The Mental State of Gothenburg 
– Sociological Interviews as Theatre

By Helena Holgersson

There are many occupations that involve telling about society – as Howard Becker puts it – authors, playwrights, filmmakers, photographers, journalists, artists and sociologists. Our portrayals are different and aimed to a certain extent at different audiences. But we frequently comment on the same phenomena¹. In the theatre project The Mental States of Gothenburg, my assignment, together with two other sociologists, was to interview youths from different parts of Gothenburg². Based on our transcripts, the script-writer and director Mattias Andersson would then stage a theatre performance. Both the “playwright” and the “sociologist” became characters in the play, which prompted new thoughts in me about my own practice³.

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According to the poster for the play The Mental States of Gothenburg, 87 % of the text was comprised of direct quotes from interviews with youths in Gothenburg. Three from the north-eastern “immigrant-dense” concrete suburbs, three from the picturesque former working-class neighbourhoods in the centre, and three from the well-to-do villa suburbs in the south, near the sea. The interviews took place during the spring of 2006. They were about the meaning of life, what makes a person into who she or he is and what one wants to achieve here on earth. In the end, the play was also to a large degree about research ethics. The process by which the stories came about and issues regarding the goal of achieving authenticity became central to the play itself.

The performance opens and closes with acts where the youths’ stories are in some way placed in the centre. In between, we stop for a moment at the Angered Theatre office, where the playwright is stressed and agonising over his relationship to the people whose stories his play is built on. Maybe one can call it a play with a chapter on methodology?

Before I handed in my first transcript, Andersson was worried about whether ten interviews would provide enough material. When he had read it through, however, he got in touch, completely overwhelmed. He would, he thought, be able to write an entire play based only on this one bloke’s tale, and the interviewee became two characters in the play in the end. For Andersson, the problem turned out not to be the material itself, but rather how it should be managed. In this regard, he had the same diffculty as everyone else who wants to comment on or describe a cross-section of society by means of interviews.

I do not believe that before the project started, Andersson imagined that research ethics would be one of the main themes of the play. Certain reviewers thought he should have stuck to the young people’s stories. Maybe some school children who saw the performance agreed. It is not unusual for reflections on methodology to receive such a reaction. They can be experienced on the one hand as boring and “off the topic”, and on the other hand as provocative, since they relativise the interviewees’ stories. However, I think it was very exciting that during work on the script, Andersson felt the need to bring this meta-discussion into the play. The Swedish sociologist Diana Mulinari once called qualitative research a “terribly violent activity”.[4] What Andersson gained by working with “real” material was the chance to use a new perspective to address issues regarding power relationships in society and in the city. Then both the “sociologist” and the “playwright” had to be on stage.

As soon as I and the other sociologists who had taken part in the project got in the car having seen the première of The Mental States of Gothenburg, we began discussing how much the characters that Mattias Andersson created were like their real models. We were the only people in the project who had met the youths face to face. Andersson had only received our transcripts. “He was not nearly so defensive”; “She was much calmer”; “She was more of a hip-hop girl”, we said. Until a friend that we had invited to the performance exclaimed, “And you know how they really are then?” As sociologists, we are used to having complete control over our material. We talk about “our” interview subjects and we have sole right to interpret what they tell us. Still, we hesitate to let them comment on our analyses until we are about to be published.

The experience of seeing “my” interview subjects become characters in The Mental States of Gothenburg was not a pleasant one. The situation sometimes felt uncomfortable. I found two of the characters in the play very different from the people I had created an image of during the interviews and the transcription work. Here the issue of who has the right of interpretation became essential. How could I presume that, with the help of sociological tools, I could represent them in a way they would have been more satisfied with?

Several of the interviewees came to see the play. At the première, we identified some of them in the audience. They looked at “themselves” and my colleagues and I looked at them. How did they experience this? The borders between the “real” and the “fictive” were moved and recreated around us. Several weeks later, we heard from Andersson that “my” suburban bloke returned several times, with various friends and relatives.

On the one hand, I understood why: in many ways, he can be viewed as the hero of The Mental States of Gothenburg. On the other hand, it surprised me, since the long passage from his interview that make up one the play’s first scenes is about a family quarrel that degenerates into abuse so that the police get involved. As a sociologist, I would have been afraid of “exposing” him to an analysis of this event, and worried about how he would experience it. However, to see it dramatised on stage seems to have been an emancipating experience for him.

A person can be portrayed in a number of different ways, even if one has stuck closely to the transcript. In a scientific article, the result depends on the theoretical perspective, the point one is choosing to make, and how one transcribes spoken language. On the stage, it depends on the choice of actors, clothes, body language, tones and pauses. Sometime into the rehearsals, Andersson asked for the tape recordings of the interviews. Later, when I asked if they had helped him, he explained that by that stage the ensemble had already sketched out the characters, and did not get much use out of the tapes. The question is, then, how a sociological study is different from a play in this respect. Don’t we sociologists to a certain extent also turn our interview subjects into fictional characters? And ourselves?

In The Mental States of Gothenburg, the sociologist is not a person the audience can identify with. This character’s function is another one. With the help of her patronising/naive/distancing way of interacting with the interview subjects, Andersson was able to highlight the power relation that is part and parcel of qualitative sociological practice. With crossed arms and sceptical, squinting eyes, the young people she interviews show their resistance to everything she represents. On stage, they seemed hardly to want to reply to her questions. I remember that after the play, I frustratedly emphasised to my friends that, “We actually had a nice time.”

In scientific publications, when one includes quotes from interviews, one often also includes one’s own questions, so that the reader can get a picture of how the interaction between interviewer and interviewee was, and in what context a person said what. Director’s cut here is equivalent to researcher’s cut. However, the researcher is obviously not keen to portray him or herself in a negative light. Or at least not in the wrong type of negative light. One is expected to mention and reflect on slightly leading questions. That is seen as good sociology. Good theatre is something else. For example, Andersson was fascinated from the beginning by how my colleagues and I – as we had been taught – transcribed everything from the moment the recording started, even if the interview took a while to really get going, until we pressed the stop button. In the final production, there are several scenes where the sociologist tests if the microphone works and makes sure that the tape is rolling.

In the paper that I am currently working on, that will be an expansion of this short essay, I want to explore what we as sociologists can learn about our own profession by joining conversations with people that tells about society in other genres. I will draw on the work of sociologist such as Robert Nisbet, C Wright Mills, Howard Becker and Les Back, Christofer Edling, Jens Rydgren and Maria Thörnqvist, who have all put some thoughts into the relation between sociology and art. I will not be arguing that sociology is art – sociologists and dramatists that tell about society using interviews have different rules to obey – but rather that collaborations such as the Mental States of Gothenburg-project can help us think through what kind of sociological space we want to work in, and to develop our sociological imagination.

Helena Holgersson is Senior Lecturer in Cultural Studies at the University of Gothenburg.

[1] For a more detailed discussion of how conditions can be different in these genres, see Howard Becker (2007) Telling About Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

[2] The interviews were carried out by me, Rebecka Andrén and Elin Vikström.

[3] An earlier version of this essay was published in Helena Holgersson, Catharina Thörn, Håkan Thörn & Mattias Wahlström (eds) (2010) (Re)searching Gothenburg: Essays on a Changing City. Gothenburg: Glänta.

[4] Mulinari, Diana (2003), lecture at IMER’s research symposium, quoted in Hanna Wikström (2007) (O)möjliga positioner. University of Gothenburg: Department of Social Work.

Originally posted 3rd December 2018

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