It was the final day of our research methodology course in February 2019, a few weeks from before our class was scheduled to start our studies. The instructor asked if anyone had queries about fieldwork. Most of us asked about ethical dilemmas. But one amongst us asked something that kept me thinking. He asked, “I am an introvert. It takes a lot of time for me to open up to strangers. Is there any way I can change this behaviour? How do I talk to people when all I want is to move away from people?”. The discussion that followed was about rapport building rather than addressing the specific query.
Interviewing is one of the many techniques a sociologist can use to gather data. Over time, however, the notion of interviewing has been so well ingrained that many sociologists would believe that data gained in other ways are ancillary or even inferior. There was an over-emphasis on the interview technique. Sociologists like David Riesman, Mark Benney, Everett Hughes and Jonathan Turner laid down the importance of interview over observation techniques of data collection. Interview was seen as the ultimate tool to gather knowledge: “an exchange of intangibles in which both parties gain in esteem and understanding and nobody loses”. Sociology was seen as the science of interview in a more essential way. “The main business of sociology is to gain rhetoric; to gain the knowledge, we must become skilled in rhetoric itself.” That a sociologist should be able to readily talk and build rapport. But what if when the sociologist finds it difficult to talk? What if when a sociologist is an introvert?
The predominance of interviews while undertaking fieldwork is based on a slippage, namely that curiosity about the social translates to ease of interviewing. So, if and when any researcher is not able to conduct interviews, these assumptions were immediately called into questions. Worst of all there are instances where one is reprimanded for not being outgoing and quick in talking as a sociologist. There is an unwritten assumption that everyone doing sociology would be able to conduct interviews takes on the significance of an unbreakable rule. This needs to reimagined. It needs to be reiterated that data collection techniques should vary depending on the nature of the research questions and kinds of conclusion we want to draw. The idea is to bring together different data collection techniques as a way to complement each other, each taking primary role based on the research context. Interview need not be the centre stage of every sociological research what so ever.
In fact, to say an interview is the most important technique of data collection may lead to incomplete data – resulting from “exclusion by convenience or efficiency”. By emphasizing only on interviewing sociologist may never become aware of pieces, perspectives, or variations they are avoiding or overlooking. Many a time even silent observation as a data collection technique enables “more direct means to apprehend multisensory textures, characters, and practices… that comprise social life in the round”. It is worth reminding ourselves that important data about behaviour outside interview settings will not be available via indirect, culturally mediated, reports and accounts collected at interview.
Such favouring of one epistemology over others privileges certain social positions (like gender, race, caste) that enables ease of public talking/questioning. For instance, like economist Heather Sarsons and Guo Xu outlines how women can still be less likely to stand out asking questions or taking extreme positions than men even after breaking through the glass ceiling. As such, the privileged form of knowledge is available only to privileged beings.
Almost a decade into my training of sociology, I have seen mentors, directly and indirectly, endorsing the ability to quickly built rapport and interview. While most of us were comfortable, some dreaded and/or tried to evade this pressure of interviewing. Ability to conduct in-depth unstructured interviews was rewarded with greater sociological knowledge – “you can ask and triangulate everything”. The notion that talking guarantees full knowledge (or at least better knowledge) has been well ingrained.
As my cohort pointed “this thing about being able to talk to a stranger at the drop of hat…it is impossible for so many people like us…it is as if to be a sociologist one has to be outgoing…one cannot be an introvert…which is very annoying because one cannot change their personality, can they? Nothing ever discussed in our research methodology addresses this issue. To start this is discriminatory and ignores the myriad social factors that leads to introversion. We learn about so many methods like archives, observation but why even now there is so much emphasis on the interview technique? As if sociological data is only possible through interviews” (conversation after our class, February 2019). My cohort’s critique summarises well the main argument of this piece which seeks to highlight the overemphasis in sociological studies on interviews and ease that should come to the researcher for conducting these interviews.
The importance of interview and concomitant assumption of an outgoing nature of the sociologist takes on the significance of an unbreakable rule. Within these expectations, there is little discussion on what it might mean for an introvert researcher who is taught that the best sociological data is possible only through interviews. My cohort underlines that this aspect of sociological studies is often glossed over because they go against much of the rhetoric that surrounds curiosity of the social.
Sampurna Das is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Sociology, Delhi School of Economics, University of Delhi, India.