Interviewing in intergenerational family research

We employed an interview method that focused on the events of the life course and elicited stories of interviewees' lives (Wengraf, 2001). In the first part of the interview, an initial request to give their life story was issued and research participants were given minimum guidance, except to remind them that the study was intergenerational and about being a father and being a son (Wengraf, 2001). The interviewer declared that she would not intervene during their narrative. In the second part of the interview after the interviewee had indicated he had nothing more he wanted to add, the interviewer took a short break to consider her notes. She then posed narrative questions to informants to extend their original narration of selected events and experiences that figured in the initial narratives, in the order of the original telling (Wengraf, 2001). In the third part of the interview (this took place in some cases at a second sitting), a set of questions relating to the specific foci of the study was used where topics had not already been covered in sufficient detail.

Not unexpectedly, there was considerable variation in the length of the men's initial life story. One-third of the men, including fathers and grandfathers, spoke without interruption for the first hour, and a few for two hours, while a handful spoke for only a few minutes or less. However, where the initial narrative was short, the follow-up narrative probes typically produced longer accounts. The length of the third part of the interview varied according to what had already been covered and how much time was available to the interviewee and interviewer. Where interviewers visited a second time, this greatly lengthened the total interview time to several hours. The typical length of one visit was three hours (see Chapter 3 for researcher comments on the interview encounter and the effects of the interviews on the men).

We wondered whether gender differences - a woman interviewing a man - would influence men's disposition to take part. In most cases, both fathers and grandfathers gave lengthy, reflective interviews, echoing our experience in earlier four-generation research when both men and women were interviewed (Brannen et al., 2004). On reflection, it may be that the life story form of interview in which we were all trained and practiced, and with which we felt comfortable, may have contributed to our informants' responsiveness in the interviews and hence to our feeling that our gender was no impediment to interviewing men. Indeed in several interviews, fathers exhibited strong emotion: they became visibly upset in talking about fatherhood and sometimes about their own fathers. In one case, this emotion came out of the blue and the interviewer felt initially perplexed but went on with the interview after giving the father some time to recover. He came back to the matter after the interview and pondered on what had provoked such strong emotion.

As part of the interview, grandfathers and fathers were invited to bring to the interview two photos, one of themselves with their fathers and one with their sons. Photos act as prompts to memory in which people 'make meaning with and from pictures' (Chalfen, 1998: p. 229). The idea was to make visible those spoken about, stimulating further reflection and enabling the past to be retrieved in the present (Harper, 2002). The photos were also used to help interviewees 'break the frame' of the normative and habitual aspects of family relations (Phoenix and Brannen, 2014). Forty of the 60 fathers and grandfathers brought two or more photos to the interviews. Some forgot, others said they could not find any photos, and some probably chose not to bring any. In a few cases the interviewer failed to mention the photos or judged that the time available for the interview would preclude this activity. In some cases, the absence of photographs seem to reflect fraught family relations or a lack of closeness, while in others they reflected the context. For example, new migrants said their photos were either packed away or had been left behind. In some cases, the only photos available were for identity or passport purposes.

In contrast to the ways in which many narrative interviews in the study unfolded as lengthy monologues, the photos generated a dialogue between interviewer and interviewee. The interviewer sought clarification from the interviewee about the identities of the persons in the photos, their ages at the time, where and when the photos were taken and by whom. In order to interpret this talk about the photos, the interviewer's field notes became crucial, not only concerning the researcher's own interpretations of the photos but also substantively as to the subjects and their demeanour portrayed in the photos. Some participants chose photos that 'displayed' family life in conventional and idealised ways, focusing on celebrations and family members at leisure. Often discussion of these photos did not go beyond such comments as 'That is me'. Much of everyday family lives was therefore left implicit and not talked about in the interviews. Such silences suggest either that interviewees considered what was shown spoke for itself or that what the image elicited, while important to them, was not necessarily something they chose or felt able to talk about. Where the significance of a photo remained unspoken, the researchers' field notes were critical in the analysis of these data. However, in some cases, talk about photos produced dimensions of lived experience that enhanced material produced elsewhere in the interviews; for example, the sense of families as lineages, and feelings of loss engendered by migration, both of which served to 'display' and 'do' family life (Finch, 2007; Morgan, 2011). In a few cases, photo elicitation increased the possibilities for analysis, by drawing out ambivalence and the emotional tone surrounding father-son relationships (Phoenix and Brannen 2014; see Chapter 6).

With the older children (grandsons), aged 12 and above, we used a semi-structured interview approach. With the younger children we used a variety of research tools - a mix of questions with drawings, stickers and visual materials, including a social network diagram indicating persons to whom children felt close or less close. These methods worked well and the children seemed to enjoy them (Barker and Weller, 2003). Immediately following all the interview encounters, the researchers wrote extensive field notes about the research context, the interview encounter and the particular themes covered. These 'summaries' were further extended after the interviews had been transcribed professionally (see Chapter 3 for fieldworkers' comments on the interviews with children and young people and on being an adult interviewer).

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