Ethnographic interviews: cases in the political and social-cultural psychology of resistance, distrust and confrontation in research access

John Igbino


1.1 Introduction

Ethnographic interviews are one of the foremost research tools, principally because they have been seen as ‘reactive’ (Robson 1994) in that respondents could be observed to react to or interact with questions. Researchers have over the years accorded unique status to ethnographic interviews not only because interviews have enabled meanings, processes, actions and reactions to be explored beyond the levels that were achievable with quantitative methods, but also, and more importantly, because interviews occur at the native state of the human contact between researchers and interviewees. In other words, education is a human enterprise and educational research interviews are ethnographic meeting of the minds of the interviewer and interviewee. Yet there are political and psychological problems, particularly the problems associated with humanness which is the stock of education, that mediate the ethnographic meeting of the minds of researchers and participants.

Discussions of the problems posed to ethnographic interviews by the humanness of the researcher and the researched are really non- existent in methodological literatures. Some of these problems will be explored in this article. However the problems that will be explored here exclude the impact of humanness on the reasons why there have been no theoretical underpinning of educational practice. Instead the article will try to describe how what it means to be human can lead to resistance, distrust, subtle and incipient confrontations between researchers and the researched; between researchers and institutional managers and officials, and between researchers and education professionals who practice education on behalf of students during data getting. The explorations of the problems will use case studies to describe, firstly, the consequences of the political and unrequited psychological contract inherent in organisational structures and hence the relationships within institutional structures. Secondly, the article will describe the tense undercurrents of resistance involving subtle social-cultural psychology and the ethnicities of participants. Thirdly, the article will describe the ethical questions posed for researchers and research reports by the above problems.


1.2 The origins of the article

The article is an offspring of a larger research project because it describes two encounters during ethnographic interviews for the larger researcher project.  The research project from which the cases have been taken was carried out between 2002 and 2009. The research project involved further education colleges and Voluntary and Community Adult Education providers in the UK. The aim of the research was to document the meanings of inclusion in cross-cultural contexts through the exploration of the experiences of adult students and teachers. Thus the two cases I will describe in the article together with the ethical problems the cases pose are based on subsequent reflections on my methodological encounters and experiences during the research project. Therefore the article is not a report of the main research project; instead it is a reflective revisit of occurrences, encounters and indeed a reliving of experiences.

The first case involves access to interviewees. The case describes how organisational politics and unrequited psychological contract between Policy Agents and adult students can be used to condition and regulate access to interviewees. The case will show how Policy Agents and the politics inherent in the organisational structures of colleges and the organisational relationships within the structures can transform the trust between adult students, Policy Agents and institutional officials into protectionism; how protectionism can be used to mediate and deny access to adult students; how protectionism can be used as a management tool to control interviews with adult students; how protectionism can be deployed to censor interview questions on behalf of adult students, and how such protectionism can pose ethical problems for researchers and subsequently the research findings and reports. The second case shows how the social-cultural psychology and the political culture of interviewees can condition and mediate their attitudes to and responses to interview questions. The case will show how the distrust and resistance rooted upon the social-cultural psychology and the political culture of interviewees can erect semi-permeable walls of silence between researchers and the researched.

Before I proceed I will explain what I mean by Policy Agents. Policy Agents are new cadre of employees who are increasingly occupying managerial and decision-making positions in post-compulsory education institutions in the UK. Policy Agents practice on and not in post-compulsory education because they are not post-compulsory education lecturers, teachers, professors or tutors. Instead most Policy Agents have come into post-compulsory education from a cross-section of other professions, particularly the social, care and support professions, in order to assist post-compulsory education institutions to implement and manage the implications and consequences of some of the socio-education policy initiatives flowing from the Government. Indeed the job description of many Policy Agents put them in the roles of Consultants to post-compulsory institutions. On the whole, Policy Agents bring with them specific professional identities and particular patterns of thinking about and making meanings of the roles of education in the society and hence the position of educational research within those roles. These specific professional identities, and particular patterns of thinking about and making meanings of education underpinned the problems that would be described below in  case 1 .


1.3 The characteristics of participants

Some of the characteristics of the adult students  involved in the main research are shown in the tables below. As could be seen from these tables the characteristics of the interviewees involved were wide ranging and these characteristics appear to suggest that the adult students who participated in the research would have been able to make informed decisions in terms of whether or not to participate in the research.


