The Study Dude – Smoke and Mirrors of “Context”

There is nothing more that The Study Dude wants for you than to realize that top academics only pretend to know the meaning of “context.”

Well, in these articles, as The Study Dude, I’ll try to give you the study tips you need to help make your learning easier. I’ll also give you straight and honest opinions and personal anecdotes?even the embarrassing ones that you wouldn’t ever dare read about from any other study tip guru.

This week’s Study Dude further explores InterViews: Learning the Craft of Qualitative Research Interviewing by Svend Brinkmann and Steinar Kvale.

“Context Stinks,” Says Latour
When you get into graduate studies, the word “context” gets shoved down your throat. Professors prod, “What’s the context?” Even more tiresome, professor responses to your questions simplify to “It depends on the context.”

So what does context mean? After reading Brinkmann and Kvale, I have discovered that lazy academics use the vague word “context” to throw pebbles in your eyes. By using the all-purpose word, “context,” the lazy profs can throw away the need to give meaningful detail.

When You’re doing a study, you can say, “In light of the context of the study, we chose to implement such-and-such strategy.” Most professors will swoon over your use of context. But a critical thinker would ask, “What specifically do you mean by context?”

don’t be like a lazy professor. Use specifics instead of the fuzzy “context.” Brinkmann and Kvale give you the lowdown on context:
– There’s a difference between the parts of something and the whole. For instance, a story’s parts consist of things like paragraphs, chapters, and subplots. The whole represents the overall “context.”
– Given that, in an interview, the parts include things like the interviewees, interviewers, recording objects. Define these things.
– The word, context, however, often reduces to the container of something. A pocket may contain a key, but doesn’t tell you much about the key.
– Also, when you talk about context, you need to decide what points of context are most important. What about the physical setting is most important? The cultural groups? The demographics? You could go on and on forever listing stuff about context. So, where do you draw the line?
– Latour (as cited in Brinkmann and Kvale) says “context stinks” (p. 105). Latour argues that using the word context gives profs a lazy way out of discussing details.
– In reality, context has no bounds. You are person who studies at Athabasca, lives on earth, in the solar system, and in the universe; who once might have eaten Greek pizza, Asian fried bees, or Mama’s bratwurst, etc. You could go on forever about “context,” so define specifically what you mean by “context.” Give your context meaning.

The Seven Stages of Interviews
Brinkmann and Kvale lay out the seven stages of interviews. They also cite the philosopher Bourdieu on his take of the seven stages of interviews.

Just to sidetrack, let me say that Bourdieu sucks at writing. For instance, take this sentence about one of the stages of interviews according to Bourdieu (as cited in Brinkmann and Kvale):

Understood in this way, conversational analysis … reads in each discourse not solely the contingent structure of the interaction as a transaction, but also the invisible structures that organize it … [it] avoids reducing … as in so many ?tape recorder sociologies,? and knows how to read in their words the structure of the objective relations, present and past, between their trajectory and the structure of the educational establishments they attended, and through this, the whole structure and history of the teaching system expressed there.” (p. 130)

But what does that mean?

Well, it took me some time to figure it out. I reworded his sentence as such: “Discourse is contingent on not just interviews, but on abstract things like our education and educational systems.” Go ahead and try interpreting Bourdieu in your own clearest words. See? Not easy. Steven Pinker and Helen Sword, authors advocating for clear writing, might bitch-slap Bourdieu for trying to sound like the “structure” he-man.

Brinkmann and Kvale outline the seven stages of interviews and include Bourdieu’s take.
The seven stages of interviews consist of (1) thematizing, (2) designing, (3) interviewing, (4) transcribing, (5) analyzing, (6) verifying, and (7) reporting.
– Thematizing addresses the purpose and theme of your interview. (Theme means “topic.” As for Bourdieu’s take on thematizing, he says to know your topic.
– Designing involves planning what knowledge you want to gain and what ethical issues you might need to address. For Bourdieu, use nonviolent communication by, for instance, choosing respondents that you already know and trust.
– While interviewing, you should refer to an interview guide and capture the knowledge you want to gain. Bourdieu says to do a scientific interview that allows you to gain knowledge.
– Transcribe to turn the oral word into written text. Bourdieu claims It’s normal to lose meaning when transcribing.
– Choose your analysis technique. Bourdieu’s view on analysis is that discourse is not just contingent on the interview, but abstract things like our education and education system.
– Verify your interview findings. But Bourdieu suggests that if you control the interview, your writing will show it.
– Report your findings in a journal article or a book or other media. Bourdieu says you must provide commentary on interviews, which is no easy task.

Interview Themes
Putting a theme?in other words, a topic?to interviews demands some prep work.

When I did a podcast on study tips, I interviewed authors. First, I would read the author’s book in its entirety, taking notes in the margins. Then, I would prescript roughly forty-five minutes of questions. Lastly, I would practice the interviews three times, speaking into a microphone while wearing headphones. I even highlighted every word I intended to stress in the actual interview.

On my last iTunes interview, I didn’t do much prep. Instead of practicing three times and highlighting words to stress, I winged it. During the live interview, I stumbled over every sentence. I sucked so badly that I never heard from the interviewee again.

don’t be this fool. Plan out your interview theme (and design). Brinkmann and Kvale will show you how to thematize your interview:
– The theme should answer the “why” of your purpose.
– The theme should answer what the topic is about.
– The theme should answer how you are going to approach the interview, including what theories, interview techniques, and analysis techniques you might choose.
– Some possible answers to the “why” of your interview include interviewing to (1) learn about the experiences of the subject, (2) gain knowledge of a social event, (3) look at life histories, (4) study ideologies present in the interviewee’s responses, (5) explore or test a hypothesis, (6) describe the interviewee’s world, or (7) gain background material for practical or theoretical works.
– A handful of approaches to interviews include (1) a Carl Roger’s lens, which could look at the interviewee’s present-day experiences and feelings about your theme, (2) a Freudian lens, which could look at family history and emotions, or (3) a Skinner lens, which could look at behaviour, rewards, and behavioural consequences. [I noticed that learning theory in the education department deals heavily with behavioral theory.]
– Interviews can lead to theories.

So, there’s nothing to fear. The Study Dude is determined to make right for you all the wrongs I made in grad school—one A+ at a time.

Brinkman, Svend, & Kvale, Steinar. (2015). InterViews: Learning the Craft of Qualitative Research Interviewing. Los Angeles: Sage.