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Fieldwork Reflections

Anna Isaacs, Methods, PhD Experience

Fieldwork Reflections

Photo by Telco Kruidenier © 2005. Used with permission under the license of Creative Commons: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/

Photo by Telco Kruidenier © 2005. Used with permission under the license of Creative Commons: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/


By Anna Isaacs

Recently, during one of my PhD interviews, a participant discussed with me her reluctance to engage in preventive health screenings. Part way through the conversation she asked me if I had ever had a cervical smear test and, if so, how I had found it. I paused for a second and then replied that yes, I had, and while it might not have been in my top ten most enjoyable experiences, it was relatively quick and not unduly painful. “Oh”, she responded. “Well if you’ve had one, then maybe I will too….”

Several years ago I participated in a friend of a friend’s qualitative research study. Having just finished conducting interviews for my anthropology masters I was delighted to ‘pay it forward’ and give back some of the time that had been so generously afforded to me by my research participants. I had hugely enjoyed the process of interviewing and believed that my participants, too, had derived value from the opportunity to tell their stories and offer their opinions. What struck me most, however, about my own feelings on being interviewed, was how uncomfortable I was. The one-way process of the interviewer asking personal questions about me, but offering very little of himself in return seemed off balance and left me feeling as if I was giving disappointing answers. Although we operated in very similar worlds outside of the interview and despite him being a generally friendly and warm interviewer, the power dynamic of one person sharing information but getting little response in return felt wrong.

Talking to African refugees and asylum seekers about their perceptions of health and wellbeing for my PhD has led me to reflect on this experience and consider both the impact I have as an interviewer as well as the role I want to take. Unlike in the previous situation, the differences between me and my participants are considerable. To name a few: I am white, a British citizen and, as part of a university, a member of a high status institution; they are black, exiled from one country and with an uncertain future in another, and are at the mercy of (different) high status institutions to whom they are regularly forced to tell their stories in an atmosphere of suspicion and mistrust.

A lot of attention is paid in anthropology and sociology to the ways in which researchers and participants co-produce research data. This recognises that however ‘unbiased’ or ‘detached’ an interviewer tries to be, it is impossible not to influence, even in a small way, the process and outcomes of an interview and highlights the critical importance of being reflexive about one’s own role. From this starting point, what is the best way to proceed? Do we offer enough of ourselves just to establish the necessary rapport for a successful interview, whilst trying to reduce bias as much as possible? Or should we be conceiving of the interview in a different way? Perhaps as a space where we can start to undermine the hierarchical relationships in which we are enmeshed, both in academia as well as in everyday life.

Writing about interviewing women, the feminist sociologist Ann Oakley (1981), suggests that we should be collecting data for those people whose lives we are researching, rather than for ourselves. She argues that it is impossible to build genuine rapport without answering personal questions (and it is unrealistic to expect to be able to do this easily anyway). Further, she considers the traditional researcher-participant relationship to be “morally indefensible” in that it replicates and reinforces in an interview setting, the unequal gendered relationships that pervade society. Although my research was not specifically with women, her arguments still resonate in relation to the unequal position that refugees and asylum seekers occupy.

During my PhD fieldwork, numerous participants asked me questions about myself, my family and my future plans. While careful not to say anything that would undermine what they had told me, I chose to answer as honestly as I could. I certainly didn’t get it right 100% of the time, but in interacting with my participants just as one person to another, not only do I have richer interview data, but I hope to have undermined, in however insignificant a fashion, the systems and structures that, as one participant put it, prevent asylum seekers and refugees from being allowed to feel like humans.

What are your perspectives on the participant-researcher relationship? How have you addressed personal questions in interviews? Let us know!


Oakley, A. (1981) Interviewing women: a contradiction in terms. in H Roberts (ed) Doing feminist research. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

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