a far more active
sense of interview participation than the “prospector for meaning” suggests. As Pool indicated:
The social milieu in which communication takes place [during interviews] modifies not
only what a person dares to say but even what he thinks he chooses to say. And
these variations in expression cannot be viewed as mere deviations from some
underlying “true” opinion, for there is no neutral, non-social, uninfluenced situation to
provide that baseline. (P. 192)
Conceiving of the interview in this fashion casts interview participants as virtual practitioners of
everyday life who work constantly to discern and designate the recognizable and orderly
features of the experience under consideration. It transforms the subject behind the
respondent from a repository of information and opinions or a wellspring of emotions into a
productive source of knowledge. From the time a researcher identifies a research topic,
through respondent selection, questioning and answering, and, finally, the interpretation of
responses, interviewing is a concerted interactional project. Indeed, the subject behind the
respondent now, more or less, becomes an imagined product of the project. Working within
the interview itself, subjects are fleshed out, rationally and emotionally, in relation to the give-
and-take of the interview process, the interview's research purposes, and its surrounding
social contexts.
Construed as active, the subject behind the respondent not only holds the details of a life's
experience but, in the very process of offering them up to the interviewer, constructively
shapes the information. The active respondent can hardly “spoil” what he or she is, in effect,
subjectively constructing in the interview process. Rather, the activated subject pieces
experiences together before, during, and after occupying the respondent role. This subject is
always making meaning, regardless of whether he or she is actually being interviewed.
An active subject behind the interviewer is also implicated in the production of knowledge. His
or her participation in the process is not viewed in terms of standardization or constraint;
neutrality is not figured to be necessary or achievable. One cannot very well taint knowledge if
that knowledge is not conceived as existing in some pure form apart from the circumstances
of its production. The active subject behind the interviewer thus becomes a necessary,
practical counterpart to the active subject behind the respondent. Interviewer and, ultimately,
researcher contributions to the information produced in interviews are not viewed as incidental
or immaterial. Nor is interviewer participation considered in terms of contamination. Rather, the
subject behind the interviewer is seen as actively and unavoidably engaged in the
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interactional co-construction of the interview's content.
Interactional contingencies influence the construction of the active subjectivities of the
interview. Especially important here are the varied subject positions articulated in the interview
process, which need to be taken into account in the interpretation of interview material. For
example, an interview project might center on the quality of care and quality of life of nursing
home residents (see Gubrium 1993). This might be part of a study relating to the national
debate about the organization and value of home versus institutional care. Careful attention to
the way participants link substantive matters with biographical ones can vividly reveal a highly
active subject. For instance, a nursing home resident might speak animatedly during an
interview about the quality of care in her facility, asserting that, “for a woman, it ultimately gets
down to feelings,” invoking an emotional subject. Another resident might coolly and
methodically list specifics about her facility's quality of care, never once mentioning her
gender or her feelings about the care she receives. Offering her own take on the matter, this
respondent might state that “getting emotional” over “these things” clouds clear judgment,
implicating a rationalized subject. When researchers take this active subject into account,
what is otherwise a contradictory and inconclusive data set is transformed into the
meaningful, intentionally crafted responses of quite active respondents.
The standpoint from which information is offered continually unfolds in relation to ongoing
interview interaction. In speaking of the quality of care, for example, nursing home residents,
as interview respondents, not only offer substantive thoughts and feelings pertinent to the
topic under consideration but simultaneously and continuously monitor who they are in
relation to themselves and to the person questioning them. For example, prefacing her
remarks about the quality of life in her facility with the statement “Speaking as a woman,” a
nursing home resident actively informs the interviewer that she is to be heard as a woman, not
as someone elsenot a mere resident, cancer patient, or abandoned mother. If and when she
subsequently comments, “If I were a man in this place,” the resident frames her thoughts and
feelings about the quality of life differently, producing an alternative subject: the point of view
of a man as spoken by a female respondent. The respondent is clearly working up
experiential identities as the interview progresses.
Because the respondent's subjectivity and related experience are continually being
assembled and modified, the “truth” value of interview responses cannot be judged simply in
terms of whether those responses match what lies in an ostensibly objective vessel of
answers. Rather, the value of interview data lies both in their meanings and in how meanings
are constructed. These what and how matters go hand in hand, as two components of
practical meaning-making action (see Gubrium and Holstein 1997). The entire process is
fueled by the reality-constituting contributions of all participants; interviewers, too, are similarly
implicated in the co-construction of the subject positions from which they ask the questions at
hand (see in this volume Schaeffer and Maynard, Chapter 28; Briggs, Chapter 44).
The multiple subjects that could possibly stand behind interview participants add several
layers of complication to the interview process as well as to the analysis of interview data.
Decidedly different procedural strictures are required to accommodate and account for
alternating subjects. Indeed, the very question of what constitutes or serves as data critically
relates to these issues of subjectivity. What researchers choose to highlight when they
analyze interview responses flows directly from how the issues are addressed (see Gubrium
and Holstein 1997; see also Baker, Chapter 37, this volume).
Empowering Respondents
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Reconceptualizing what it means to interview and to analyze interview material has led to far-
reaching innovations in research (see the contributions to this volume by Fontana, Chapter 8;
Riessman, Chapter 33; Cándida Smith, Chapter 34; Denzin, Chapter 40; Ellis and Berger,
Chapter 41; Richardson, Chapter 42; Rosenblatt, Chapter 43). It has also promoted the view
that the interview society is not only the by-product of statistically summarized survey data,
but is constituted by all manner of alternative interview encounters and information, the
diverse agendas of which variably enter into “data” production. In the process, the political
dimensions of the interview process have been critically underscored (see Briggs, Chapter 44,
this volume).
The respondent's voice has taken on particular urgency, as we can hear in Eliot Mishler's
(1986) poignant discussion of the empowerment of interview respondents. Uncomfortable with
the evolution of the interview into a highly controlled, asymmetrical conversation dominated by
the researcher (see Kahn and Cannell 1957; Maccoby and Maccoby 1954), Mishler
challenges the assumptions and implications behind the “standardized” interview. His aim is
to bring the respondent more fully and actively into the picture, to make the respondent more
of an equal partner in the interview conversation.
Following a critique of standardized interviewing, Mishler (1986) offers a lengthy discussion of
his alternative perspective, one that questions the need for strict control of the interview
encounter. The approach, in part, echoes our discussion of the activation of interview
participants. Mishler suggests that rather than conceiving of the interview as a form of
stimulus and response, we might better view it as an interactional accomplishment. Noting
that interview participants not only ask and answer questions in interviews but simultaneously
engage in other speech activities, Mishler turns our attention to what the participants, in
effect, are doing with words when they engage each other. He makes the point this way:
Defining interviews as speech events or speech activities, as I do, marks the
fundamental contrast between the standard antilinguistic, stimulus-response model
and an alternative approach to interviewing as discourse between speakers. Different
definitions in and of themselves do not constitute different practices. Nonetheless,
this new definition alerts us to the features of interviews that hitherto have been
neglected. (Pp. 35–36)
The key phrase here is “discourse between speakers.” Mishler directs us to the integral and
inexorable speech activities in which even survey interview participants engage as they ask
and answer questions (see Schaeffer and Maynard, Chapter 28, this volume). Informed by a
conversation-analytic perspective (see Sacks 1992; Sacks, Schegloff, and Jefferson 1974), he
points to the discursive machinery apparent in interview transcripts. Highlighting evidence of
the ways the interviewer and the respondent mutually monitor each other's speech
exchanges, Mishler shows how the participants ongoingly and jointly construct in words their
senses of the developing interview agenda. He notes, for example, that even token responses
by the interviewer, such as “Hm hm,” can serve as confirmatory markers that the respondent
is on the “right” track for interview purposes. But, interestingly enough, not much can be done
to eliminate even token responses, given that a fundamental rule of conversational exchange
is that turns must be taken in the unfolding interview process. To eliminate even tokens or to
refuse to take one's turn, however minimally, is, in effect, to stop the conversation, hence the
interview. The dilemma here is striking in that it points to the practical need for interview
participants to be linguistically animated, not just standardized and passive, in order to
complete the interview conversation.
