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Postmodernism and qualitative research

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Qualitative Research Copyright © 2006 SAGE Publications (London, Thousand Oaks, CA and New Delhi) vol. 6(2) 267–273.

JABER F. GUBRIUM and JAMES A. HOLSTEIN, Postmodern Interviewing. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2003. 288 pp. ISBN 0761928502 (pbk) £29.00 JOSEPH A. KOTARBA and JOHN M. JOHNSON, Postmodern Existential Sociology. Walnut Creek, CA: Alta Mira Press, 2002. 262 pp. ISBN 0759101620 (pbk) £24.95 MATS ALVESSON, Postmodernism and Social Research. Milton Keynes: Open University Press, 2002. 200 pp. ISBN 033520631X (pbk) £18.99 It is suggested at some point in each of these books that, instead of taking features of the social world like gender or race for granted, as happens in positivist or objectivist social science, constructionist or postmodern qualitative researchers (the terms are used inter-changeably) should examine how they are used in talk, and how their meaning changes in different circumstances or over time. A good example, which for some reason is not discussed, is the term ‘postmodern’ which enjoyed a few years of popularity in social science during the 1990s, but has since almost disappeared from social scientific discourse. At the height of the movement, the term appeared in almost every title in publisher’s catalogues, and there were liberal references in every paper given at conferences. Today, it remains in vogue in certain sub-fields of qualitative research, and in cultural studies, but has been side-lined in sociology. You will not, for example, find postmodernism given much emphasis in introductory textbooks, and the average undergraduate is more likely to learn about qualitative research through coding transcripts into analytic themes rather than writing poems or experimenting with new literary forms. In reviewing these texts, I will consider what is distinctive about postmodern qualitative research, focusing on the epistemological assumptions, the implications for practice and the concept of an ‘interview society’. The general argument in each book is that a new kind of qualitative research is desirable and necessary: one that celebrates indeterminacy and constructionism through exposing the short-comings of positivism as an DOI: 10.1177/1468794106065242

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epistemological position. It is also suggested that we should refresh the practices of interviewing and ethnography through encouraging reflexivity about the author’s own role in the research process and developing new ways of presenting data such as performing plays and poems, or writing autoethnographies and dialogic texts. Although no one mentions Yvonne Lincoln and Norman Denzin’s (1994) five stage periodization of qualitative research, they suggest that this is the latest wave, and present it as in the process of successfully transforming social science. Jaber Gubrium and James Holstein in Postmodern Interviewing believe that ‘the present era of interviewing has taken on postmodern sensibilities’, and that these reveal ‘the now evident shortcomings of an earlier era of ostensibly objective interview practice’ (pp. 3–4). Norman Denzin writing on the back cover of Joseph Kotarbo and John Johnson’s Postmodern Existential Sociology suggests that this ‘represents a major theoretical intervention for the new millennium’; one that ‘privileges the socially constructed, reflexive, embodied, emotional nature of daily life’. Mats Alvesson in his thoughtful Postmodernism and Social Research is more sceptical about the transformative possibilities, but believes that it can lead to greater reflexivity in organizational research. Unfortunately, I have to begin by warning the reader that there is a lot in these books that is not postmodern at all. In Kotarbo and Johnson’s collection, the term is hardly used after the short introduction, in which it is not explained. Most of the ten substantive chapters are conventional symbolic interactionist accounts about how groups and individuals experience cultural change, presented as a third person narrative and without taking the reader too deeply into different social worlds. The only exception is a short story by Andrea Fontana, the only author who refers to postmodernism, about his experiences racing on the Bonneville salt flats. There was also, incidentally, no explanation of the term existentialism, and I was surprised to see the phenomenological philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty described as belonging to this tradition. A similar ambivalence towards postmodernism is evident in Alvesson’s more abstract and theoretical introduction. Here one has a thorough review of postmodernism as an intellectual movement, including discussion of Derrida and Foucault, as well as the implications for conducting empirical research. Through adopting this academic stance, Alvesson effectively tames postmodernism into a technical tool that does not threaten or undermine conventional social science. He has thought this through to the extent of providing examples of how a postmodern analysis can be added onto a traditional realist interview study about organizations. It can, for example, help us in reading interview transcripts to identify missing voices and encourage reflexivity. This falls considerably short of the new literary forms used by qualitative researchers who have taken up postmodernism. You might, therefore, find this useful as an academic discussion of the main themes and possibilities, but it does not convey what is radical or exciting about postmodernism as a movement in qualitative research.