Age distribution Number in each group       %
18 – 23    7     17.5
24 – 29    5     12.5
30 – 35    9     22.5
36 – 41    6     15.0
42 – 47    8     20.0
48 – 53  S  5     12.5
Total    40     100

Table 1 Age distribution of Interview collaborators (source: Igbinomwanhia 2009)


Name of Profession Number %
Accountancy, Banking, Finance and Law 19 15.83
Biology and Biological sciences   4   3.33
Chemistry and Chemical sciences   3   2.50
Education 17 14.20
Engineering 27 22.50
Mathematics   4   3.33
Medical sciences   7   5.83
Medicine   1   0.83
Nursing   1   0.83
Pharmacy   1   0.83
Not yet a member of any profession 27 22.50
Won’t say/don’t know   9   7.50
Total 120 100

Table 2 Membership of Profession – all collaborators (source: Igbinomwanhia 20090


Qualification level Number %
Level 3 8 20
Level 4 20 50
Level 5 10 25
Diploma and Arbitur 2 5
Total 40 100

Table 3 The qualifications claimed by all interview collaborators (source: Igbinomwanhia 2009)


Ethnic group Number % Remarks
Asian 33 27.50 Asians include Asian – British, Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Sri-Lankans, Chinese, Persians, Arabs, Kurds and Afghans.
Blacks 56 46.67 Blacks include Black – British, Africans, West -Indians, Ethiopians and Somalis
White 25 20.83 Western and Eastern Europeans, Mediterraneans, Australians and New Zealanders
Other   6   5.00 Mixed races: Asian – White and Black-White
Total 120 100

Table 4 Ethnicity: all collaborators (source: Igbinomwanhia 2009)


Languages Number of speakers %
Amharic/Ethiopian/Eritrean 20 16.67
Akoli/Dutch   2   1.67
Albanian/Kosovo   5   4.17
Arabic   8   6.67
Armenian   1   0.83
Bosnian   2   1.67
Chinese 15 12.50
English 25 20.83
Farsi/Persian   2   1.67
French/Francophone   6   5.00
Kurdish   1   0.83
Lithuanian   1   0.83
Portuguese   2   1.67
Shona   3   2.50
Somali 15 12.50
Sri-Lankan/German   1   0.83
Turkish   1   0.83
Twi   5   4.17
Yoruba   5   4.17
Total 120 100

Table 5 The first languages spoken by collaborators (source: Igbinomwanhia 2009)


Case 1

2.1 Ethnographic Interviews and access to interviewees: a case in political and unrequited psychological contract: when trust turns into protectionism

Education professionals in the post–compulsory education sector, including teachers, lecturers, professors, and increasingly Policy Agents, practice education and make inclusive and sometimes exclusive educational decisions on behalf of adult learners. In the decision-making processes they engage, reorder, contest, and interpret state policies on behalf of their students. However as they engage policies on behalf of adult learners they often reorder the world in which adult learners live and learn in ways that sometimes stifle how the adults on whose behalf they act would have wanted to make sense of the world described within Government policies.

Thus the first case and the issues that I am going to describe touch on how Policy Agents can manipulate the complexities of staff-student relationships in further education colleges. The case occurred when I went to Marshfield College[1] study centres to carry out pre-planned ethnographic interviews with adult learners.  Marshfield College is one of the UK’s largest general Further Education College with over twenty thousand full – and part – time students on roll. Prior to the interviews I had held discussion meetings with groups of learners that I would be interviewing in order to introduce myself to them; to acquaint them with the aims and objectives of the research and to give them the opportunity to ask questions and withdraw their consent if they had reservations about the research.

Thus given the age distribution in table 1 I reasonably assume that the adult learners I was dealing with were able to make informed decisions. And many of the adult learners I met in the colleges I visited during the research elected to participate in the research.  During my discussions and meetings with learners at the College I had become acutely aware of the open and cordial relationship between learners and their peers and between learners and members of staff. I have a background in a College similar in all respects to Marshfield College. Accordingly I had hoped that the relationship I had observed was a source of strength that I would draw on during my interviews.