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It goes without saying that this introduces us to a pair of subjects behind the interviewer and
the respondent who are more conversationally active than standardization would imply, let
alone tolerate. Following a number of conversation-analytic and linguistic arguments (Cicourel
1967, 1982; Gumperz 1982; Hymes 1967; Sacks et al. 1974), Mishler (1986) explains that
each and every point in the series of speech exchanges that constitute an interview is, in
effect, open to interactional work, activity that constructs communicative sense out of the
participants as well as the subject matter under consideration. Thus, in contrast to the
modeled asymmetry of the standardized interview, there is considerable communicative
equality and interdependence in the speech activities of all interviewing, where participants
invariably engage in the “joint construction of meaning,” no matter how asymmetrical the
informing model might seem:
The discourse of the interview is jointly constructed by interviewer and respondent….
Both questions and responses are formulated in, developed through, and shaped by
the discourse between interviewers and respondents…. An adequate understanding
of interviews depends on recognizing how interviewers reformulate questions and
how respondents frame answers in terms of their reciprocal understanding as
meanings emerge during the course of an interview. (P. 52)
The Issue of “Owning” Narrative
Mishler's entry into the linguistic and conversation-analytic fray was fundamentally motivated
by his desire to valorize the respondent's perspective and experience. This was, to some
extent, a product of Mishler's long-standing professional interest in humanizing the doctor-
patient encounter. His earlier book The Discourse of Medicine: Dialectics of Medical Interviews
(1984) is important in that it shows how medical interviews can unwittingly but systematically
abrogate the patient's sense of his or her own illness even in the sincerest doctor's search for
medical knowledge. As an alternative, Mishler advocates more open-ended questions,
minimal interruptions of patient accounts, and the use of patients’ own linguistic formulations
to encourage their own articulations of illness. Similarly, in the context of the research
interview, Mishler urges us to consider ways that interviewing might be designed so that the
respondent's voice comes through in greater detail, as a way of paying greater attention to
respondent relevancies.
According to Mishler, this turns us forthrightly to respondents’ stories. His view is that
experience comes to us in the form of narratives. When we communicate our experiences to
each other, we do so by storying them. When, in turn, we encourage elaboration, we
commonly use such narrative devices as “Go on” and “Then what happened?” to prompt
further storylike communication. It would be difficult to imagine how an experience of any kind
could be conveyed except in narrative format, in terms that structure events into distinct plots,
themes, and forms of characterization. Consequently, according to this view, we must leave
our research efforts open to respondents’ stories if we are to understand respondents’
experiences in, and on, their own terms, leading to less formal control in the interview
Applied to the research interview, the “radical transformation of the traditional approach to
interviewing” (Mishler 1986:117) serves to empower respondents. This resonates with a
broadening concern with what is increasingly referred to as the respondent's own voice or
authentic story (see the contributions to this volume by Platt, Chapter 2; Warren, Chapter 4;
Fontana, Chapter 8; Riessman, Chapter 33; Ellis and Berger, Chapter 41). Although story,
narrative, and the respondent's voice are the leading terms of reference, an equally key, yet
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unexplicated, usage is the term own. It appears throughout Mishler's discussion of
empowerment, yet he gives it hardly any attention.
Consider several applications of the term own in Mishler's (1986) research interviewing text. In
introducing a chapter titled “The Empowerment of Respondents,” he writes, “I will be
concerned primarily with the impact of different forms of practice on respondents’ modes of
understanding themselves and the world, on the possibility of their acting in terms of their own
interests, on social scientists’ ways of working and theorizing, and the social functions of
scientific knowledge” (pp. 117–18; emphasis added). Further along, Mishler explains, “Various
attempts to restructure the interviewee-interviewer relationship so as to empower respondents
are designed to encourage them to find and speak in their own ‘voices’” (p. 118; emphasis
added). Finally, in pointing to the political potential of narrative, Mishler boldly flags the
ownership in question: “To be empowered is not only to speak in one's own voice and to tell
one's own story, but to apply the understanding arrived at to action in accord with one's own
interests” (p. 119; emphasis added).
Mishler is admittedly being persuasive. Just as in his earlier book on medical interviews he
encourages what Michael Balint (1964) and others (see Silverman 1987; Zoppi and Epstein,
Chapter 18, this volume) have come to call patient-centered medicine, in his research
interview book he advocates what might be called respondent-centered research. Mishler
constructs a preferred version of the subject behind the respondent, one that allegedly gives
voice to the respondent's own story. The image is one of a respondent who owns his or her
experience, who, on his or her own, can narrate the story if given the opportunity. It is a story
that is uniquely the respondent's in that only his or her own voice can articulate it
authentically; any other voice or format would apparently detract from what this subject
behind the respondent more genuinely and competently does on his or her own.
Procedurally, the point is to provide the narrative opportunity for this ownership to be
expressed, to reveal what presumably lies within.
But valorizing the individual's ownership of his or her story is a mere step away from seeing
the subject as a vessel of answers. As we discussed earlier, this subject is passive and,
wittingly or not, taken to be a mere repository of information, opinion, and sentiment. More
subtly, perhaps, the subject behind the respondent who “owns” his or her story is viewed as
virtually possessing what we seek to know about. Mishler's advice is that we provide
respondents with the opportunity to convey these stories to us on their own terms rather than
deploy predesignated categories or other structured formats for doing so. This, Mishler
claims, empowers respondents.
Nevertheless, the passive vessel of answers is still there in its essential detail. It is now more
deeply embedded in the subject, perhaps, but it is as passively secured in the inner reaches
of the respondent as the vessel informing the survey respondent's subjectivity (see Johnson,
Chapter 5, this volume). We might say that the subject behind the standardized interview
respondent is a highly rationalized version of the romanticized subject envisioned by Mishler,
one who harbors his or her own story. Both visions are rhetorics of subjectivity that have
historically been used to account for the “truths” of experience. Indeed, we might say that the
standardized interview produces a different narrative of experience than does the empowered
interviewing style that Mishler and others advocate. This is not meant to disparage, but only to
point out that when the question of subjectivity is raised, the resulting complications of the
interview are as epistemological as they are invidious.
It is important to emphasize that the ownership in question results from a preferred
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subjectivity, not from an experiential subject that is more essential than all other subjects. It is,
as Silverman and his associates remind us, a romanticized discourse of its own and, although
it has contributed immensely to our understanding of the variety of “others” we can be, it does
not empower absolutely (see Silverman 1987, 1993; Atkinson and Silverman 1997). Rather, it
empowers in relation to the kinds of stories that one can ostensibly own, that would seem to
be genuine, or that are otherwise accountably recognized as fitting or authentic to oneself in
the particular times and places they are conveyed.
