“Failure” in doing social research

It’s natural for us all to yearn to be successful at everything we do. Yet whatever we do, we will likely experience failure as we navigate the learning curve to become proficient and then expert in the skills we aim to develop. Conducting research is no different to the many other tasks we have learned to do in our lifetimes. Most of us fell off our bicycles when we learned to ride them! And so, we are likely to fail a few times as we take on the tasks entailed in conducting a qualitative study, especially for the first time. Sometimes “success” (and it is another discussion altogether about how that might be measured) is beyond our grasp because of all kinds of factors that are simply beyond our control. Quite often researchers’ “failures” do not end up in published manuscripts so it can be intimidating for novice researchers starting out to make decisions about how to handle perceived “failures”. What might one do when faced with mistakes, errors of judgment, or things that just don’t go well while conducting research? Elsewhere I’ve written about what do to when interviews go awry. Here, I provide some examples of researchers who have discussed what they initially framed as “failures” in their research.

There are many elements of research that don’t turn out as we expect — these “failures” thankfully, are typically mundane. These can occur when we have not anticipated some aspect of a research context (e.g., we mix up meeting places and times, and miss participants; we forget crucial documents; our equipment does not work; we do not recognize crucial moments to learn more from our participants until it is too late to do so), someone in the research context behaves in unexpected ways, or interactions or events occurs that prevent us from completing our research objectives. It is impossible to anticipate just what can go wrong in a research study – since topics, contexts, researchers, and participants are many and varied. Most researchers, on reflection, will also be able to talk about the studies that they would design differently, the incomplete projects they have, and the papers that they failed to publish.

Readers of German will be pleased to learn that two scholars who have been thinking and writing about working with interviews that researchers deemed to be “failures” are Judith Eckert and Diana Cichecki. Their forthcoming book will be published by Beltz. https://www.beltz.de/

Eckert, Judith, &  Cichecki, Diana (forthcoming): Mit „gescheiterten“ Interviews arbeiten. Impulse für eine reflexiv-interaktionistische Interviewforschung. Weinheim: Beltz Juventa.

Translated into English, their book is entitled Working with “failed” interviews: Towards a reflexive-interactionist interview research. The book will appear in the book series “Qualitative Forschung – Aktuelle Ansätze” (“Doing Qualitative Research – Contemporary Approaches”) as one of the two first books in this series. For those of us who don’t read German, there is a small but growing body of literature in which scholars re-analyze interviews that they initially thought to have “failed” (e.g., Herron, 2019; Jacobsson & Åkerström, 2013; Nairn, Munro, & Smith, 2005; Prior, 2014).

For example, using interview data from a study conducted in Sweden, Jacobsson and Åkerström re-examined a “failed” interview in which a participant (interviewed about being a neighbor) refused to respond from the category membership assigned by the interviewer. In this analysis, the authors attend to how the participant frames her narrative in response to the interviewer’s questions. The authors explore “two methodological points: first, regarding category representativeness, and second, asymmetries of power in the interview situation” asserting that “analysis of how interview participants talk may lead to unforeseen findings and suggest new areas for research” (pp. 727-728).

As a second example, in my forthcoming edited book (Roulston, 2019, p. 33), I’ve discussed how Herron (2019):

re-examines what she initially took to be a “failed interview” that she conducted as a novice researcher. Using the tools of ethnomethodology and conversation analysis (Baker, 2002), she examines the construction of interview data with a stranger in another country in which both speakers collaboratively produce “feminist” and “researcher” identities. Herron finds that although interruptions and overlapping talk are frequently discussed as interview problems, in this interview they are shown to support the work of rapport development and clarification of misunderstandings. Herron outlines how the lessons that she learned from re-examining this interview might be applied to the preparation of novice interviewers, with particular attention given to promoting ethical research practices.

Novice qualitative researchers are implored to be reflexive and examine their subject positions through reflexive writing such as subjectivity statements (Peshkin, 1988; Preissle, 2008). The analytic example provided by Herron provides novice researchers another approach to developing reflexivity (Finlay, 2012; Finlay & Gough, 2003). This approach calls on researchers to explore what they say and do in response to their participants’ utterance. This kind of analysis can also prompt novice researchers to think further about the theoretical assumptions that they make in their approach to the conduct, analysis and representation of interviews (Brinkmann, 2018; Talmy, 2010). These sorts of re-examinations can provide greater analytic sensitivity to the data that were produced, rather than focusing on what was “missed.” For example, in this chapter, Herron finds that she and her participant, Marina, collaboratively produce a feminist analysis of the gender relations in the former soviet state of Georgia, rather than descriptions to do with gender and water development projects. Yet further investigation of an interview that had been discarded from a project led Herron to a fruitful consideration of the theoretical perspectives that inform her work, and her practices as an early career scholar.

What challenges have you faced in conducting qualitative studies? How do you view these experiences now? What lessons were learned? What would you do differently now? By reframing “failures” as learning opportunities, we can develop as researchers, and also share our experiences with others. This may be humbling, but there is much to be learned from what goes wrong.

Kathy Roulston


Baker, C. D. (2002). Ethnomethodological analyses of interviews. In J. Gubrium & J. Holstein (Eds.), Handbook of interviewing: Context and method (pp. 777-795). Thousand Oaks: Sage.

Brinkmann, S. (2018). Philosophies of qualitative research: Understanding qualitative research. New York: Oxford University Press.

Finlay, L. (2012). Five lenses for the reflexive interviewer. In J. F. Gubrium, J. A. Holstein, A. Marvasti, & K. McKinney (Eds.), The SAGE Handbook of interview research: The complexity of the craft (2nd ed., pp. 317-331). Los Angeles: Sage.

Finlay, L., & Gough, B. (Eds.). (2003). Reflexivity: A practical guide for researchers in health and social sciences. Oxford: Blackwell Science.

Herron, B. A. (2019). On doing ‘being feminist’ and ‘being researcher’: Lessons from a novice interviewer. In K. Roulston (Ed.), Interactional studies of qualitative research interviews (pp. 79-102). Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Company.

Jacobsson, K., & Åkerström, M. (2013). Interviewees with an agenda: Learning from a ‘failed’ interview. Qualitative Research, 13(6), 717-734. doi:10.1177/1468794112465631

Nairn, K., Munro, J., & Smith, A. B. (2005). A counter-narrative of a ‘failed’ interview. Qualitative Research, 5(2), 221-244. doi:10.1177/1468794105050836

Peshkin, A. (1988). In search of subjectivity: One’s Own. Educational Researcher, 17(7), 17-22.

Preissle, J. (2008). Subjectivity statement. In L. M. Given (Ed.), The Sage encyclopedia of qualitative research methods (Vol. 2, pp. 844-845). Los Angeles, CA: Sage.

Prior, M. T. (2014). Re-examining alignment in a “failed” L2 autobiographic research interview. Qualitative Inquiry, 20(4), 495-508. doi:10.1177/1077800413513730

Roulston, K. (Ed.) (2019). Interactional studies of qualitative research interviews. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Company.

Talmy, S. (2010). Qualitative interviews in applied linguistics: From research instrument to social practice. Annual Review of Applied Linguistics, 30, 128-148.


2 thoughts on ““Failure” in doing social research

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s