Before I set out to attempt to conduct the interviews at the College I wrote to and secured the permission of the Principal and the Directors of the College’s study centres involved in the study to ask for permission to approach adult learners and staff members of the College in order to persuade them to participate in the research. Permission was granted, provided learners and staff were willing to participate. Thus officially I had access to any of the adult learners and staff in the College who were willing to participate in the research.  However although I had the Principal’s permission and that many of the adult learners I approached elected to participate in the research the interviews with learners nevertheless encountered problems because on the first day of the scheduled interviews Course and Support tutors insisted on sitting in on the proceedings. The possibility that some who was not involved in the interview proceedings would be sitting there and listening to questions and responses was something I did not plan for or wanted, particularly as the learners were mature adults whose age ranged from 18 – 53.

I explained to the Course and Support Tutors why their presence during the interviews might not be helpful to the proceedings. The main reason I gave for objecting to the presence of the tutors was that their presence might interferre and prevent open discussion between me and learners. I offered a compromise that they too could participate in the interviews with learners by contributing their responses to the questions I was going to put to learners. They declined. However during the ensuing discussions it became apparent that, although part of their reasons for insisting on sitting in on the interviews were psychological concerns for some of the interviewees, particularly for some of the adult refugees and asylum seekers. But the problems were, in this particular instance, not entirely because of psychological concerns, instead the problems were related to deep-seated polarisation of organisational relationships. The polarisation involved unrequited psychological contract between Course and Tutors and student groups, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, between Course and Support Tutors and Course Administrator and Centre Director and Principal.  The Support Tutors and Course Administrator, who I hereby define as Policy Agent, were in one camp, while the Centre Director and Course Co-ordinator were in another camp.

What I have been recounting is that there were groups, cliques and political affiliations embedded in the organisation structures of the College. The groups, cliques and political affiliations created terrains of protectionism and inscribed boundaries which regulated and prevented access to students. The boundaries were invisible to outsiders, but they exerted considerable constraints on the freedom of adults to voluntarily participate in the research.

My encounters with the Course Administrator to whom I had been referred by tutors demonstrated how the unrequited psychological contract and open relationship between the Course Administrator and students can turn into protectionism because she was quite adamant that learners could not be interviewed unless there members of her staff were present. She argued, firstly, that people are deceptive, that there had been people who had come to carry out studies who were subsequently shown to ‘be different from what they had claimed’.  Secondly she argued that the reason why a member of staff must be present during the interviews was because of ‘something that may come up which is sensitive and which may involve issues around their past and present lives’.  I knew exactly what she meant because at an earlier meeting the Centre Director had suggested that I withdraw an interview question which she considered might offend the cultural sensibility of some interviewees. The question she wanted me to withdraw asked about the role of the family, religion, language, ethnicity, culture, self-respect, self-definition and gender and sex role in the definition of the meanings of inclusion. I had refused withdraw the question and instead asked that the question be left to the sensibility and judgement of adult learners themselves. The conclusion to the meeting was that I should visit the Centre and spend a day interacting with students and members of staff at the Centre. It was during this visit that I observed the open and cordial atmosphere which I mentioned earlier.


2.1.1 Discussion

A number of factors could have accounted for the problems posed by the case. My analyses of the positions taken by tutors and the Course Administrator are threefold. And they involve a range of issues. Firstly, I think the resistance of the tutors and Course Administrators was linked to perceived breach of the unwritten contract between the College and employees and between the Course Administrator, tutors and the groups of students who had volunteered to participate in the research. The idea that there might have been psychological relationships, that the psychological relationships might have been contractual and that they might have included tacit behavioural expectations has been drawn from Rousseau’s ‘Social Contract’. Rousseau did comment on the nature of the contract as an agreement between people and society. The agreement, Rousseau states,  binds people in the society for the purpose of mutual self-preservation and freedom. Thus by voluntarily entering the College teachers, lecturers, learners, Policy Agents and the College bind themselves to curb their natural freedom and submit to unwritten codes of behaviour.  In other words the decisions made by individual adults to exercise the freedom as to whether or not to be interviewed are explainable within Rousseau’s Social Contract. The explanation rests on the fact that the decision to exercise the right to be interviewed not only established a psychological contract between students and the research and between the groups and the researcher. The exercise of independence threatened the existing psychological contract as the tutors and Course Administrator have come to perceive it.

