Conducting Non-Elite Research Interviews

 

(Image author's own)
(Image author’s own)

Sitting in Fixx Coffee House on Dawson Street recently, I waved at two men who walked in separately just after three pm.  The only thing that they had in common was that they arrived alone, and appeared to cast an eye around as though looking for someone.  Neither of the them looked anything alike.  Neither of them was the person I was meant to be meeting.  While it might sound like I was on a blind date, the scenario I describe is, in fact, one of the perils of interviewing people who are not recognisable public figures!  I’ve lined up a series of interviews with (to use the technical term) non-elites: ordinary people who watched RTÉ’s long-running drama series, The Riordans (1965-1978).  The interviews form part of the research I’m doing for a conference paper / journal article that examines popular culture and social change.  I have done plenty of research interviews in the past — with politicians, activists and journalists — but I was more apprehensive about these.       

When conducting interviews with elites, I personally think there’s more scope for the type of questions you can ask — and certainly more background information is readily available.  For example, a politician’s date of birth is a matter of public record.  If it isn’t available from their own website, it is almost invariably listed on the database of all TDs and Senators — past and present — available on Oireachtas.ie.  But asking someone who is not in the public eye their age is one of those social taboos.  And yet it was something I had to do in order to establish the type of eyes through which my interviewees watched the The Riordans.  A child and an adult will naturally recall the programme differently.  And there’s really no point in trying to guess: one woman totally shocked me when she revealed her age to be ten years more than you’d judge by looking at her youthful appearance.  Thankfully, having explained why I needed to ask, everyone I’ve spoken to so far has been happy to divulge that particular piece of personal information.

There was another — bigger — reason why I was wary.  I had once previously attempted non-elite interviews while I was researching my forthcoming book.  Briefly, it opens with the reasons why Fine Gael’s Declan Costello had drafted his Just Society proposals — a blueprint for a new Ireland — in the mid-1960s.  A TD since 1951 for the working-class Dublin North-West, he was heavily influenced by the impact of unemployment and emigration he witnessed in the constituency.  He was particularly concerned about the housing situation.  

Screen Shot 2013-07-20 at 22.06.25
Extract from Declan Costello Contribution to Adjournment Debate in Dáil Éireann on Dangerous Buildings in Dublin, 12 June 1963

Consequently, I aimed to set up interviews with people who had grown up in — Declan Costello was very interested in the challenges facing society’s youth — or lived in the areas that came within the electoral boundaries.  I wanted to get ‘pen pictures’ of what life was like, to better understand the conditions that drove Costello’s social consciousness.

I abandoned the idea after the first person who had expressed interest in participating subsequently declined when I sent him a questionnaire.  Questions about educational opportunities, family income, employment status, emigration, etc were not ones with which he was particularly comfortable engaging.  I completely understand.  Non-public figures are not used to opening the door into their lives, nor having it discussed (or, in this case, published).  If I had persevered, I probably would have found others more willing to recall the 1950s and ’60s, but I decided not to pursue it since the absence of such personal reflections would not materially alter the content of the book.  Archival collections, published memoirs, Dáil debates and newspapers allowed me to construct a profile of conditions in Dublin North-West.

Although I have used oral testimony as a source in the past and greatly value oral history, I don’t consider myself an oral historian.  The main ingredient in baking my cake, to use that metaphor, is the deposited collections in various archives.  Interviews are the icing on the cake, the decoration.  They add flavour, giving a sense of what politicians thought, not just what they did.  And it was for that reason that I decided to make another attempt at non-elite interviews.  I wasn’t looking for people to tell me what happened in various episodes or to recall the finer details of certain plot-lines — this was information I could glean from such sources as the RTV, later RTÉ, Guide, available from the National Library of Ireland.  I was more interested in what they thought, the feelings the programme might have provoked and the discussions it possibly generated.  The ‘interviews’  were conducted over coffee, making for a more relaxed and informal setting than the environs of an academic office, and have consequently felt more like casual conversations — which I’ve very much enjoyed.

Returning to the idea of non-elite interviews – despite my initial reservations — has turned up some great insights into the experience of watching television and how it can contribute to social change.  Though certainly different to elite interviews, the more informal tone of this set of interviews has nonetheless added substantially to my research.  Once I’ve conducted them all, I’ll do a follow up post on the main themes that have emerged.    

 

Published by Dr Ciara Meehan

Reader in History at the University of Hertfordshire.

6 thoughts on “Conducting Non-Elite Research Interviews

  1. Strange people would be so reticent about detailing their past/upbringing for an academic study Ciara; I could understand it if they were being interviewed by a journalist and worried about being misrepresented! Ha ha ha.
    But giving plain statistics is a different matter – was the questionnaire anonymous?
    I wonder is it linked in to that particular Irish psyche of natural embarrassment and shame… conversely, people who consider themselves ‘successful’ in life are not backwards coming forwards whenever trumpeting their unprivileged background.
    As my dear grandmother says, never forget the tin you were baked in!
    I’m aware of the social phenomenon of The Riordans now, having moved to Dublin in 2006, and the theme of how television can contribute to social change is a worthy one.
    I realised it with friends born and living in the republic, and I having been brought up in Tyrone, just what a gap there was in pop culture – they having only 2 channels and a few radio stations growing up, while we had gems such as the Southbank Show, or the Late Debate on C4 and of course one of the greatest institutions in the world, the BBC: affording us the world service, arts, culture, politics – John Peel!
    If there was any silver lining in partition…. 😉

    1. Sorry, your comment somehow ended up in the spam folder and I’ve only just seen it! I think you hit the nail on the head about embarrassment and shame. I remember Catriona Crowe of the National Archives of Ireland speaking at a research seminar in Trinity about the 1911 census project. She mentioned how one woman had contacted her objecting to the inclusion of her family’s census on-line because she didn’t want people to know that one of her relatives had been illiterate.

      I did offer the option of anonymity, but I’m guessing that because the constituency was largely working class, the person in question didn’t want to disclose his family’s status. I completely respect that.

    1. It’s an interesting one for those of us who use oral testimony as a historical source. Not only are you analysing what you’re being told, but you also have to consider who is talking to you — or, perhaps more significantly, who isn’t and why.

  2. Hmmm…I can imagine…if someone is reluctant to open up, it perhaps whets the curiosity further? But as you say, respect is everything.
    Fascinating pyschology to the process. With the subjects being Irish, perhaps it may be worthwhile to take them to a nice pub like Neary’s for a few drinks, and they’d open up under the soft lighting, the gentle hub-bub of chatter, the old gas lamps kicking the memories and stories to the front of the mind! Worth a try!
    I don’t know what you ‘stack’ of reading is at the moment, but I highly recommend The Memory Chalet by Tony Judt. I’ve read his essays before, but these, as he calls them feuilletons, are different: they are written with his knowledge of his imminent death. Yet this is not misery memoir territory. They are soft, light, dealing with memory & remembrance of things past, from food, the ’68 riots, education. And I’m sure you will relate to his life in academia.
    A little book that strikes above its weight.
    Considering his sad condition before his death, reading it feels like the book was his way of becoming again, rather than just being.
    And I picked it up in Books Upstairs on the Green for only a tenner – support the independents and to hell with Amazon, I say these days!

  3. That problem with that, I suppose, though, is that it raises ethical questions. Before conducting research interviews, an application has to be made to the ethics review committee. I can’t imagine they’d approve over interviewing someone over pints, and it would leave the interviewer open to the accusation of using material that might not have been otherwise shared.

    Will add Judt’s book to the list (been meaning to), although if the stack gets any taller at this stage, it’s going to capsize!

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