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Travers: Review essay

This criticism cannot be made of Gubrium and Holstein’s collection on Postmodern Interviewing, and this book is worth discussing in greater depth. It contains chapters already published in their (2001) Handbook of Interview Research, organized into sections on ‘new horizons’, ‘reflexivity’ and ‘poetics and power’. Many of the colourful figures associated with the postmodern movement in qualitative research in America are represented, including Carolyn Ellis whose chapter with Leigh Berger is titled ‘Their story/my story/our story: Including the Researcher’s Experience in Interview Research’, Andrea Fontana and Laurel Richardson. These might be called the ‘hard’ postmodernist chapters, celebrating subjectivity and indeterminacy, and advocating that writing fiction is more satisfying and interesting than dull social scientific reports, with Gubrium and Holstein’s own chapter on ‘active interviewing’, which they describe as ‘an ethnomethodologically informed social constructionist approach’, representing a softer or more qualified position. Then inevitably, there are also more political contributions, informed by realist assumptions, including a chapter by Norman Denzin who aligns himself with Pierre Bourdieu and Michael Burawoy to ‘critically promote the agendas of radical democratic practice’ (p.153). There are also two chapters on internet interviewing and oral history that could equally well have been published in a collection edited by symbolic interactionist critics of postmodernism. In the main introduction, and in position papers by Fontana, Gubrium and Holstein, Denzin, Richardson and others, it is apparent that all kinds of approaches, with quite different epistemological assumptions and methods of collecting and analysing data, happily co-exist under the postmodern banner. Gubrium and Holstein note, for example, that their own approach draws on Peter Berger and Thomas Luckman, Herbert Blumer, Harold Garfinkel and John Heritage, but also ‘resonates with methodological critiques and reformulations by an array of feminist scholars’, including Sandra Harding and Dorothy Smith (p. 69). All these theorists would, of course, disagree substantially about theory and method if brought together to discuss qualitative research. This collection acknowledges but does not attempt to explain these distinctions. One can understand how an introductory text aimed at undergraduates studying a range of disciplines has to steer clear of anything too specialist or difficult. That said, it seems unfortunate that the intellectual content of sociology as a serious academic subject cannot be maintained while addressing a general audience. To illustrate why this lack of depth is a problem, it is worth focusing on Gubrium and Holstein’s formulation of the active interview, which has been influential as offering an alternative way of conducting and writing up interview-based research to thematic analysis informed by positivist assumptions about an objective reality. They started out by conducting ethnomethodological ethnographies about sense-making in institutional settings (for example, Gubrium, 1993). Since then they have been successful in addressing a wider