The second explanation is that the tutors and the Course Administrator perceived the fact that students made independent decisions to be interviewed as an exercise in individualism. Individualism was threatening because it not only undermined the existing psychological contract and staff-student relationship, but also it transformed the contract into unrequited psychological concern: it threatened group cohesion. The psychological concern made the groups the private domain of the tutors. The tutors and Administrator were the leaders of the groups of students. The result of that leadership, as it affected the conduct the interviews, was that it became the  responsibilities of tutors and the Course Administrator to defend and protect the groups from perceived dangers and unpleasant experiences: the trust engendered by the cordiality and open staff-student relationship I had observed as strength had been turned inward into protectionism. Thus in attempting to interview the groups I was not only a trespasser and alien intruder, but also I and the interview questions constitute the dangers and unpleasantness that must be resisted and against which the groups had to be shielded. Even though the Centre Directors sanctioned the permission given by the Principal to approach and interview any student or members of staff who were willing to be interviewed the permission was overridden as I descended the College’s hierarchy. In other words, there were levels of access in the College. The permission granted by the Principal and Centre Directors merely gave me entrance to the premises and organisation and not access to students. If I wanted access to students at the study Centre I must renegotiate the entire basis of that access. I must negotiate alternative contracts.

The third major issue raised by the tutors and Course Administrator relates to institutional rules and codes of behaviour. The institutional rules and codes of behaviour, which are the result of the legal constraints placed on colleges by Equal Opportunities legislation, affect researches in publicly maintained institutions. However in themselves the rules and codes are not restrictive. Instead it is the way individual and groups of professionals acting on behalf of students interpret and implement the rules and codes and hence their perception of the impact of implementation on their professional identity that develop into protectionism, distrust, resistance and confrontation.  The consequences of the widely varying interpretations are that they create circumstances in which professionals perceive themselves to be under threats and in which resistances are developed to ideas and people.  A teacher subsequently reflected on these issues as follows:


“Remember [that] we live and work in a political environment. We are practitioners

[and] every decision as to what we have to do in the environment [and] in our

workplace environment is not only subject to political and social control but also it is

seen as a political argument… Political in the sense that our influence [is

diminished] we have very little influence on what should happen. So we are passed

on. We receive things which probably under normal conditions we would have given

serious thoughts and consideration and rejected on the basis of professional


(Teacher cited in Igbinomwanhia, 2009: 373)


Thus part of the problems underlying the distrust and the resistance of the tutors and the Course Administrator were the issues of the politics of power and powerlessness, particularly the loss of professional power; the loss of professional autonomy, and the perception that the unwritten contract between tutors, Course Administrator and the College had been negated when the Principal and Centre Director gave their consents without consulting the Course Administrator and course tutors.  More importantly the distrust and resistance were a manifestation of the perception of the distortion of the professional identity of the tutors.  Within these power and political discourses are the ethical dilemmas posed for the professional identity of post-compulsory education teachers by the ‘Ethics of Policy’.  The ‘Ethics of Policy’ embeds the ethical problems flowing from the implementation of State polcies which define the roles of the market in the financing of post-compulsory education; the marketing and production of courses; the recruitment of students, and the human resource management of teachers. These implementational issues have led to the distortion of the professional identity of teachers. In the present case it is ethics in human resource management which places obligations on tutors on the pain of job security to treat students as clients in order to achieve retention, progression and achievement targets.


 Case 2

2.2 Ethnographic interview: a case in the social-cultural psychology and the political culture of participants: when the political culture of informants turns research into distrust

The second case that I am going to describe in this section will show how the social-cultural psychology and the political culture of interviewees could lead to questions about the nature of the interaction between interviewers and interviewees and between the research focus and interviewees. The social-cultural psychology and political culture which I am going to describe occurred during and after pre-interview discussion visits to the Far East Asian Community Education and cultural Centre. I went to the Centre as a part of the larger research project that was aimed at the exploration of the meanings of inclusion. The aim of the visits to the  Centre was to explore the meanings of inclusion from the perspectives of the  Community. At the time of my first visit to the Centre I had not yet met or knew the Head of Education and Cultural Activities, although I knew I would be interviewing him because I had written to him and he had replied and agreed to be interviewed. When we eventually met and I attempted to get the discussion underway it rapidly became clear to me that he was just going to listen and that I was going to be discussing with myself because he remained absolutely passive and expressionless throughout and said nothing except at the end when he simply nodded and said “okay, book appointment with my secretary”: the meeting was closed.

