Classic texts: Ann Oakley’s: Interviewing women: A contradiction in terms

Sometimes articles have lives of their own, and live on in ways that authors may not anticipate. The chapter by Ann Oakley, Interviewing women: A contradiction in terms (Oakley, 1981), published in Helen Roberts’ edited collection, Doing Feminist Research, is one such article. Oakley (2016, p. 199) herself comments that the chapter came to “acquire a status as a ‘classic’ or ‘seminal’ statement about the practice of feminist social research” and the use of qualitative methods for feminist ends. It is useful to know, however, that Oakley herself has made use of both quantitative and qualitative methods in her work (Oakley, 1998), and does not advocate that qualitative methods are intrinsically feminist.

In fact in her historical study of research methods, Oakley (2000, p. 4) asserts that:

Feminist social science has been a particularly important recent strand in the critique of experimental and ‘quantitative’ ways of knowing. But it seems to me that women and feminism need the service of these methods (and, indeed, depend on them in crucial ways in their everyday lives).

In an interview conducted by Liz Spencer as part of the “Pioneers of Social Research” collection housed by the UK Data Service (Thompson, 2019), Oakley comments that she still receives e-mails about the chapter, Interviewing women: A contradiction in terms. Spencer’s interview with Oakley provides more information on the origin of the chapter, which is one of her most-cited works (a recent Google Scholar search indicates that it has been cited over 5,000 times!):

The reflections in that chapter very much came out of the experience of trying to do research at a time when I think a lot of social researchers had very little training.  There was very little training in research methodology then, so I hadn’t been on courses on how to interview or on how to collect qualitative data – there was probably no such thing.  The concept of ‘qualitative’ data and ‘qualitative’ interviewing didn’t exist then in the way it does now. Before I did the project, which was about women’s experiences of becoming mothers, I looked in the methodology textbooks for prescriptions about how to do interviews, and I was rather surprised to find this very mechanistic model of interviewing – the interviewer was the data collector, and the interviewee was the data provider. It was essentially not a social relationship.

Oakley continues:

… it was a piece of interaction out of which the personal had to be taken, it had to be excluded. So that interviewers, rather like psychoanalysts, were not supposed to reveal anything about themselves, they were not supposed to answer questions. That was a particular problem for me on this project, and I thought, “Where does this model come from?  It really, surely, can’t come from this particular context in which I’m working at the moment, which is one about a woman – social researcher – interviewing women about experiences that they have in common”.  So that’s the origin.  That’s the origin of the chapter.

In the 1981 chapter, Oakley opens by mentioning that research and methodological literature published at the time she was writing did not typically comment on the following issues:

social/personal characteristics of those doing the interviewing; interviewees’ feelings about being interviewed and about the interview; interviewers’ feelings about interviewees; and quality of interviewer-interviewee interaction; hospitality offered by interviewees to interviewers; attempts by interviewees to use interviewers as sources of information; and the extension of interviewer-interviewee encounters into more broadly-based social relationships (Oakley, 1981, p. 31).

Over the past 40 years, methodological writing has taken up many of these issues and it is not hard to find writing that discusses these topics today. In the early 1980s, however, the idea that interviewers should comport themselves in any way other than performing “neutrality”, “being unbiased” and “objective” pointed to unscientific research. In the 1981 chapter Oakley argued that the literature of the time on interviewing coincided with the values of traditional “male culture” (p. 40). A feminist approach to interviewing, Oakley argued, was one in which:

  • The use of prescribed interviewing practice is morally indefensible;
  • General and irreconcilable contradictions at the heart of the textbook paradigm are exposed; and
  • It becomes clear that, in most cases, the goal of finding out about people through interviewing is best achieved when the relationship of interviewer and interviewee is non-hierarchical and when the interviewer is prepared to invest his or her own personal identity in the relationship (p. 41).

Oakley illustrated her argument with examples from interviews with women that she had conducted in her research on Becoming a Mother, in which many of the participants sought information and advice from her.

In a follow-up to this article, Oakley returned to the field some 37 years later to re-interview participants from the earlier study (Oakley, 2016). Here, Oakley reviews the limitations of the 1981 chapter that other scholars proposed, including that the review of methodological literature was misinformed, that the argument missed the complicated “power and social divisions” among women, and that it did not “interrogate sufficiently the idea of friendship” (Oakley, 2016, pp. 197-198). Oakley (2016, p. 209) goes on to comment that the status of the earlier chapter was due more to the development of a feminist social science than to its substance, and that aspects of the argument (i.e., the relationship of interviewer and interviewees and conditions that shape familiarity and friendship) were naïve. In her 2016 article Oakley offers the idea of the “gift relationship” in which research participants give their stories to researchers in contexts that are “inescapably unequal” (p. 208).

It may surprise you that Ann Oakley has also written a number of fictional novels. For more on Ann Oakley and her work, check out her personal website, or another interview here:

https://www.socialsciencespace.com/2013/04/podcast-ann-oakley-on-womens-experience-of-childbirth/

Kathy Roulston

References

Oakley, A. (1981). Interviewing women: A contradiction in terms. In H. Roberts (Ed.), Doing feminist research (pp. 30-61). London: Routledge.

Oakley, A. (1998). Gender, methodology and people’s ways of knowing: Some problems with feminism and the paradigm debate in social science. Sociology, 32(4), 707-731. Retrieved from

Oakley, A. (2000). Experiments in knowing: Gender and method in the social sciences. New York, NY: The New Press.

Oakley, A. (2016). Interviewing women again: Power, time and the gift. Sociology, 50(1), 195-213. doi:10.1177/0038038515580253

Thompson, P. (2019). Pioneers of Social Research, 1996-2018. [data collection]. 4th Edition. UK Data Service. SN: 6226, http://doi.org/10.5255/UKDA-SN-6226-6

 

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