Symbolic violence and other challenges encountered along the way of the fieldwork adventure

When I started my fieldwork I discovered a series of very tangible challenges that I haven’t read about while preparing the methodological framework. Theories and concepts were certainly helpful, they gave me an idea about where I was going and which paths I should take. However, they did not answer the multitude of small challenges that arise at every little step of conducting fieldwork. My fieldwork took place with migrant care workers in private care homes for the elderly in London and Paris vicinities. I would like here to post a few questions and share some experiences around the researcher-interviewee interaction; they are certainly context specific but I hope it can be a start to engage a conversation.

1. Should we try to minimize the symbolic violence embedded in power relationships at work in the researcher-interviewee interaction?

Whatever the method of interviewing, the informant and the researcher engage through the interview in an emotion-loaded interaction. Most importantly, this interaction might engender various forms of symbolic violence. Several interviewees were for instance asking me if I was happy with their answers or if they answered correctly. Despite myself, my role has in some cases been associated with the representation of ‘legitimate knowledge’. Performing takes place in any social interaction, so while I do not deny this is part of the interview process, I sought to minimize the potential perceptions of ‘being judged’ as these could significantly alter what interviewees were willing to tell me and how they did so. I thus highlighted the trans-national and explorative dimensions of my research in my introduction in the belief that it might contribute in strengthening the interviewee’s subjective positionality in the interaction in that the interviewee was not anymore the ‘migrant care worker’ but the ‘migrant care worker who knows how things work in France in this sector’.

Also, in my perception this symbolic violence was present in a different form in my interviews with male care workers in which the gender dimension played a role. To illustrate this point I could mention that I had a very detailed introduction of what I do and why. More often than not, male interviewees cut my explanations short by indicating that they know how it works, while female care workers did not interrupt me even when in the interview process it appeared that they were probably familiar with academic practices as they completed long studies. Interviews with male care workers represented for me a greater challenge, but I believe they enrich my material under the condition that a reflection on the subjectivities of the interaction is taken into account.

 2. How to gain interviewees’ trust in spite of the punctual and ephemeral nature of the exchange? 

Gaining trust was all the more a challenge that I needed to record the interviews for the purpose of transcription. Recording the voice appeared to many as being quite intrusive. Only one person refused to be recorded even after the usual explanations around the anonymity of the data collected and a precise description of what I do with the file. Today’s communication and information technologies certainly played a role in shaping these fears. Uploading online an audio file is so easy that the recorder might represent a disincentive to participate, especially for people who might fear that the information they provide comes to be known by their employer. A trade unionist (not participating in my research) came to me once as he had seen me around several times and asked how can people be sure that the management won’t know what has been said. Consent forms might offer a tool to enhance informants’ trust but in this type of situation they appeared to be of little help, especially that these are not common practice in France. What I found helpful in building up trust was to make very explicit the following points:

- why I need to record;

- where the file will be stored;

-how the interview will be anonymized through transcription even if names, locations, organisations are mentioned by the interviewee;

-how I will use transcriptions and what is their added value for my research;

-how citations are presented in a written text;

- and last but not least, I would advice to take out the recorder only at that moment to avoiding putting off the interviewee unnecessarily!

3. How to deal with potential expectations that an interview might create?

The last point I would like to mention here concerns the expectations that an interview might create. Many of my interviews exposed difficult working conditions as well as cases of discrimination and racism. I did my best to make my role very clear from the very beginning. I provided interviewees with information about how to contact organisations that might be of help but I also exposed the lack of direct benefits for them of participating in the research when I sensed that the interviewee’s participation was based upon certain expectations. It doesn’t hurt to mention what role research might play more broadly but I believe it is important not to create individual expectations that won’t be fulfilled.

These are some of the things that I encountered during my fieldwork and that I thought of sharing with you in order to continue our discussion around fieldwork issues on this very blog. Maybe you dealt differently with these questions, I would love to hear about it!

Best of luck to all for fruitful fieldwork :)


Actions: Comments (1)


22 July 2014 15:42
Hi Nina!
Thank you for this interesting reflection on your fieldwork! I found your thoughts around building trust helpful for the future, especially when I would be doing more problem centered research in future projects.

The setting and nature of the interview and the focus on the specific work sector and conditions create a difference to my biographical narrative interviews especially in relation to symbolic violence in the interview interaction and trust on which I both reflected a little bit upon in my comment to Mona's blogpost and mine on fieldwork.

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