I did get the interviews appointments with him and adult users of the Community Centre. But what was I going to make of that initial encounter? Would the interview proper follow the same pattern or would he be more forthcoming?  Wragg (1994: 267) has argued that ‘race’ can introduce bias into interviews. Wragg’s argument was that interviewees are more likely to be receptive if the interviewer and interviewee are of the same racial group. Faulkner, D. et al (1997: 46) points out the importance of rapport between interviewers and interviewees. Robson describes the act of analysing the contents of documents for the purpose of research as “unobtrusive measure, indirect and non-reactive” (Robson 1994: 238). Robson’s aim and method are to distinguish documentary research from interviews and surveys, both of which, on the one hand, have been claimed to involve reactions and interactions with human respondents and, on the other hand, reactions and interactions between human respondents and interview and survey questions.

Thus Wragg’s, Faulkner’s and Robson’s arguments were about rapport in ethnographic interviews. Firstly, Wragg was arguing that intra-race interviews were more likely to be free of bias compared to inter-racial interviews because interviewees and interviewers from the same race were more likely to exhibit interview rapport, while interviewees and interviewers from different race were less likely to exhibit rapport.  Secondly, Faulkner was arguing in general terms about the usefulness of rapport to interviewers. Thirdly, Robson was arguing the existence of rapport between interviewees and researchers and between interviewees and research questions. However, it is argued here that while rapport between the researcher and the researched might be an important factor in the usefulness of ethnographic interviews, there are underpinning factors which are more important determinant of the usefulnees of ethnographic interviews as measn of data getting. These underpinning factors are informed by the ‘internal state of being’ involving the historiography, custom, tradition and accreted emotional values of the researcher and the researched.


2.2.1 The Interview

When I did get to carry out the interview with the Head of Education and Cultural Activities he merely listened to my questions and gave what I thought he believed were the right responses. He remained passive throughout and sometimes during the interview I felt as if I were talking to myself.  He gave away nothing he did not want to give. And on the rare occasion that I thought I observed what might be described as interactions and reactions to the questions I had put to him I could never make sense of what form the interactions and reactions were: were the reactions and interactions ones of elation or dejection? Were they ones of agreement or disagreement with the questions I had asked? Were they ones of suppressed anger and disgust? Were they ones of acceptance or were they ones of denial and rejection? These questions and the behaviours of the Head of the Centre together with the social-cultural psychology and the political culture which influenced the behaviours are problematic for Robson’s arguments because the meanings of the interactions and reactions of interviewees to interviewers and vice versa and interviewees’ interactions with and reations to interview questions are unpredictable in some cross-cultural contexts. And more importantly the unpredictability has consequences for the value of ethnographic interviews because ethnographic interviewees are storytellers and stories are capable of being culturally and politically filtered or embellished.

The interviews with the adults who used the Community Education Centre followed the same pattern because when I eventually met them it turned out that the permission to act as far as the members of the Community were concerned operated on levels. The first level was to get to the Head of Education and Cultural Activities at the Centre. The second level was that to be introduced to the members of the Community who uses of the Centre did not translate into access to the users as potential interviewees. The third level was that to meet with potential interviewees and users of the Centre did not translate into access to the users of the Centre. The fourth level was that there was no getting to a group of interviewees or users of the Centre as the case may be. Instead access was to individual users. The fifth level was that statements of consent given by either of these parties were not always binding on the individual who gave the consent. These levels were defined and access to one was not transferable to the other.

Thus when I went to interview adults at the Centre I had to recommence the processes of making contact with individuals in order to explain the aims and rationales of the research and to ask for access to individuals, even though when the Head of Education and Cultural Activities introduced me he explained everything about the research and the part individuals might be required to play. I had to do this on nine occasions. I had limit the number of interviewees because of these human physical limitations. Even then it took four visits to the Centre to interview and administer nine questionnaires to nine adults at the Centre. Indeed throughout the entire engagement with the users of the Centre I did not have any interaction with them that did not involve a third party because they insisted on having an interpreter present each time, even though they could read and write in English language and that they were quite fluent in spoken English.


