Examining Interviews in Cinematic Society

We mostly think of interviews as question-answer sequences. Because of the ubiquity of “interviews” in contemporary society —job interviews, clinical interviews, research interviews, journalistic interviews, and more —we tend to take what an interview is at face value. Sometimes, however, interviews are not really interviews at all. Such is the case of what was known as an “open-end interview”. Benjamin Bates, of the Archive of Recorded Sound at the Stanford University library, wrote about this in a blog post about a rare recording made of an interview with the actress and singer Ethel Merman (1908-1984).

In this “recorded” interview with Ethel Merman, we see scripted questions to be asked by a multitude of local interviewers across the country. These recorded questions were broadcast along with Merman’s recorded answers by local radio stations. Presumably, audience members could take these interviews to be “real.” They were not! They were simulations of interviews. For more, see Bates’ blogpost.

In a chapter just published in the new book Engaging students in socially constructed qualitative research pedagogies (Richards et al., 2022), Brigette Herron and I (Roulston & Herron, 2022) discuss how instructors of qualitative inquiry can make use of media interviews in teaching to assist students in interrogating their assumptions about interviews and how question-answer sequences work. By examining celebrity interviews, students can gain a better sense of the different purposes for which interviews are used in contemporary society. In addition to learning about people’s lives and events through research interviews, when used in what Norman Denzin has called “Cinematic Society” (Denzin, 2018), interviews can be used for the purpose of entertainment, promoting the self or marketing products, to re-set narratives, and even to interrogate famous people for public consumption.

In the chapter, we provide examples of how interviews can be used for these different purposes, and provide examples of sources that instructors might examine to locate publicly archived interviews for teaching purposes. In the chapter, we outline a sequence of activities that can be used with novice students as they develop expertise in interview methods to apply to independent research projects.

For starters, you might look at the comedian Chris Farley’s (1964-1997) “interview” with singer Paul McCartney. Farley’s comedic performance plays a central role in entertaining his audience. In this interview, the purpose is clearly not to learn anything about the interviewee. Unless you want to launch a career in comedy, we can learn much about how NOT to go about an interview from what Farley does (and does not do). But if you really want to interview celebrities, you might check out tips from a Vanity Fair interviewer, George Wayne, who conducted celebrity interviews for two decades. Have fun with your explorations of interviews in Cinematic Society!

Kathy Roulston


Denzin, N. K. (2018). Performance autoethnography: Critical pedagogy and the politics of culture (2nd ed.). Routledge.

Richards, J. C., Skukauskaite, A., & Chenail, R. (Eds.). (2022). Engaging students in socially constructed qualitative research pedagogies. Brill.

Roulston, K., & Herron, B. A. (2022). Teaching interviewing in qualitative research: Learning from Cinematic society. In J. C. Richards, A. Skukauskaite, & R. Chenail (Eds.), Engaging students in socially constructed qualitative research pedagogies (pp. 191-215). Brill.

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