A Discourse of Empowerment
Invoking a discourse of empowerment is a way of giving both rhetorical and practical spin to
how we conduct interviews. Like all discourses, the discourse of individual empowerment
deploys preferred terms of reference. For example, in the discourse of the standardized
survey interview, the interview encounter is asymmetrical and the operating principle is
control. Participants have different functions: One side asks questions and records
information, and the other side provides answers to the questions asked. Procedurally, the
matter of control is centered on keeping these functions and their roles separate. Accordingly,
an important operating rule is that the interviewer does not provide answers or offer opinions.
Conversely, the respondent is encouraged to answer questions, not ask them. Above all, the
language of the enterprise locates knowledge within the respondent, but control rests with the
The terms of reference change significantly when the interview is more symmetrical or, as
Mishler puts it, when the respondent is empowered. The interviewer and respondent are
referred to jointly as interview participants, highlighting their collective contribution to the
enterprise. This works against asymmetry, emphasizing a more fundamental sense of the
shared task at hand, which now becomes a form of “collaboration” in the production of
meaning. One procedure for setting this tone is to make it clear that all participants in the
interview can effectively raise questions related to the topics under consideration. Equally
important, everyone should understand that answers are not meant to be conclusive but
instead serve to further the agenda for discussion. The result, then, is more of a team effort,
rather than a division of labor, even though the discourse of empowerment still aims to put the
narrative ball in the respondent's court, so to speak.
Assiduously concerned with the need to “redistribute power” in the interview encounter,
Mishler (1986) argues compellingly for the more equalized relationship he envisions. Seeking
a redefinition of roles, he describes what he has in mind:
These types of role redefinitions may be characterized briefly by the following terms
referring respectively to the relationship between interviewee and interviewer as
informant and reporter, as research collaborators, and as learner/actor and advocate.
Taking on the roles of each successive pair in this series involves a more
comprehensive and more radical transformation of the power relationship inherent in
traditional roles, and each succeeding pair of roles relies on and absorbs the earlier
one. (Pp. 122–23)
The use of the prefix co- is commonplace in such discussions, further signaling symmetry.
Participants often become “coparticipants” and, of course, the word collaboration speaks for
itself in this context. Some authors even refer to the interview encounter as a “conversational
partnership” (Rubin and Rubin 1995).
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Mishler's discourse of collaboration and empowerment extends to the representation of
interview material, taking co- into new territory. In discussing the role of the advocate, for
instance, Mishler describes Kai Erikson's (1976) activity as a researcher hired by attorneys
representing the residents affected by the 1972 dam collapse in the Buffalo Creek valley of
West Virginia. Erikson was advocating for the surviving residents, several of whom he
interviewed, but not the local coal company from which they were seeking damages. The
researcher and the sponsor clearly collaborated with each other in representing interview
Others are not as forthrightly political in their corepresentations. Laurel Richardson (see
Chapter 42, this volume), for example, discusses alternative textual choices in relation to the
presentation of the respondent's “own” story. Research interviews, she reminds us, are
usually conducted for research audiences. Whether they are closed- or open-ended, the
questions and answers are formulated with the analytic interests of researchers in mind.
Sociologists, for example, may wish to consider how gender, race, or class background
shapes respondents’ opinions, so they will tailor questions and interpret answers in these
terms. Ultimately, researchers will represent interview material in the frameworks and
languages of their research concerns and in disciplinary terms. But, as Richardson points out,
respondents might not figure that their experiences or opinions are best understood that way.
Additionally, Richardson asks us whether the process of coding interview responses for
research purposes itself disenfranchises respondents, transforming their narratives into terms
foreign to what their original sensibilities might have been (see also Briggs, Chapter 44, this
Richardson suggests that a radically different textual form can help us to represent the
respondent's experience more inventively, and authentically. Using poetry rather than prose,
for example, capitalizes on poetry's culturally understood role of evoking and making
meaning, not just conveying it. This extends to poetry's alleged capacity to communicate
meaning where prose is said to be inadequate, in the way that folk poetry is used in some
quarters to represent the ineffable (see Gubrium 1988). It is not uncommon, for instance, for
individuals to say that plain words can't convey what they mean or that they simply cannot put
certain experiences into words, something that, ironically, poetry might accomplish in poetic
How, then, are such experiences and their opinions to be communicated in interviews? Must
some respondents literally sing the blues, for example, as folks traditionally have done in the
rural South of the United States? Should some experiences be “performed,” rather than
simply translated into text? Do mere retellings of others’ experiences compromise the ability of
those who experience them to convey the “scenic presence” of the actual experiences in their
lives? A number of researchers take such issues to heart and have been experimenting, for
several years now, with alternative representational forms that they believe can convey
respondents’ experience more on, if not in, their own terms (see Clifford and Marcus 1986;
Ellis and Flaherty 1992; Ellis and Bochner 1996; Reed-Danahay 1997; see also in this volume
Fontana, Chapter 8; Ellis and Berger, Chapter 41). The border between fact and fiction itself
is being explored for its empowering capacity, taking empowerment's informing discourse
firmly into the realm of literature (see Rosenblatt, Chapter 43, this volume).
Voice and Ownership
When we empower the respondent (or the informing coparticipant) in the interview encounter,
we establish a space for the respondent's own story to be heardat least this is the reasoning
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behind Mishler's and others’ aims in this regard. But questions do arise in relation to the
voices we listen to when we provide respondents the opportunity to convey their own stories.
Whose voices do we hear? From where do respondents obtain the material they communicate
to us in interviews? Is there always only one story for a given respondent to tell, or can there
be several to choose from? If the latter, the question can become, Which among these is most
tellable under the circumstances? And, as if these questions weren't challenging enough, do
the queries themselves presume that they are answerable in straightforward terms, or do
answers to them turn in different directions and get worked out in the very course of the
interview in narrative practice?
Subject Positions and Related Voices
An anecdote from Jaber Gubrium's doctoral supervision duties speaks to the heart of these
issues. Gubrium was serving on the dissertation committee of a graduate student who was
researching substance abuse among pharmacists. The student was especially keen to allow
the pharmacists being interviewed to convey in their own words their experiences of illicitly
using drugs, seeking help for their habits, and going through rehabilitation. He hoped to
understand how those who “should know better” would account for what happened to them.
When the interviews were completed, the student analyzed the interview data thematically
and presented the themes in the dissertation along with individual accounts of experience.
Interestingly, several of the themes identified in the pharmacists’ stories closely paralleled the
familiar recovery rubrics of self-help groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous (A.A.) and
Narcotics Anonymous (N.A.). Gubrium noted this, and it turned out that many, if not all, of the
pharmacists had participated in these recovery groups and evidently had incorporated the
groups’ ways of narrating the substance abuse experience into their “own” stories. For
example, respondents spoke of the experience of “hitting bottom” and organized the trajectory
of the recovery process in relation to that very important low point in their lives. Gubrium
raised the issue of the extent to which the interview material could be analyzed as the
pharmacists’ “own” stories as opposed to the stories of these recovery programs. At a doctoral
committee meeting, he asked, “Whose voice do we hear when these pharmacists tell their
stories? Their own or N.A.'s?” He asked, in effect, whether the stories belonged to these
individuals or to the organizations that promulgated their discourse.
