MSc Sport and Health Sciences


Qualitative Research



Conducting and experiencing a personal narrative interview

 Nick Sherriff


If as Holloway suggests the qualitative interview is indeed ‘conversation with a purpose’ then surely the purpose is to learn something about the person interviewed. But as Kolb offers, ‘experience in itself does not guarantee learning [rather] In order to learn from our experience we must reflect on our experiences…’ (1994). Moreover, others like Mezirow (1981) and Rogers further posit that not only is ‘reflection’ crucial but in fact it is ‘critical reflection’ (1986) that must act upon the experience [the interview] thus facilitating learning.

The notion of reflection plays a crucial part in not only the qualitative process but is indicative to the idea of a semi-structured interview. Schon concurs suggesting that there are two types of reflection; a live or instant reflection that is about thinking on your feet in the here and now, and a retrospective kind of reflection that he refers to as ‘reflection on action’ (1987), after the event if you like. The former is directly linked and embedded into the semi-structured interview whereby the interviewer is constantly reappraising the information within the conversation. As such the reflection informs the next set of questions to be asked or topic area to be investigated in a similar way to that of Kemmis (1985), Reid (1993) and Johns (1995) who offer the elements of change or action planning for change that results from analysis, review and evaluation. They further suggest that the process is active in that the interviewer is actively engaged in a learning process during the interview gaining a new perspective on the interviewee’s situation. Therefore reflection is necessary in order to keep up with the learning process, as you learn more about the person you are interviewing your interest moves and the style and type of questions you ask flows with the conversation. Such constant reappraisal allows for the focus to remain within the general topic area and to ensure that information gained is useful for the study.

The latter notion of ‘reflection on action’ (Schon. 1987) may be considered as a more holistic approach not only for the interviewer but probably for the interviewee. After the interview there is the opportunity for both parties to step back and dwell upon the process as a whole akin the work of Louden who posits,

‘[Reflection is a]… serious and sober thought at some distance from action and has connotations similar to "meditation" and "introspection ". It is a mental process which takes place out of the stream of action, looking forward or (usually) back to actions that have taken place’ (1991).

This piece of work will therefore use the latter type of reflection in order to learn something from the interview process.

Rationale for choosing the participant

A more conscious effort than one might first think especially given that interviews are often considered relationships (Esterberg. 2002:84). Furthermore it is generally accepted that relationships take time and evolve over the period (Tuckman. 1965). Although it has been suggested ‘we live in an interview society…’ (Gubrium & Holstein. 1995), people know what an interview is and they therefore come in to it with some preconceptions. The decision was taken to interview someone whom I could relate to. It was also suggested that a more mature interviewee of similar age to the interviewer was more likely to offer a greater depth of information which would probably have been pre-narrated in a similar fashion to that of McAdams (1993), whereby; ‘Maturity demands the acceptance and meaningful organisation of past events (cited Crossley 2000:67). In addition there was already a brief but encouraging relationship developing between interviewee (HM) and the interviewer (NS) that seemed rather natural and comfortable. Both had an avid interest in sport and came from geographically similar parts of the country thus a relationship had already formed (Tuckman. 1965) prior to the interview. It is also worth noting that the early ‘forming’ stage of the relationship development had meant that only a limited amount of information had been exchanged between us prior to interview, therefore a kind of freshness still existed which manifested in a real interest in the conversation.

Full transcript

See Appendix

 Reflections on the process

The type of interview chosen was semi-structured allowing for more flexibility to explore the topic and facilitating greater openness for the interviewee to express his opinions (Esterberg. 2002:87). This can empower the interviewee to a certain extent and is necessary as Patton (1990) posits ‘… we can’t observe everything we might want to know. Thus, we interview people to understand what life is like from perspectives other than our own.’ This is something that seems difficult to predict and therefore structure, as such the semi-structured interview hands over the narrative and its direction to the interviewee. The relationship is actually more akin to that of author and publisher with control being somewhat governed by the publisher [interviewer]. This does appear to be more productive for the interviewer and provides just enough authorial constraint to keep the interviewee from straying too far from the researchers study. Esterberg concurs suggesting, ‘the process resembles a dance, in which one partner must be carefully attuned to the other’s movements.’ (2002:87)

 This metaphor is almost perfect as you are taken by the interviewee on a journey unknown to you but like the ‘dance’ one [interviewer] must try hard not to lead the interviewee although it is acknowledged that some form of steering may be required in order to manoeuvre the conversation towards particular topics of interest.

 In reality keeping up with the ‘dance’ was problematic (Esterberg. 1990) with the apparent ad hoc order of the information coming from the interviewee especially when they were ‘on a role.’ ‘…the interviewee’s responses shape the order and structure of the interview.’ (1990:88) As such the interviewer needs to listen very carefully to the responses to be able to follow up on the potential leads that often come two or three at a time. I spent much of the time highlighting particular points of interest to further explore, to revisit or to disregard [as well as listen].

 There were also elements of Esterberg’s distance (1990:90)in that I often found myself somewhat detached and listening to two voices both the interviewee and at the same time my own inner voice remarking on interesting points, making mental references of topics, contradictions and questions to ask next. Furthermore such pleasant and mechanical detachment (1990) felt very unnatural with many subconscious non-verbal communications suddenly becoming very intrinsically noticeable.