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audience in books like The New Language of Qualitative Method (1997) through combining different qualitative traditions. Gubrium and Holstein’s key argument in relation to interviews is that they should be seen as interactional events, rather than, as in survey research, or for that matter traditional symbolic interactionism, a window into people’s minds. They suggest that one way to combat a positivist understanding of interviewing is to consider not only ‘what’ interviewees are saying, but ‘how interview responses are produced in the interaction between interviewer and interviewee’ (p. 75). Their success in reaching a general audience arguably lies in skilfully not pursuing this ethnomethodological insight too far, or making qualitative research seem a technically demanding or difficult subject. To give a few examples, Harold Garfinkel is mentioned but not the documentary method of interpretation, the concept or tool he employed in his early work to address meaning in greater depth, which has radical implications for how one conducts interview studies and ethnographies (see, for example, Wieder, 1974). Gubrium and Holstein mention conversation analysis, but do not show how analytic resources from this tradition can be used in a thorough-going way in investigating interviews (see, for example, the contributors in Maynard et al., 2002 on survey interviewing). They are also apparently unfamiliar with developments in these qualitative traditions since the 1980s like the unique adequacy requirement (which poses difficult challenges for the ethnographer), or membership categorization analysis. One reason why Gubrium and Holstein do not draw on these analytic traditions more extensively is because they are difficult to popularize. Another is that their epistemological assumptions are significantly different to postmodernism. Ethnomethodologists have generally taken the philosophers Alfred Schutz and Ludwig Wittgenstein to mean one should respect the objectivity of the social world, and how this is experienced in everyday life. Sociologists influenced by Peter Berger and Thomas Luckman’s (1967) The Social Construction of Reality often give the impression that, because the world is socially constructed, it can easily be changed by political or even intellectual means. These philosophical differences ultimately explain the tension one finds in fields like the sociology of scientific knowledge between ethnomethodologists and other constructionist sociologies: that is, they have a different understanding of constructionism. By contrast, in Gubrium and Holstein’s chapter, these and other approaches are presented as complementary. The implication is that one does not need to know about any of this (either the specifics of the methods used by different traditions, or their philosophical bases) to conduct ‘constructionist’ or ‘postmodernist’ research. This problem is celebrated as a positive advantage by ‘hard’ postmodernists such as Andrea Fontana, Carolyn Ellis and Laurel Richardson: they invite readers to throw off the shackles of dull and uninteresting social science texts, set aside technical and abstruse debates, and instead write about their emotions, and acknowledge in a more open, and thorough-going way than

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Travers: Review essay

previous generations the researcher’s role in the research process. There is much to enjoy in the manifestos, particularly Laurel Richardson’s recommendation that we turn our research data into poems (she has also written short plays based on the outraged response at conferences). I would also agree that some of the experimental studies associated with this movement, such as Carolyn Ellis’s (1995) auto-ethnography about the death of her husband, and Vincent Crapanzano’s (1980) dialogic ethnography Tuhami are first rate. They are beautifully crafted and well-written studies that successfully promote a poststructuralist perspective through making us think about the process of writing ethnographic texts (for a longer review, see Travers, 2001: chapter 8). Unfortunately, many of the studies published that have been influenced by postmodernism are far less interesting. To be generous, one can equally well make this complaint about any theoretical tradition in qualitative research: that there are a few good studies that one wants to read and re-read, and recommend to students, and many others that are unimaginative, poorly written or derivative (which is not to say that we should not persevere, or there is nothing of value outside the classics). In the case of postmodern ethnography, the problem arises because theorists and teachers in the movement apparently encourage students to adopt an anything goes approach to writing about their experience and emotions. To pick on someone who is well able to defend herself, Laurel Richardson is not an embarrassingly bad poet, but nor is she a great poet. This does not detract from the epistemological point she is making, although it does beg the question as to why one would want to listen to a poem composed by a sociologist of the standard we have all achieved in creative writing classes in high school, when one could read real poetry. What quickly becomes frustrating is that the poems also tell us little about the lives of the people she has interviewed. Here it is worth reading Paul Atkinson and Amanda Coffey’s chapter re-visiting Howard Becker and Blanche Geer’s realist essay on the virtues of participant observation over interviewing. One can agree that ethnographies are constructed just as much as interviews, but still feel that spending six months as a participant observer will reveal more of interest about an institution or social group than conducting a single interview, whether or not it becomes a poem. Carolyn Ellis offers another model for postmodern qualitative research through developing a distinctive form of writing that is part therapeutic novel, part sociological investigation, about traumatic events in her life. This demonstrates how it is possible to write reflexively in way that transforms a topic, in a similar way to some feminist ethnographies. My worry here is, first, that auto-ethnography only seems capable of addressing personal traumas or lifechanging events (what Denzin calls epiphanies): it does not appear to offer much purchase on everyday life. Second, it is more difficult to do well than third person ethnography, or the analysis of a set of interviews into analytic themes, and it is significant that Ellis spent over ten years writing her study. Third, it is possible that British, and perhaps also many American readers,