The issue of voice is important because it points to the subject who is assumed to be
responding in interviews (Gubrium 1993; Holstein and Gubrium 2000). Voice references the
subject position that is taken for granted behind speech. Voice works at the level of everyday
life, whereas subject positions are what we imagine to be their operating standpoints. This is
the working side of our earlier discussion of the subjects behind interview participants. The
possibility of alternative voicings and varied subject positions turned researchers’ attention to
concerns such as how interview participants collaborate to construct the interview's shifting
subjectivities in relation to the topics under consideration.
Empirically, the concept of voice leads us to the question of whoor what subjectspeaks over
the course of an interview and from what standpoint. For example, does a 50-year-old man
offer the opinions of a “professional” at the apex of his successful career, or might his voice be
that of a husband and father reflecting on what he has missed as a result in the way of family
life? Or will he speak as a church elder, a novice airplane pilot, or the “enabling” brother of an
alcoholic as the interview unfolds? All of these are possible, given the range of contemporary
experiences that he could call upon to account for his opinions.
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At the same time, it is important to entertain the possibility that the respondent's subjectivity
and variable voices emerge out of the immediate interview's interaction and are not
necessarily preformed in the respondent's ostensible vessel of answers. Indeed, topics raised
in the interview may incite respondents to voice subjectivities never contemplated before.
As noted earlier, at times one can actually hear interview participants indicate subject
positions. Verbal prefaces, for example, can provide clues to subject position and voice, but
they are often ignored in interview research. Phrases such as “to put myself in someone else's
shoes” and “to put on a different hat” are signals that respondents employ to voice shifts in
position. Acknowledging this, in an interview study of nurses on the qualities of good infant
care, we probably would not be surprised to hear a respondent say something like, “That's
when I have my RN cap on, but as a mother, I might tell you a different story.” Sometimes
respondents are quite forthright in giving voice to alternative points of view in precisely those
terms, as when a respondent prefaces remarks with, say, “Well, from the point of view of a….”
Such phrases are not interview debris; they convey the important and persistent subjective
work of the interview encounter.
In the actual practice of asking interview questions and giving answers, things are seldom so
straightforward, however. An interview, for example, might start under the assumption that a
father or a mother is being interviewed, which the interview's introductions might appear to
confirm. But there is no guarantee that particular subjectivities will prevail throughout. There's
the matter of the ongoing construction of subjectivity, which unfolds with the give-and-take of
the interview encounter. Something said later in the interview, for example, might prompt the
respondent to figure, not necessarily audibly, that he really had, “all along,” been responding
from a quite different point of view than was evident at the start. Unfortunately, shifts in
subjectivity are not always evident in so many words or comments. Indeed, the possibility of
an unforeseen change in subjectivity might not be evident until the very end of an interview, if
at all, when a respondent remarks for the first time, “Yeah, that's the way all of us who were
raised down South do with our children,” making it unclear which subject had been providing
responses to the interviewer's questionsthe voice of this individual parent or her regional
membership and its associated experiential sensibilities.
Adding to these complications, subject position and voice must also be considered in relation
to the perceived voice of the interviewer. Who, after all, is the interviewer in the eyes of the
respondent? How will the interviewer role be positioned into the conversational matrix? For
example, respondents in debriefings might comment that an interviewer sounded more like a
company man than a human being, or that a particular interviewer made the respondent feel
that the interviewer was “just an ordinary person, like myself.” Indeed, even issues of social
justice might creep in and position the interviewer, say, as a worthless hack, as the
respondent takes the interviewer to be “just one more token of the establishment,” choosing to
silence her own voice in the process (see Dunbar, Rodriguez, and Parker, Chapter 14, this
volume). This raises the possibility that the respondent's working subjectivity is constructed
out of the unfolding interpersonal reflections of the interview participants’ attendant historical
experiences. It opens to consideration, for example, an important question: If the interviewee
had not been figured to be just an “ordinary” respondent, who (which subject) might the
respondent have been in giving voice to his or her opinions?
As if this doesn't muddy the interview waters enough, imagine what the acknowledgment of
multiple subjectivities does to the concept of sample size, another dimension figured to be
under considerable control in traditional interview research. To decompose the designated
respondent into his or her (multiple) working subjects is to raise the possibility that any single
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element of a sample can expand or contract in size in the course of the interview, increasing
or decreasing the sample n accordingly. Treating subject positions and their associated voices
seriously, we might find that an ostensibly single interview could actually be, in practice, an
interview with several subjects, whose particular identities may be only partially clear. Under
the circumstances, to be satisfied that one has completed an interview with a single
respondent and to code it as such because it was formally conducted with a single embodied
individual is to be rather cavalier about the complications of subjectivity and of the narrative
organization of sample size.
As Mishler (1986) has pointed out, such matters have traditionally been treated as technical
issues in interview research. Still, they have long been informally recognized, and an astute
positivistic version of the complexities entailed has been theorized and researched with great
care and insight (see, for example, Fishbein 1967). Jean Converse and Howard Schuman's
(1974) delightful book on survey research as interviewers see it, for instance, illuminates this
recognition with intriguing case material.
There is ample reason, then, for some researchers to approach the interview as a set of
activities that are ongoingly accomplished, not just completed. In standardized interviewing,
one would need to settle conclusively on matters of who the subject behind the respondent is,
lest it be impossible to know to which population generalizations can be made. Indeed, a
respondent who shifts the subject to whom she is giving voice would pose dramatic technical
difficulties for survey researchers, such that, for example, varied parts of a single completed
interview would have to be coded as the responses of different subjects and be generalizable
to different populations. This takes us well beyond the possibility of coding in the traditional
sense of the term, a point that, of course, Harold Garfinkel (1967) and Aaron Cicourel (1964),
among others, made years ago and that, oddly enough, inspired the approach Mishler
Ownership and Empowerment
Having raised these vexing issues, can we ever effectively address the question of who owns
the opinions and stories expressed in interviews, including both the standardized interview
and the more open-ended, narrative form? Whose “own” story do we obtain in the process of
interviewing? Can we ever discern ownership in individual terms? And how does this relate to
respondent empowerment?
Recall that ownership implies that the respondent has, or has title to, a story and that the
interview can be designed to bring this forth. But the concept of voice suggests that this is not
as straightforward as it might seem. The very activity of opening the interview to extended
discussion among the participants indicates that ownership can be a joint or collaborative
matter, if not rather fleeting in designation. In practice, the idea of “own story” is not just a
commendable research goal but something participants themselves seek to resolve as they
move through the interview conversation. Each participant tentatively engages the interactive
problems of ownership as a way of sorting out the assumed subjectivities in question and
proceeds on that basis, for the practical communicative purposes of completing the interview.
