On a project investigating the intra-household distribution of income in families reliant on (in-work and out-of-work) benefits, I am to interview partners separately. The ‘sample’ was spread all over the UK. I ‘clustered’ them geographically to fit in as many as possible in a week. I was away all week for a period of three months and kept a diary. I used my accommodation budget on what looked like ‘nice’ ‘B&B’s (instead of ‘grotty’ hotels).
As most qualitative researchers know, interviews can offer many challenges - practical, technical, physical, emotional - not found in any research proposal, official ‘topic guide’ or final report/publication: toddlers skidding around the living room in baby-walkers, babies with a talent for emptying your bag in the blink of an eye, or being too fascinated by an audio-recorder balanced precariously on the arm of a sofa, or using a microphone wire to play tug of war; fathers who are keen to be obliging but turn out to be monosyllabic – like the genial young man who reduced his already minimal responses to a quick resort to studying the ceiling for inspiration, followed by a smiling but silent shrug of the shoulders.
Stories on this project were heartbreaking in a variety of ways: a man who went to seek his fortune running a bar in Tenerife, and returned to this country penniless and homeless, after having to settle massive tax bill and who is full of suppressed anger, coping with the boredom of life on what he describes as the soulless estate where he now lives by not looking beyond today … and whose wife reveals in her interview that she is on anti-depressants, recovering from discovering when they got back from Tenerife that she was pregnant at the age of 42.
The young husband in constant pain due to deteriorating vertebrae following fall when a roofer who has not taken much medication today, in order to be sufficiently compus mentis for me. His wife receives benefit for caring for him, in addition to carrying all the responsibility for managing their finances. Her budgeting role suits them both, he says, but he finds it ‘degrading’ not to be able to support his family. He fears she won’t stay with him. He tells me at great length about his injury, the pain, his treatment options … while his wife, coming in at the end of his interview says that he doesn’t moan at all: “He’s very good like that”. She tells me proudly in her interview how she keeps the family on a limited budget with no debts. I am aware as her eyes brim with tears which she holds back, that I am breaching her defences by asking how it feels for her and am not prepared to pursue it too far in search of a ‘juicy quote’.
The woman who tells me, in addition to details of family financial arrangements, that she had a difficult relationship with her 4-year old son because she had wanted an abortion following an amniocentesis showing a good chance of a Downs baby. Her husband did not want her to abort. Her son does not have Downs but it took her a long time to stop not wanting him … so much pain …she describes her husband as ‘The Fat Controller.’ I wonder how I will be able to get this description out of my head when I interview him later.
The guy who admits blithely to being “useless with money”. He handed its management over to his partner when he became unemployed, so that relieved of the worry, he is philosophical: “they can’t take what I haven’t got.”
The young woman whose lowly-paid hairdresser husband has completely taken over financial control as a response to her having got into debt while adjusting to giving up her (well-paid) job to look after their first child … she would like to be earning her own money again, but she’s always lacked self-confidence. In the evening interview with her husband, he explains he is firmly in control of household finances, has taken mantle upon himself as result of her running up debts and being blacklisted as far as credit is concerned - but he does find the responsibility a burden and would like to share it - he believes in equality. In the meantime, he retains access to his ‘own’ money (spends his tips on tobacco and customising his car) without consultation. He struggles and blushes when it becomes clear, without my saying anything, what the implications of this are for the family finances, and these are tricky moments for us both. I wonder if he will make some remark about being glad it’s over when we finish, or be cool towards me on my departure. But he says he’s enjoyed it, has thought about things he’d not thought about before, seen some things in a new light. I want to put the recorder back on, but it’s 9 30 and his wife emerges from the bedroom to which she had retired and I feel they’ve both given me all I can reasonably ask.
The interviewee who doesn’t let me get a word in, so keen is he to tell me how hard he’s worked to get the family out of debt over the last two years, and to outline his plans for their growing prosperity over the next ten. His determination is impressive, especially since he says anybody could do this and yet isn’t condemnatory of those who haven’t (no ‘if I can do it so can those lazy scroungers’), rather, “this government has systematically ruined and destroyed the country” so that “some people are living like dogs”.
Or in Gillingham after a long drive, finding both interviewees out. The woman’s younger brother is waiting outside. I give him phone numbers for her to call me. “She’s a pain in the bloody arse,” he observes when we’ve both waited in vain for three-quarters of an hour. I resist the temptation to agree.
Managing enquiries about what I was doing on my travels could be equally challenging, if in different ways: interviewing in Cambridge, the leafy suburbs give way to a sprawling council estate. I find my ‘quarry’ hanging out the washing. She is an accounts clerk who keeps the family finances firmly in her grip in order to curb her husband’s spending on his model railway hobby. Kits cost upwards of £700 and there is the added expense of petrol to get to ‘shows’. I drive around afterwards, looking for somewhere congenial to fortify myself for the evening interview with him. I wander into a cafe where I’m the only English speaker in a cacophony of Italian voices. It feels warm and friendly, the food looks fine, the coffee smells even better. When I ask the waitress for directions back to North Arbury, she replies sarcastically ‘Oh - lucky you!’ Intrigued, I ask her to elaborate. As she unfolds a map of Cambridge left by a tourist, she explains “Well, Cambridge is all middle-class and nice and Arbury just isn’t - it isn’t really Cambridge at all. There’s Cambridge. And then there’s Arbury. If you know what I mean.” I was afraid I had a pretty good idea what she meant.
And at breakfast in East Grinstead, I manage to miss loud guests from the previous evening. The landlady tells me they call themselves landscape gardeners but they’re really glorified builders who lay patios and swimming-pool terraces (Swimming-pool terraces?! That’s Surrey for you, I think to myself). She asks ‘the question’. I describe the project in broad terms and she starts talking about cooking on a budget. She tells how a friend taught her sons to cook, so that when one of them went as a ‘gastarbeiter’ to Germany, he impressed his colleagues by buying a chicken and stretching it over the whole week, while they paid for takeaways. She doesn’t refer to them as gastarbeiten, however. They’re like those men in ‘that TV series’ – except her son’s friend and his mates are “nice chaps - you know, not Aufwiedersehn-types.” I’m not sure whether she means they’re not northerners, or not Geordies, or not rogues-and-crooks like both those groups obviously are. I choose not to ask.
But there are moments of light relief - like finding a leaflet at my B&B in Rodmell explaining that the village was the home of Virginia Woolf, and later overhearing French guests at breakfast asking the host who she was. I miss her reply but catch the Frenchwoman’s response. “Ah,” she nods, “a leebairteen!”
And after the final week of fieldwork is over, ‘data’ safely gathered in, setting off to find my way to a friend’s house where I’m staying the night - as I walk in the door she puts a gin and tonic in my hand and about half an hour later serves up lasagne and garlic bread – the first thing I’ve eaten all day - bliss!
Jackie Goode is a sociologist and Visiting Fellow in Qualitative Research at Loughborough University. She has published on the intra-household distribution of income and on over-indebtedness in low-income families and is currently a member of the Advisory Group on an ESRC-funded project investigating the impact of Universal Credit for families balancing work, money and care, at the Institute for Policy Research at the University of Bath.