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might find this excessive preoccupation with the self rather humorous. To give an example from Kotarbo and Johnson’s collection, there is a chapter about ‘niceness’ as a cultural phenomenon in which the author not only apologises to the many people she has left off a list of people to whom she owes ‘enormous intellectual debts’, but ‘sincerely apologises’. I cannot explain exactly why I find this funny as a British reader, but I do. To make an equally serious point, it seems interesting that, in a collection ostensibly about deconstructing general categories, ‘niceness’ is presented as an universal phenomenon; whereas one suspects that it is culturally specific to the American mid-west. I have so far criticized postmodernists for making light of the significant differences between constructionist sociological traditions, and so presenting a watered-down and undemanding form of qualitative research. I have also suggested that some of the experimental studies are first rate, but there are questions as to whether everyone has the literary skills to write about their emotions in the same way as Carolyn Ellis, or whether this would be desirable. These are not, in themselves, devastating criticisms since one can defend a certain amount of ‘dumbing down’ as an harmless way of selling books, and argue that students benefit from writing plays and poems just as from collecting and presenting data in conventional reports. There is, however, a more serious criticism that is worth considering, and allows one to see complaints about standards and an excessive focus on the self in a different light. This is that, although these American qualitative researchers argue for the virtues of reflexivity, they are themselves remarkably unreflective about the particular historical circumstances in which they are writing. I am not meaning to suggest by this that there is no concern with history in Postmodern Interviewing. The problem lies in the fact that, as has become characteristic in contemporary sociology, this takes the form not of a description or analysis of the economic, social or cultural problems of our time, but instead what read like excessively general reflections on the whole modern (now postmodern) world. The idea that fascinates many commentators is Eliot Mishler’s (1986) concept of the ‘interview society’. This addresses two familiar changes associated with modernity that continue to interest sociologists: the growth of the state and individualism. One can agree that the interview is partly a product of the growth of bureaucracies and the professions, and the scientific mentality that characterizes our civilisation. One can also see that an unhealthy preoccupation with the self is part of the ‘romantic impulse’ generated in response to these developments. Unfortunately, no one who has written about the ‘interview society’ suggests how we should respond morally or politically to either development. My reading of Gubrium and Holstein’s chapter is that sociologists need to expose the constructed character of interviews, but it is not clear how this will empower interviewees, or even if there are desirable or realistic alternatives to the state and individualism. This vagueness about how we should respond to the challenges of our times (the question posed in different ways by existentialist and phenomenological

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Travers: Review essay

philosophers) is characteristic of postmodernism as an intellectual movement. It is, for example, striking that none of the contributors to this or Kotarbo and Johnson’s collection, or Alvesson in his introduction, make any reference to contemporary events like the election of the first Bush government or 9/11 (which took place in the two years before publication), or even the far-reaching changes that are taking place in universities as a consequence of neoliberalism. This absence of a sense of history or politics, or even a sense of space and time, to some degree reminds one of Baudrillard’s (1988) impressions of the United States as a shallow society concerned with self-gratification, and the consumption of products such as therapy or cosmetic surgery designed to improve the self. One could argue that postmodern qualitative research is part of the problem rather than the solution to a hyper-individualist society based on the market. REFERENCES

Baudrillard, J. (1988) America. London: Verso. Berger, P. and Luckman, T. (1967) The Social Construction of Reality. New York: Doubleday. Ellis, C. (1995) Final Negotiations: A Story of Love, Loss and Chronic Illness. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press. Crapanzano, V. (1980) Tuhami: Portrait of a Moroccan. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Gubrium, J. and Holstein, J. (1997) The New Language of Qualitative Method. New York: Oxford University Press. Gubrium, J. and Holstein, J. (eds) (2001) The Handbook of Interview Research. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage. Lincoln, Y. and Denzin, N. (1994) ‘The fifth moment’, in N. Denzin and Y. Lincoln (eds) Handbook of Qualitative Research. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage. Maynard, D., Houtkoop-Steenstra, N. and Schaeffer, J. (eds) (2002) Standardisation and Tacit Knowledge: Interaction and Practice in the Survey Interview. New York: John Wiley. Mishler, E. (1986) Research Interviewing: Context and Narrative. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Travers, M. (2001) Qualitative Research Through Case Studies. London: Sage. Wieder, D.L. (1974) Language and Social Reality. The Hague: Mouton.

Max Travers University of Tasmania

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