When a respondent such as a substance-abusing pharmacist responds to a question about
the future, “I've learned [from N.A.] that it's best to take it one day at a time; I really believe
that,” it is clear that the pharmacist's narrative is more than an individual's story. What he
owns would seem to have wended its way through the informing voices of other subjectivities:
Narcotics Anonymous's recovery ideology, this particular respondent's articulation of that
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ideology, the communicative twists on both discourses that emerge in the give-and-take of the
interview exchange, the project's own framing of the issues and resulting agenda of
questions, the interviewer's ongoing articulation of that agenda, and the reflexively
collaborative flow of unforeseen voiced and unvoiced subjectivities operating in the unfolding
exchange. What's more, all of these together can raise meta-communicative concerns about
“what this [the interview] is all about, anyway,” which the respondent might ask at any time.
Under the circumstances, it would seem that ownership is something rather diffusely spread
about the topical and processual landscape of speech activities entailed in the interview.
Respondent empowerment would appear to be a working, rather than definitive, feature of
these speech activities. It is not clear in practice how one could distinguish any one
respondent's own story from the tellable stories available to this and other respondents, which
they might more or less share. Putting it in terms of “tellable stories” further complicates voice,
subjectivity, and empowerment. And, at the other end of the spectrum of what is tellable,
there are those perplexing responses that, in the respondent's search for help in formulating
an answer, can return “power” to the very source that would hold it in the first place. It is not
uncommon to hear respondents remark that they are not sure how they feel or what they
think, or that they haven't really thought about the question or topic before, or to hear them
actually think out loud about what it might mean personally to convey particular sentiments or
answer in a specific wayand ask the interviewer for assistance in doing so.
Philosophically, the central issue here is a version of Ludwig Wittgenstein's (1953) “private
language” problem. Wittgenstein argues that because languageand, by implication, stories
and other interview responsesis a shared “form of life,” the idea that one could have available
exclusively to oneself an unshared, private language would not make much sense. Given the
reflexive duality of self-consciousness, one could not even share an ostensible private
language with oneself. In more practical terms, this means that whatever is conveyed by the
respondent to the interviewer is always subject to the question of what it means, in which
case we're back to square one with shared knowledge and the various “language games” that
can be collaboratively engaged by interview participants to assign meaning to these questions
and responses. Empowerment in this context is not so much a matter of providing the
communicative means for the respondent to tell his or her “own” story as it is a matter of
recognizing, first, that responses or stories, as the case might be, are
recognizing, first, that responses or stories, as the case might be, are collaborative
accomplishments and, second, that there are as many individual responses or stories to tell
as there are recognizable forms of response. This, of course, ultimately brings us full circle to
the analytically hoary problem of whose interests are being served when the individually
“empowered” respondent speaks, implicating power in relation to the broader social horizons
of speech and discourse.
Kirin Narayan and Kenneth George (Chapter 39, this volume) inform us further that
empowerment is also a cultural prerogative, something that the interviewer does not expressly
control and, given the opportunity, cannot simply choose to put into effect. Cultures of
storytelling enter into the decision as to whether there is even a story to convey or relevant
experiences to highlight. Although the democratization of opinion potentially turns interviewers
toward any and all individuals for their accounts, not all individuals believe that their opinions
are worthy of communication. The Asian Indian women Narayan interviewed, for example, did
not think they had opinions worth telling unless they had done “something different” with their
lives. It had to be something “special”; as one woman put it, “You ate, drank, slept, served
your husband and brought up your children. What's the story in that?” This powerfully
affected the stories that were heard in the area, tying ownership to the local relevance of
one's narrative resources.
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Going Concerns and Discursive Environments
Where do tellable stories and other forms of response come from if they are not owned by
individuals? How do they figure in what is said in interview situations? It was evident in the
previous discussion of the pharmacist drug abuse research that respondents were making
use of a very common notion of recovery in today's world, one that seems to have percolated
through the entire troubles treatment industry (Gubrium and Holstein 2001). Do this industry
and other institutions dealing with human experiences offer us a clue to the question of
narrative ownership? Do Narayan's respondents proffer agendas of social, not just individual,
Erving Goffman's (1961) exploration of what he calls “moral careers” provides a point of
departure for addressing such questions. Goffman was especially concerned with the moral
careers of stigmatized persons such as mental patients, but the social concerns of his
approach are broadly suggestive. In his reckoning, each of us has many selves and
associated ways of accounting for our thoughts and actions. According to Goffman,
individuals obtain senses of who they are as they move through the various moral
environments that offer specifications for identity. A mental hospital, for example, provides
patients with particular selves, including ways of presenting who one is, one's past, and one's
future. The moral environment of the mental hospital also provides others, such as staff
members, acquaintances, and even strangers, with parallel sensibilities toward the patient. In
other words, moral environments deploy localized universes of choice for constructing
subjectivity, relatedly providing a shared format for voicing participants’ selves, thoughts, and
feelings. Goffman's view is not so much that these environments govern who and what people
are as individuals, but that individualseveryday actorsstrategically play out who and what they
are as the moral agents of particular circumstances.
Goffman is mainly concerned with the face-to-face situations that constitute daily life; he is
less concerned with institutional matters. Still, his analysis of moral careers in relation to what
he calls “total institutions” points us in an important direction, toward what Everett Hughes
([1942] 1984) calls the “going concerns” of today's world. This is Hughes's way of
emphasizing that institutions are not only concerns in having formal and informal mandates;
they are social forms that ongoingly provide distinct patterning for our thoughts, words,
sentiments, and actions.
From the myriad formal organizations in which we work, study, pray, play, and recover to the
countless informal associations and networks to which we belong, to our affiliations with
racial, ethnic, and gendered groupings, we engage a panoply of going concerns on a daily
basis. Taken together, they set the “conditions of possibility” (Foucault 1988) for identityfor
who and what we could possibly be. Many of these going concerns explicitly structure or
reconfigure personal identity. All variety of human service agencies, for example, readily delve
into the deepest enclaves of the self in order to ameliorate personal ills. Self-help
organizations seem to crop up on every street corner, and self-help literature beckons us from
the book spindles of supermarkets and the shelves of every bookstore. “Psychobabble” on
radio and TV talk shows constantly prompts us to formulate (or reformulate) who and what we
are, urging us to give voice to the selves we live by. The self is increasingly deprivatized (even
if it never was private in Wittgenstein's terms in the first place), constructed and interpreted
under the auspices of these decidedly public going concerns (Gubrium and Holstein 1995,
2000; Holstein and Gubrium 2000).
Since early in the 20th century, social life has come into the purview of countless institutions
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whose moral function is to assemble, alter, and reformulate our lives and selves (see Gubrium
and Holstein 2001). We refer to these as discursive environments because they provide
choices for how we articulate our lives and selves. Discursive environments are interactional
domains characterized by distinctive ways of interpreting and representing everyday life, of
speaking about who and what we are. Institutions such as schools, correctional facilities,
clinics, family courts, support groups, recreational clubs, fitness centers, and self-
improvement programs promote particular ways of speaking of life. They are families of
language games, as it were, for formulating our opinions. They furnish discourses of
subjectivity that are accountably put into discursive practice as individuals give voice to
experience, such as they are now widely asked to do in interviews.
These going concerns pose new challenges to the concept of the individual respondent, to
voice, and to the idea of empowerment. They are not especially hostile to the personal;
indeed, they are often in the business of reconstructing the personal from the ground up.
Rather, today's variegated landscape of discursive environments provides complex options for
who we could be, the conditions of possibility we mentioned earlier. This is the world of
multiple subjects and of ways to give voice to them that respondents now increasingly bring
with them into interviews, whose discursive resources also figure significantly in marking
narrative relevance.