2.2.2 Discussion


What kinds of explanations can be put on these occurrences?  These occurrences were quite perplexing because at the initial point of contact these people had conversed with me fluently in English, but the moment I indicated that the interviews and completion of the questionnaires should commence they reverted to speaking in Chinese/Mandarin and insisted on an interpreter and that I read my interview questions to the interpreter.

I now think of two possible explanations. The first explanation is distrust. I think  the origin of the distrust is to be found in the political culture of the Community, involving notions of free speech, democracy, human rights, equality and individual freedom. I think they probably thought of any one who comes along asking and discussing questions about Government policy as a Government Official on an official Government business. They just did not trust me. And I think that they insisted on an interpreter because they wanted a witness they could trust in case I wrote something they did not say. Thus the distrust, resistance and the almost impenetrable walls of silence that were erected by the Head of Education and by the users of the Community Education Centre had nothing to do with race. Instead they are the product of the interplay of the social-cultural psychology and ethno-political culture of the Far East Asian Community. In other words, I would depart from Wragg’s argument about race and interview rapport and argue that the interviewees I met at the Community and Education Centre would have demonstrated similar reactions and responses to a researcher researching Government Policy, even if the researcher were a member of the same racial group. The only difference is that a researcher of the same racial group would probably not have had to hire an interpreter.

The second explanation which I think also raises the issues of trust and distrust involve the human side of the ethnographic enterprise. The human side of the ethnographic enterprise is that no one, irrespective of the level of familiarity and racial affinity, would lay themselves completely open and receptive to others, including interviewers and their interview questions, without reserves. In other words, we all wear our respective defensive armours around our thoughts and feelings against the outside world, including interviews. In any human interactions not only would we not ordinarily allow anyone to come close enough to completely penetrate those thoughts and feelings, but also we use the defensive armours to mediate our memories of events: to forget what we want to forget and remember what we want to remember; to say what we want to say or do not want to say; to hear what we want to hear or do not want to hear, and to see what we want to see or do not want to see.  Additionally the defensive amours we wear and the ways we wear them around our thoughts and actions and use them to mediate our reactions and responses to the worlds of interviewing and interview questions are infused with social-cultural psychology and political and material culture. In particular I think it is the  political and material culture of the Community rather than race and racial affinity that were more likely to account for the wall of silence and were more likely to exert influence on the ways in which they reacted to; interacts with; interprets and responds to my questions.


3 Ethnographic interviews: the ethical dilemmas posed for research findings

I have dwelt on the cases and the problems they pose at length because of the status and centrality which have been accorded to interviews and surveys as methods of obtaining research data.  Behavioural problems such as the ones shown in the cases together with their possible effects on the conduct and outcomes of interviews are not often written into research findings at the report stage. Ethnographic research findings are reported as if there was no friction; no ambient; no Policy Agents, and no settings to interviews. It is as if interviewees were tabula rasa and were sitting there dutifully answering all the questions put to them by researchers. Thus what we read in research reports are sanitised and decontextualised echoes of the voices of respondents. Post-interview transcripts, analysis and commentary do not offer future researchers, readers and users of the reported findings any clues to these problems and the effects some or all of them were likely to have had or might have had on the validity and reliability of interviews and hence the research.  What I have been saying is that there are issues and problems with ethnographic interviews which pose ethical and moral dilemmas for researchers and their researches. Researchers have tended to ignore these dilemmas in their reports.  The ethical and moral dilemmas they pose are many and various. I have posed some of these dilemmas as a series of questions. Accordingly this section is devoted to the discussion of some of these dilemmas.


3.1 Ethnographic interviews: trust and morality in research reports?

The ethical dilemmas posed here are twofold. Firstly, should researchers look the other way and pretend that the problems and issues raised in the cases I have described in this paper do not place limitations on the value of ethnographic interviews and that they have no consequences for the reliability and validity of their research findings? Secondly, should researchers not pretend and instead accept that the issues and problems raised in the cases together with the cultural thoughts that influenced them do place limitations on the value of ethnographic interviews and that they do have consequences for research findings so that they can warn readers, users and implementers of the research findings about these limitations and the problems that might arise from the implementation of the findings?

