The research interview: opening up ethical spaces of educational development

The use of interviews as a research method traditionally attends to accounts of experiences and reflections on their salience, from which an interpretive analysis explanations can be constructed to bear on research questions. The research interview can also lead beyond the individual and offer a way in to the conditions that produce these reported experiences, extending to other kinds of actors and agencies. In this project, the unit of analysis is the discipline workgroup, thus interviewing the workgroup invites a focus on the participating entities at the institutional meso-level of the university.

In my series of interviews for this study, several workgroup participants remarked on the uncomfortable experience of working with (and around) the multiple agendas that take effect in curriculum and teaching practice, in particular agendas arising from policy and technology. In one instance, a purchased e-textbook was embedded in first year curriculum, yet its use led students away from the prescribed curriculum to an extensive publisher ‘walled garden’ in which they become lost and unmoored. The effect, and agency, of this particular ‘actor’ caused frustration for the teaching team and students, and was difficult to revise and repair.

The story of the e-textbook ­– how it was negotiated, resourced and folded into a curriculum – points to a micropolitics in play, prompting an inquiry into what ‘things’ like e-textbooks do, and their role in an assemblage of curriculum. It also points to an ethical space of teaching practice that struggles for a presence and a voice.

To do justice to the ethical space of the meso-level, I suggest, requires a non-traditional use of the research interview: one that departs from a focus on human actions and agencies to adopt an assemblage approach, that attends to how “relations develop in unpredictable ways around actions and events” (Fox & Alldred, 2015: 401). The assemblage view puts the interview to work in a different way: rather than construction –  how the researcher makes sense of data, the focus is on production – that which is generated from the configurations that produce such effects. Thus the life of the meso-level becomes visible: its disparate resources and agencies that become entangled in and act on teaching and learning change and practice.

Further stories from the workgroup project that highlight the role of educational development in the emerging forms of the enterprise university will be brought to the International Consortium for Educational Development (ICED) at the University of Cape Town, in November 2016.


Fox, N. & Alldred, P. (2015) New materialist social inquiry: designs, methods and the research-assemblage, International Journal of Social Research Methodology, 18:4, 399-414, DOI: 10.1080/13645579.2014.921458

The research interview as an encounter for development?

I did an interview yesterday for the project – first one in ages – and it was someone at the university I have known for quite some time who comes in and out of the learning and teaching space. I hadn’t seen her for a wee while. I’d discovered she’d been at the university for 15-16 years; started off as a Level A (Associate Lecturer) and had been promoted all the way to Level E (Professor) during her time. I was chuffed to learn this!

As interesting interviews are wont to do, I left that conversation with so many provocations and insights about her view of the workgroup, how she has seen it change over the years (colleagues, systems, students, strategy), how institutional and professional agendas constantly circle her work, and how she works out what to pay attention to. These days, I tend to think of interviews less as me making sure I get through everything I want to ask (although the dreaded schedule is important!) and more about having enough generative questions that enable a space to open between the interviewer, the interviewee, and the topic being explored. It’s a space we both have to inhabit and encounter together. When interviews go well for me, they tend to have their own beat and rhythm; they feel easy in ways where we can push each other on the topics being explored; there’s usually quite a bit of laughter; and we both learn something about the ‘thing’ that has brought us together.

Ambling back to my car from the interview, I was thinking about an article I’d read a few years back in a Special Issue on Methodology in higher education, which was about a re-theorising of interviews as method. It’s this one by Sue Clegg and Jacqueline Stevenson The interview reconsidered: context, genre, reflexivity and interpretation in sociological approaches to interviews in higher education. I know Sue Clegg reasonably well and can always rely on good thinking from her on most things related to higher education research. There are a couple of really solid challenges in Clegg and Stevenson’s piece which remind me that as writers of higher education, we usually do a terrible job with representing the messiness of knowledge claims arising from the interactions of the interview method. And here, I largely agree with them: while we do have a great deal of methodological knowledge about the partiality of truth claims emerging from the interview method, we don’t really know what to do about this as higher education researchers – so mainly – we do nothing! That’s a sturdy challenge itself!

The simpler point I pick up from the article is that there is also good reason to see the interview as a form of academic development. Let me explain. Unexpectedly, I ended up mentioning (and probably testing out) a number of ideas related to professional learning for university teachers in workgroups that I’d been carrying around trying to figure out when, and how, to make real. In the interview, it felt natural to get her ‘pulse’ on the quality of those ideas just as she sought out my views on the micro practices and activities circulating in her own workgroup. There is clearly something developmental about ‘the interview’ that is worth bearing in mind as the study proceeds.