In turn, these environments also provide the source of socially relevant questions that
interviewers pose to respondents. Those who conduct surveys, for example, are often
sponsored by the very agents who formulate these applicable discourses. The collaborative
production of the respondent's own story is therefore shaped, for better or worse, in response
to markets and concerns spread well beyond the give- and-take of the individual interview
This brings us back, full circle, to the interview society. The research context is not the only
place in which we are asked interview questions. All the going concerns mentioned above and
more are in the interviewing business, all constructing and marshaling the subjects they need
to do their work. Each provides a social context for narrative practice, for the collaborative
production of the identities and experiences that come to be viewed as the moral equivalents
of respondents and interview responses. Medical clinics deploy interviews and, in the process,
assemble doctors, patients, and their illnesses (see Zoppi and Epstein, Chapter 18, this
volume). Personnel officers interview job applicants and collect information that forms the
basis for employment decisions (see Latham and Millman, Chapter 23, this volume).
Therapists of all stripes conduct counseling interviews, and now increasingly assemble
narrative plots of experiences, which are grounds for further rehabilitative interviewing (see
Miller et al., Chapter 19, this volume). The same is true for schools, forensic investigation, and
journalistic interviewing, among the broad range of institutional contexts that shape our lives
through their collaborative speech activities (see in this volume Altheide, Chapter 20;
McKenzie, Chapter 21; Tierney and Dilley, Chapter 22).
The interview society expands the institutional auspices of interviewing well beyond the
research context. Indeed, it would have been mistakenly restrictive to limit the purview of this
Handbook to the research interview alone. Social research is only one of the many sites where
subjectivities and the voicing of individual experience are undertaken. What's more, these
various going concerns cannot be considered to be independent of one another. As our
pharmacist anecdote suggests, the discursive environments of therapy and recovery can be
brought directly into the research interview, serving to commingle an agglomeration of
institutional voices.
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Interview formats are themselves going concerns. The group interview, for example, can take
us into a veritable swirl of subject formations and opinion construction, as participants share
and make use of narrative material from a broader range of discursive environments than any
single one of them might muster to account for his or her experience alone (see Morgan,
Chapter 7, this volume). Life story and oral history interviews extend the biographical
particulars of the subject and subject matter in time, producing respondents who are incited
to trace opinion from early to late life and across eras, something that can be amazingly
convoluted when compared to the commonly detemporalized information elicited from cross-
sectional survey respondents (see in this volume Atkinson, Chapter 6; Cándida Smith,
Chapter 34). The in-depth interview extends experience in emotional terms, affectively
elaborating the subject (see Johnson, Chapter 5, this volume).
Identity politics, too, forms going concerns. Although we now might consider that both men
and women are proper subjects for interviews, the contributions to this volume on men as
respondents, by Michael Schwalbe and Michelle Wolkomir (Chapter 10), and on women as
respondents, by Shulamit Reinharz and Susan Chase (Chapter 11), present men and women
as “distinctly” historical, if not political, subjects. The idea of interviewing men as men, for
example, and not simply assuming that they are general respondents, is of recent vintage,
and undoubtedly also is a gendered political response to feminist self-consciousness,
according to Schwalbe and Wolkomir. The same can be said for the other “distinctive”
respondents discussed in Part II of this Handbook. The point here is that, whether responses
give voice, say, to children as such, or to gays and lesbians, particular ethnic and racial
groups, older people, social elites, or the seriously ill, they are products of the rubrics we
bring to bear in prompting ourselves or in being prompted by others to give voice to
experience, not just the products of individual empowerment.
Artfulness and Narrative Practice
Lest we socially overdetermine subjectivity, it is important to emphasize that the practice of
interviewing does not simply incorporate wholesale the identities proffered by institutionalized
concerns and cultural relevancies. Interview participants themselves are actively involved in
how these subjectivities are put into play. Although varied institutional auspices provide
particular resources for asking and answering questions, prescribe the roles played by
interview participants, and privilege certain accounts, interview participants do not behave like
robots and adopt and reproduce these resources and roles in their speech activities. If
participants are accountable to particular circumstances, such as job interviews, medical
diagnostic encounters, or journalistic interviews, they nonetheless borrow from the variety of
narrative resources available to them. In this regard, they are more “artful” (Garfinkel 1967)
than automatic in realizing their respective roles and voices. This extends to all interview
participants, as both interviewers and respondents collaboratively assemble who and what
they are in narrative practice.
Our pharmacist anecdote is an important case in point. Although the interviews in question
were formal research encounters, it was evident that respondents were not only reporting their
“own” experiences, but were interpolating their “own” stories, in part, in N.A. recovery terms.
They drew from their experiences in recovery groups to convey to the interviewer what it felt
like to be “taken over” by drugs. Several respondents used the familiar metaphor of “hitting
bottom” to convey a trajectory for the experience. But these respondents were not simply
mouthpieces for Narcotics Anonymous; they gave their own individual spins to the
terminology, which, in turn, were selectively applied in their responses. For example, “hitting
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bottom” meant different things to different respondents, depending on the biographical
particulars of their lives. How hitting bottom narratively figured in one respondent's comments
was no guarantee of how it might figure in another's.
Interviewers, too, are artful in coordinating the interview process, even in the context of the
standardized survey, which employs rather formalized procedures (see in this volume
Schaeffer and Maynard, Chapter 28; Baker, Chapter 37). In some forms of interviewing, such
as in-depth interviews, interviewers may use all of the personal narrative resources at their
disposal to establish open and trusting relationships with respondents (see Johnson, Chapter
5, this volume). This may involve extensive self-disclosure, following on the assumption that
reciprocal self-disclosure is likely.
Taking this a step farther, a growing postmodern trend in interviewing deliberately blurs the
line between the interviewer and the respondent, moving beyond symmetry to a considerable
overlap of roles (see Fontana, Chapter 8, this volume). Although this may have been
characteristic of in-depth interviewing for years, postmodern sensibilities aim for an associated
representational inventiveness as much as deep disclosure. Artfulness extends to the
representation of interviewers’ and researchers’ own reflective collaborations in moving from
respondent to respondent as the project develops, as Carolyn Ellis and Leigh Berger show in
their contribution to this volume (Chapter 41). Of course, interviewers and their sponsoring
researchers have always collaborated on the design of interviews and offered collaborative
feedback to one another on the interview process. But there is a distinct difference here: Ellis
and Berger choose not to separate this from their interview materials. In layered writing, they
provide us with an intriguing account of how interviewers interviewing each other artfully and
fruitfully combine the interview “data” with their own related life experiences to broaden and
enrich the results. Their reflections collaboratively impel them forward to complete additional
interviews and revisit old ones in new and interesting ways. The separation in conventional
research reports of interviewers’ experiences from those of respondents, they argue, is highly
artificial and produces sanitized portrayals of the “data” in question. According to Ellis and
Berger, researchers may capture collaborative richness by forthrightly presenting the full
round of narrative practices that generate responses. Artfulness derives from the interpretive
work that is undertaken in mingling together what interviewers draw upon to make meaning in
the interview process and what respondents themselves bring along.