Lather has argued for ‘emancipatory knowledge’. ‘Emancipatory knowledge, according to Lather, increases awareness of the contradictions hidden or distorted by everyday understandings, and in doing so it directs attention to the possibilities for social transformation inherent in the present configuration of social process’ (Lather 1986: 259). I think that when Lather said ‘emancipatory knowledge’ she meant knowledge that is emancipatory to both the researcher and the researched.  More importantly I think that she meant knowledge that sets ordinary people free by using the language, signs and symbols that exist within the experience of people. The case Lather has made demand that researchers do not pretend that problems do not exist with interviews as a methodology. Instead researchers have ethical and moral responsibility to extend ‘emancipatory knowledge’ and make their research findings emancipatory to readers and users.  The extension of ‘emancipatory knowledge’ to readers and users of research findings fits the kind of society envisaged by Rousseau.  In Rousseau’s notion of civil society everyone knows that everyone else has curbed his or her natural instincts and subscribed to the social contract. Thus by subscribing to the contract individuals in Rousseau’s notion of civil society are emancipated and elevated to heights which would have been unattainable had individuals remain in the native state of mind. In sum signing up to Rousseau’s social contract elevates individual’s thoughts to moral heights.


Thus in the modern notion of Rosseau’s civil society warning readers and users of research findings by informing them ‘of the contradictions hidden or distorted by everyday understanding’ and of the implications of some of the problems and issues raised in the case studies and hence the possible impact they might have had on the findings are moral arguments. In other words if it is ethical and morally appropriate that we must have openness and transparency in the wider civil society, then we must also have openness and transparency in research findings and in the dissemination of the findings. Such openness and transparency mean that researchers must admit that because of some of the problems and issues that have been discussed in these case studies research findings need to be taken and used with the exercise of a degree of caution.


3.2 Ethnographic interviews: an alternative discourse of research ethics?

Often when the issues of research ethics are discussed the discussions are conducted from the viewpoints of the behaviours of researchers towards the researched. The discussions usually centre on whether researchers have been humane to the researched; whether the researched were informed; whether the researched were able use the information that researchers have made available to them to make informed decisions about the research, and whether the researched were able to make such informed decisions without let or hindrance? But what happens when all these conditions have been met by researchers and the researched is nevertheless prevented from participating in the research as a result of  mediation by Policy Agents? Or what happens when the researched are allowed to participate in the research under the close supervision of Policy Agents? Does the mediation by Policy Agents not pose research ethics dilemmas?  And who does it pose ethical dilemmas for?

The mediation of access to interviewees by Policy Agents do indeed pose ethical dilemmas for researchers. The dilemmas it poses place ethical weights on the shoulders of researchers to conduct ethical research by stepping out of established research paradigms. The conduct of ethical research means that researchers need to engage in alternative discourse on behalf of the researched.  The alternative discourse might involve the ethics of direct or indirect mediation by Policy Agents and other institutional officials, be these officials teachers, lecturers and support staff. The ethics of direct or indirect mediation might examine whether Policy Agents and other institutional officials in maintained institutions are cuturally and socially responsible to position themselves between the researched and  researchers. I think this a serious ethical issue because for some individuals and groups in contemporary communities in the UK it is through answering and responding to interview questions and providing information to researchers that their voices are heard.  Thus since the publication and dissemination of research findings is probably the only avenue open to them to make their voivces heard researchers have ethical responsibility to contest the mediation of access by Policy Agents because the ways education professionals interpret institutional rules and codes and the way they perceive their practice often censor interview questions on behalf of students by denying students the opportunity to participate in researches and to interact with interviewers and respond to interview question without let and hindrance.

The most telling reason why researchers owe ethical responsibility to contest the mediation of Policy Agents is in the contest between me and the Course Administrator.  The Course Administrator sought to justify the insistence of her tutors to observe the interviews and hence use their presence to censors the interview questions and responses because she felt that I might discuss sensitive issues alluding to the past and present lives of interviewees and that interviewees might find such allusion unpleassnt and therefore tutors must be present at the interviews to offer support. Thus it may very well be that it is about the ‘sensitive issues around their past and present lives’ that adult students want to tell the world. This is the principal reason why researchers must step out of established research paradigms and ground their research in the world of local people.  A part of the alternative discourse and stepping out of established research paradigms not only place ethical responsibility on researchers and on the academy to question the ability of Policy Agents to reorder and interpret the world on behalf of adult students, but also they demand that researchers and the academy subject the reordered world to searching analyses because to reorder the reality of the world on behalf of adult students involve making judgements and crucial decisions on their behalf. My argument is that making judgements involve the power to evaluate and make decisions. And the power to judge, evaluate and decide are moral and ethical.