Mental statements reiterating pleasantries like remember to smile, nod in agreement made for an unpredictably visceral experience.


‘Interviewing is rather like marriage: everybody knows what it is, an awful lot of people do it, and yet behind each closed front door there is a world of secrets.’ (Oakley. 1981)

I have to agree, such soliloquies were very much alien, rather unnerving and definitely unexpected. These more internal, private, reflective and contemplative voices (Pendergast. 2003) are according to Athens,


‘…a conversation between an "I" and a "me". The "I" represents the impulse or inner urge to act, as well as the later expression of the impulse in overt action. . . .Conversely, the "me" represents the perspective of the other from which the "I" is viewed. (1994: 521)


This rather complicated definition is in fact quite accurate explaining the duality of the interviewer who is at any one time both ‘chat show host’ and focused researcher. I found the notion of ‘I’ asking academic questions and ‘me’ forcing the ‘I’ to remain more tactful and conversational thus the entire interview was a compromise between then two. It does feel as if a real skill is needed here in the careful configuration of these two positions in order to get the most out of the interview.

The mechanics of the process included an interview guide with loose topic areas and the style of questioning to use for such topics in order to elicit more than a dichotomous yes/no response. As this was a semi structured interview which attempted to ‘enter… the psychological and social world of the respondent’ (Smith. 1995:12) an element of narrative freedom was given to the interviewee that facilitated the building of rapport and confidence. Furthermore McAdams protocol was used for such a guide encompassing eight specific areas of coverage. It must be remembered however that the interviewer is free to investigate any interesting issues that may arise and no actual chronological order is necessary for the protocol sequence. (Crossley. 2000:70) This was greatly apparent with the interviewee leaping seemingly [to me] ad hoc from issue to issue. Of course this is quite natural and why the guide is so important to even act like a check list with the interviewer cross referencing the respondent’s issues, subjects and topics with the master interview protocol guide. Moreover this loose guide kept the interview very conversational and allowed a degree of flow for the interviewee; he was able to say relatively whatever came into his mind. As such I felt a real sense of story telling with the interviewee speaking with passion and zeal.

 Such mechanics included a rehearsal at least in terms of equipment and venue which proved essential as the power supply was over the other side of the room therefore chairs etc had to be moved and the water cooler bubbling away was picked up by the tape machine as such I turned the cooler off for the interview. I further provided refreshments in an attempt to get the interviewee to relax which did seem to at least break the ice.

Rationale for choosing the listener

‘If meaning is social, if it exists in the dialogue, then it legitimately depends, to a significant extent, on the person who listens’ (Sass. 1988 cited in Crossley.2000:68). Furthermore the choice of the listener is in fact a bigger deal than choosing who to interview, of course both roles have their merits and issues but choosing a listener seems a bit like religious confession without the confidentiality – it matters who knows! Crossley goes on to point out the problematic nature of openness with family members as listeners offering their closeness and ‘involvement in events’ can limit how open you actually are with them. My particular listener was old enough to manage the information discussed with maturity and integrity similar to that of McAdams who further posits the listener should be able to be ‘enthusiastic, affirming and non-judgemental…’ (1993:225). McAdams point about enthusiasm is well made for it was the enthusiasm of my listener not only for the task but for the concept of a personal narrative that confirmed my choice.

 Reflections on the process of being interviewed

 Over the years I have been involved in many interviews usually I was the one conducting the interview although my seniority does suggest that I have had my fair share of job interviews and have therefore the experience of sitting on the other side of the fence. This however was different in part due to the subject matter – my life. I found the interview a rather mixed experience with a keenness to express parts of my life but definite caution about others. This did dominate the initial few minutes of the interview until the interviewer had won me over gaining a sort of trust, although how this happened I am unsure, possibly it was the connection or rapport (Esterberg. 2002:103) felt between interviewee and interviewer. Once this trust had been established a certain amount of flow was experienced or at least a willingness to tell stories because that was what it felt like; the telling of a collection of stories that made up my life. However like the sense of smell that has the instantaneous ability to transport your imagination back to previous encounters with such smells, so the stories seemed to a have a similar effect and I found I was recalling tales I had not thought about for years. It also felt good; not during the telling but afterwards and shortly afterwards at that; in fact as the tape was turned off. However, was this joyful exuberance in a cathartic fashion or was it relief that I had escaped unscathed is debatable, after all I am unlikely to admit to my masculine self that I have found my feminine side and disclosed my emotions. I did ask the interviewer to follow the interview protocol guide from McAdams and initially the questions were fine but as we neared the latter part of the interview the topic areas got a little too personal. Questions about stress and personal ideology I found difficult to answer honestly or at least tell the whole truth. This was in part due to my own personal issues that are still [I think] to be resolved. there are several issues here; the inflexibility of any guide in that if it is written down it must be explored and the skill of the interviewer to decide which of the prickly issues to further investigate. It did not get to the stage where I refused to answer or overtly made a fuss but during this reflection I wonder if the interviewer did pick up on this and leave it alone? Overall this has been a surprisingly pleasant and insightful experience that has found a far greater resonance in me having reflected upon the process.



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