Further blurring boundaries, Narayan and George (Chapter 39, this volume) provide a
delightful jaunt through the artful relationship between what they call personal narratives and
folk narratives. The former allegedly are the idiosyncratic individual stories that
anthropologists regularly encounter in their fieldwork, accounts of experience considered to
be peculiar to their storytellers. Folk narratives, in contrast, are ostensibly those shared tales
of experience common to a group or culture. They are part of the narrative tradition and, in
their telling, are a cultural accounting of the experiences in question. But, as Narayan and
George explain, in their respective attempts to obtain life stories from respondents in various
parts of the globe, what was personal and what was folk was never clearly demarcated.
Individual respondents made use of what was shared to represent themselves as individuals,
so that, narratively, who any “one” was, was mediated artfully by various applications of
common usage. In turn, the cultural particulars embodied in folktales were constantly being
applied in both old and new ways in personal accounts. Biography and culture, in other
words, were mutually implicative and alive in their narrative renderings; their interviews both
reproduced and invented participants’ lives (see also Abu-Lughod 1993; Behar 1993; Degh
1969; Narayan 1997).
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In some sense, then, although the aim of empowering respondents is certainly attractive and
to be encouraged in principle, interview participants are always already “empowered” to
engage artfully in a vast range of discursive practices. Even “asymmetrical” interview
conversations require the active involvement of both parties. Although interview preferences
and politics move in various directions, interview participants nonetheless actively and artfully
engage the auspices of the interview and their own biographies at many levels. As Foucault
might put it, power is everywhere in the interview's exploration and explication of experience.
Even the standardized survey interview, which seemingly allocates all power to the
researcher, deploys it elsewhere in the collaboratively constructive vocalization of “individual”
Interviewing as Cultural Production
The interview is certainly more than what it seemed to be at the start of this chapter; we have
taken it well beyond a simple and self-evident encounter between interviewer and respondent.
As we moved from the individual interview to the interview society, we noted that the interview
is among our most commonplace means for constructing individualized experience. We
recognized, too, that by virtue of our widespread participation in interviews, each and every
one of us is implicated in the production of who and what we are as the collection of individual
subjects that populate our lives.
Of course, interviewing is found in places where it has been for decades, such as in applying
for jobs, in clinical encounters, and in the telephone surveys of public opinion polling. But it
has also penetrated formerly hidden spaces, such as the foothills of the Himalayas and the
everyday worlds of children and the seriously ill. Interviews are everywhere these days, as
researchers pursue respondents to the ends of the earth, as we offer our opinions and
preferences to pollsters, in Internet questionnaires, and to marketing researchers, as we bare
our souls to therapists and healers in the “privacy” of the clinic as well as in the mass media.
With its penetration and globalization, the interview has become a worldwide form of cultural
production. Regardless of social venue or geographic locationcharacteristics that were once
argued to be empirically distinct or interpersonally isolatingthe methodical application of
interview technology is bringing us into a single world of accounts and accountability. Despite
its community borders and national and linguistic boundaries, it is a world that can be
described in the common language of sample characteristics and whose subjectivities can be
represented in terms of individualized voices. Whereas we once might have refrained from
examining Asian village women's stories in relation to the accounts of their urban European
counterpartsbecause the two groups were understood to be culturally and geographically
distinctthe women's ability to respond to interviews now makes it possible for us to compare
their experiences in the same methodological terms.
The interview is such a common information-gathering procedure that it seems to bring all
experience together narratively. Of course, there are technical challenges and local narrative
solutions that cannot be overlooked. But technology is only the procedural scaffolding of what
is a broad culturally productive enterprise. More and more, the interview society provides both
a sense of who we are and the method by which we represent ourselves and our experiences.
This returns us to the leading theme of this Handbook: The interview is part and parcel of
society, not simply a mode of inquiry into and about society. If it is part of, not just a conduit
to, our personal lives, then we might well entertain the possibility that the interview's ubiquity
serves to produce communicatively and ramify the very culture it ostensibly only inquires
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It is in the spirit of this cultural, as well as its constituent technical, activity that this Handbook
is presented. As the contributors deftly describe the interview's varied modalities, distinctive
respondents, technical dimensions, auspices, analytic strategies, and reflections and
representations, they also specify the most common procedural facilitator for the expression of
experience of our times.
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California Press.
Alasuutari, P.1998. An Invitation to Social Research. London: Sage.
Atkinson, P. and D.Silverman‘Kundera's Immortality: The Interview Society and the Invention
of Self.’Qualitative Inquiry3:304–25.1997
Balint, M.1964.The Doctor, His Patient, and the Illness. London: Pitman.
Behar, R.1993.Translated Woman: Crossing the Border with Esperanza1s Story. Boston:
Benney, M. and E. C.Hughes‘Of Sociology and the Interview.’American Journal of
Briggs, C. L.1986.Learning How to Ask: A Sociolinguistic Appraisal of the Role of the Interview
in Social Science Research. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Carrithers, M., S.Collins and S.Lukes, eds. 1985.The Category of the Person. Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press.
Cicourel, A. V.1964.Method and Measurement in Sociology. New York: Free Press.
Cicourel, A. V. ‘Fertility, Family Planning, and the Social Organization of Family Life: Some
Methodological Issues.’Journal of Social Issues23:57–81.1967
Cicourel, A. V.‘Interviews, Surveys, and the Problem of Ecological Validity.’American
Clifford, J. and G. E.Marcus, eds. 1986.Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of
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depth interviews
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... The guide also reflected our extensive discussions on how to develop an interview guide in which we were able to account for different types of knowledge on gender. This process was qualified through our readings of , Haavind (1999), Gubrium & Holstein (2002, as well as Kvale and Brinkmann (2009), among others, which I will elaborate on in the following section. ...
... In so doing, my aim has not been to uncover "facts" about young adults' alcohol use and how this use is ordered around gender, because I do not consider the interview situation to be a "neutral conduit," but rather "an occasion for constructing accounts" (Gubrium & Holstein, 2012, p.7). These interviews are a form of narrative practice, through which participant and interviewer are engaged in a social interaction of knowledge construction (Gubrium & Holstein, 2002Kvale & Brinkmann, 2009). With narrative practice, I refer to the how their descriptions and reflections of their experiences are not "revealed" during the interview but shaped through the practice of speaking about them in a specific interview situation in which we have encouraged them to provide expanded accounts of their everyday life (Riessman, 2012). ...
... For example, this was pertinent as I felt it necessary to spend more time establishing a trusting atmosphere with some respondents because they reacted to my dialect being "city-like," noting that I was "not from around here." However, I had never expected the interview to constitute a neutral practice, free of the dynamics that otherwise mark our social worlds (Gubrium & Holstein, 2002Kvale & Brinkmann, 2009;. Therefore, I aimed to work with these challenges, instead of trying to eliminate them, and the immediate differences in demeanor, including its roots in social positions (e.g., gender, age, ethnicity, class, geographical belonging, etc.) between the participants and me also proved useful. ...
... Bonding/being part of a group [36][37][38]. something positive, in a venue that was, you know, it was just really freaking cool and we were, we were so proud of ourselves. It was kind of like graduating from boot camp, almost. ...
... Future research should include repeated measures to establish a temporal relationship between the intervention and subsequent outcome measures. Finally, it is possible that the participants did not respond honestly because they may have wanted to portray a certain image in the presence of the principal investigator who was involved in the study, or may have been affected by the social setting/context in which focus groups took place [36][37][38][39][40][41][42][43][44]. ...
