Elite interviewing: The effects of power in interactions. The experiences of a northern woman

  • - Are you a social scientist?
  • - I believe I am.
  • - And a PhD?
  • - Yes.
  • - And you don’t know this law?

Who is the interviewer here or, rather, the interrogator?

Throughout my research career, the subject of power has intrigued me: the exercise of power in social settings, whether in written media texts, speeches, images or public and private interactions. As a female academic and a professional in my own field, I wanted to investigate and explain how power works in our societies, but I found myself in the midst of situations defined by those very power relations: here I was, doing a research interview and getting myself utterly questioned and undermined. Finding myself in a defensive position, being left feeling inferior and most of all - fearful and shamed. Wondering why this was, and finding that I, as a woman, had certain experiences of being in this professional world and relating to male interviewees. In my most recent project on political decision making on energy issues, the subject of power hierarchies and my emotions it brought to the surface became the most obvious. I started having discussions about this with my Norwegian colleague who had done extensive interview research in the Nordic countries. It became clear I was not alone in my experiences; it seemed that these encounters with holders of power in society were challenging to start with, but there was an additional aspect to us being women. These discussions led to an exercise in critical reflexivity with a feminist touch, which I address in this chapter: a critical examination of the negotiation of power relations from a gender perspective.


In this chapter, I wish to shed light on the question of how power differences are expressed in interviews between academics and societal elites and how gender plays a role in these situations. This approach requires that I step into unknown territory, viewing my own experiences and emotions as legitimate parts of the research conducted. The traditional social science approach of political science and media and communication studies does not favour or emphasise reflecting on personal experiences. Even though this stress on objectivity demands that we maintain our distance and a degree of abstraction and steer away from the personal, the genre of science - not only anthropology or related disciplines - clearly could benefit from being expanded towards emotional understanding and intuition. Anthropologists such as George Devereux (1967) and Sandra Harding (1987) believed that if researchers acknowledge their subjectivity, they and their work would gain greater objectivity. Researchers’ conclusions are necessarily influenced by their personal beliefs, values and behaviour, so it is imperative to assess them as part of the evidence in research.

Mainstream social scientists representing the fields of political science and media studies typically proceed from a general level or a systemic framework and apply its presumed laws to specific local environments and individual cases. In contrast, the anthropological approach starts with the specific, the local and the here and now. In the best case, the anthropological approach can combine a more general political and economic framework with a detailed cultural analysis. The starting point of anthropology is empirical field experience. The general thinking holds that for research to be valid and reliable, other researchers should be able to replicate it in identical conditions and get the same results. But in the human sciences this is an awkward premise. As Ruth Behar (1996) has observed, anthropologists’ conversations and interactions in the field can never be reproduced exactly because like all encounters between people, they are unique. Proof of anthropologists’ journey of exploration comes in the form of an ethnography whose value lies in what others can learn from a meaningful, identifiable account. As the old story of a group of blind people feeling an elephant tells us, their descriptions of the animal they have never come across will differ from each other, but all versions are equally true and accurate.

Emotions have been a subject of interest to philosophers and anthropologists for centuries, and a discussion on the relevance of emotions to politics has already persisted for decades (Ahmed 2014, 2-19). As Sara Ahmed (2014, 9) has stated, many researchers have argued that emotions should not be seen as merely psychological states but also as social and cultural practices. Such claims have several implications. My emotion is not only mine, but something collective, that is born out of the community. It has a history; it comes to the surface in this very moment but is linked to past collective experiences. I might spend much time contemplating what it is that actually evokes the emotions that I felt during the interviews, that I interpret as connected to fear: shame, guilt, frustration, vulnerability.

humiliation and anxiety, as well as anger. In the end, this question is difficult to answer, and it might suffice to understand that these feelings stem from the oppression experienced by women by men — intensified by their powerful positions - a history that exists in the collective, also in the Nordic countries.

Examining the powerful in society is not an easy task, but it is important if we are to understand how they affect how any community takes shape and follows a certain path. Recent decades have seen increased interest in elite interviewing and growth in the literature on the dilemmas of interviewing elites within the social sciences (Djerf-Pierre 2005). This literature identifies common barriers to information and gives researchers practical advice on how to circumvent or lower these barriers (Figenschou 2010, 964). At the heart of elite interviewing, as my personal example shows, are questions of power and power imbalances. The negotiation of status and power is relevant to all research relationships, and to enhance the quality of research interviews, an open, systematic approach to these challenges is necessary (Figenschou 2010, 974).

The body of data on which I draw was collected in three research projects conducted in 2011, 2013-2014 and 2017-2018. For these projects, I interviewed retired Finnish chief editors and media executives (all male), public relations and public affairs consultants (mostly male) and decision makers in the energy sector (mostly male but also female). The last group included senior officials in the political and civil administrative sectors as well as energy companies. Most interviews took place in the interviewees’ offices, but as most participants in the first group were retired, the interviews were conducted in their homes or public places. As a researcher, I was on culturally familiar ground in terms of nationality. Moreover, Finland, one of the Nordic countries, is characterised by high gender equality and low hierarchies, allowing easier access to those in powerful positions. However, different kinds of power hierarchies still come into play in our interview interactions: hierarchies between different fields of society, between societal positions and, as I came to experience, between genders.

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