... Cassie used ethnographic methods (Emerson et al., 2011) to generate data. She engaged the 22 children in multiple, semistructured interviews (Gubrium & Holstein, 2001). She audio-/video-recorded daily lessons on the four days she visited CSJ each week and collected lesson artifacts produced during the unit. ...
In this paper, the authors specifically consider what it means to engage as a critical white social educator of young, racially diverse children. They document how one third-grade teacher–Ms. Honey, a thirty-something white woman–used diverse books as a springboard to cultivate a more critical curriculum. The authors demonstrate how, as the focal teacher centered on pressing and historical social issues–including systemic racism –in her curriculum, classroom, and community, she also re learned (hi)stories herself. In the findings, the authors demonstrate how Ms. Honey carefully led children through a read-aloud within an integrated social studies and literacy unit. The authors frame Ms. Honey’s actions as a critical social educator and, in doing so, they highlight the messy, seemingly imperfect work required to engage as a critical social educator.
... Якщо вважати інтерв'ю місцем «спільної дії» (Plummer 2001, 399) «респондента*» й інтерв'юера* (надто коли інтерв'юер* є учасником* спільноти), навіщо іґнорувати чи вуалювати взаємини дослідника* з «полем», предметом вивчення та життєвим досвідом у досліджуваній проблемі? Й третє: «інтерв'ювання є безперервним процесом» (Gubrium and Holstein 2002). Пишучи аналітичні тексти, науковці* інтерактивно -в мідівському сенсі -обмірковують епізоди інтерв'ю, перебіг польової роботи й/або опитувань фокус-груп, вони подумки говорять із респондентами* та про них. ...
Я не вважаю, ніби автоетнографія є досконалішим або точнішим способом дослідження. Вона радше стає ще одним інструментом у професійному наборі методів, однак інструментом особливо доречним і продуктивним. Я маю на меті обґрунтувати епістемологічні засади автоетнографії – як їх розумію та практикую: автоетнографія цінує методологічну гібридність, проблематизує загальновизнаний поділ на модерне та постмодерне, прямо націлена на теоретичне осмислення суспільних явищ, а не підстригання проєктів відповідно до правил опанованих методів. Власне, маю надію за допомоги автоетнографії запобігти ситуації, коли правила методу встановлювали би «взаємини домінування» у наших проєктах виробництва знань.
... Interviews with IS project managers have been used in research projects for different purposes such as to identify skills and competencies that drive project success (Napier et al., 2009;Skulmoski & Hartman, 2010), to identify elements that impact success in virtual work settings (Verburg et al., 2013), or even to understand the mentoring relationship for achieving success in IS projects (Leong & Tan, 2013). According to Gubrium and Holstein (2001), in an interview, the interviewer coordinates a conversation to obtain the desired information. The questions are answered in a more or less predictable format until the interviewer's agenda is completed and the interview is over. ...
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Evaluating the success of projects should be a key process in project management. However, there are only a few studies that address the evaluation process in practice. In order to help fill this gap, this paper presents the results of an exploratory survey with experienced information systems project managers. Results show that opportunities for lessons learned and project management improvement are being missed due to the lack of formal evaluation of success.
... Employing Stryker's notion of identity salience, I have sought to account for how particular mechanisms vault the salience of veganism and activate contemplation among prospective participants; and to account for how these prospective participants manage the salience of veganism and prioritize it as they negotiate these mechanisms and other priorities. People assess salience and prioritize through narrative (Gubrium and Holstein 2003;Vila 2000). Thus, for this study, I fostered the construction of narratives through which interview participants engaged in the selectivity to which Perinbanayagam refers, choosing what to include in their narratives. ...
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This study examines mobilization processes with a particular focus on how people come to contemplate and embrace or reject veganism. Engaging the narratives of 33 interview participants who interacted with vegan advocacy networks in Greater Philadelphia, the study accounts for how prospective vegans negotiate forces, such as social networks and ties, that activate or hinder their mobilization; and for how they prioritize veganism among other priorities. Among other manners, participants came to contemplate the prospect of becoming vegan upon recognizing veganism as congruent with their other priorities. Participants who became vegan were more likely than participants who did not to prioritize altruism, to seek information that motivated and empowered them, and to deploy strategies to attenuate antagonism. The study’s findings suggest that participation in food movements is contingent on how prospective participants prioritize, on the incentives and mindset with which they contemplate participation, and on their capacity to participate.
Road transport is a major contributor to air pollution in the UK (DEFRA, 2019) with serious effects on public health (DEFRA and DfT, 2017), and a significant source of greenhouse gas emissions (DECC, 2016). Measures to mitigate this environmental – and social – impact must be taken for the UK to achieve its targets for decarbonising transport and to reduce harmful emissions. Introducing electric vehicles (EVs) is key to tackling air quality (BEISC, 2018); and these offer heightened advantages in combination with renewable energy management and storage (Hall and Lutsey, 2017), and deployment in networked multi-modal transport systems or vehicle-sharing services (Urry and Dennis, 2009). Digital connectivity and communications systems are an enabling factor in such hypothetical smart transportation futures. However, while digital media tools and technologies such as smartphone apps and social media platforms are believed to prompt new practices and behaviours among users of other transport modes (i.e. Pawlak et al., 2015), more knowledge of their influence or effects is needed with specific reference to EV driving. Quantitative and qualitative data collected in this research have provided insight into demographic, attitudinal and behavioural characteristics of the early-innovator EV community. A typology has been created to chronologically itemise and delineate the EV-specific journeymaking process, including digitally-mediated interventions. Drivers’ engagement with digital media has been correlated against reported behaviour changes or certain adaptations in household routines, habits and practices since driving an EV. User segmentation and archetypal EV driver personas have been developed, informing models mapping driver behaviour and digital engagement to appropriate implementation of new and upcoming technologies; and recommendations have been made relevant to stakeholders including vehicle and user experience designers; service and infrastructure providers; and developers of mobility or transportation systems. Considered in the theoretical context of the Multi-Level Perspective (MLP) on socio-technical transitions (Geels, 2002), the conclusion finds that while niche-level activity has encouraged and supported early-innovators and initial experimentation, technologies from established regimelevel companies and service providers are crucial for more mainstream EV adoption; but digital media alone cannot accelerate the transition to electromobility.
How can ordinary journalistic and academic researchers, young doctoral candidates in particular, get past the gatekeepers and access the exclusive world of elite policy-makers and top executives for purposes of interviewing? This is the question this case study will address. The author found that non-random “snowball sampling” or chain-referral can begin with the gatekeepers, who themselves give access to elite interviewees. In the context of a process tracing study, this is a potent methodology. In short, the key to getting “snowball access” rolling is the interpersonal relationships that the researcher should establish with the first few persons who grant an interview.
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While commentators on the postmodern scene have dismissed or trivialized the personal self, it nonetheless remains a central experiential construct, articulating a sense of moral agency for everyday life. This article examines self-construction in the context of a world of proliferating going concerns - social institutions - that increasingly shape the discursive contours of subjectivity. Both the negative and the positive sides of this development are examined, the analytic implications of which can move us in strikingly different directions. We conclude by offering suggestions for tying the study of the contemporary self to the variety of discursive environments and practices that set the conditions of possibility for who and what we are or could be.