3.3 Ethnographic interviews: an alternative discourse of research ethics and ownership of knowledge?

A separate strand of alternative discourse of research ethics addresses the ownership of the responses of interviewees to interview questions. As I have mentioned  it is through answering and responding to interview questions and providing information to researchers that the voices of individuals and groups in contemporary communities in the UK are heard. When I went to interview the adults shown in tables 4 and 5 I was seeking access to the knowledges and experiences they have about the subject of my research problems and hypotheses.  Similarly when researchers conduct interviews they are seeking access to the knowledges and experiences of interviewees, whoever the interviewees may be and wherever the interviews may have been conducted. In other words, when researchers conduct interviews they are asking interviewees for explanations; they are asking for verdicts; they are asking for the views and opinions of interviewees, and they are seeking insights from the minds of interviewees on their research problems and hypotheses. The responses of interviewees to questions are delivered in spoken words and encapsulate mental imagery, clues, signs and symbols which carry the meanings of the phenomena under enqiury.

I have broken down the words that carry the  meanings of the phenomena under enquiry into three levels of words in accordance with the information they convey about the research problems and hypotheses. The first level of information is carried in the words said by interviewees on the way to the answers to interview questions. The second level of information is carried in the words said by interviewees in their answers to interview questions. The third level of information is carried in the words said by interviewees on the way from the answers to interview questions (Igbinomwanhia 2009: 75 – 76). The words said on the way to and from the answers to interview questions enrich, deepen and add perspectives to the answers to interview questions. They draw on and encapsulate ‘accreted experience and specialist knowledge, tradition custom, historiography, emotional nationalism and ethnicity’ (ibid: 58).

Put simply, the questions that flow from the foregoing are as follows: who owns the information, knowledges and experiences conveyed in the above mentioned words? Are they owned by interviewees? Are they owned by the institutions in which interviews are conducted? Are they owned by the researcher who recorded and transcribed the words?  Or are they owned by a combination of these parties?

The ethical dilemmas facing researchers as a result of these questions not only involve issues about the ways of knowing, alternative discourse and stepping out of the established research paradigms. But more importantly the dilemmas involve questions about the meanings of knowledge. In other words, the questions address researchers to reconfigure the epistemology of the classification of knowledge so that the meanings of knowledge and the words that carry knowledge cease to be the exclusive preserve of researchers, scholars and academics. I think these are important ethical and moral issues because it is through such reconfiguration and through the giving of equal meanings to the knowledges of ordinary people that researchers, scholars and academics can really make the voices of ordinary people heard in the ways their voices really are. As the American Group for Collaborative Inquiry has pointed out


“[First] who shall be heard and second [and third how and when they should be heard],

what kind of knowledge shall be considered legitimate… The project of formal

knowledge construction in our field is characterised by a preference for the knowledge

of scholars rather that of practitioners or of the people who are the field’s

constituencies, a preference for knowledge born of reason and science rather than

emotion and experience. These preferences are woven in complex and subtle ways into

an historically and culturally determined web of beliefs, values and norms that justify

the exclusion of some and the exclusion of others in the knowledge-making process”

(Group for Collaborative Inquiry 1993: 44)


The point of the argument is that researchers and scholars have tended to disregard the knowledges and experiences conveyed in the words of interviewees. Researchers and scholars assiduously acknowledge their sources as I have done in my bibliography but at the same time the knowledges and experiences imparted by the ‘constituencies’ are never acknowledged. Even in the contexts of the problems highlighted in the cases I have presented in this paper, researchers and scholars have ethical responsibility to begin the process of attribution to interviewees.


4.1 Conclusions

This paper has used two cases to show the possibility that distrust might introduce flaws into interview data and that the flaws might affect the reliability and validity of research findings. The paper has argued that researchers owe ethical and moral responsibility to inform readers and users of their research findings about the consequences of the issues raised in the case examples I have discussed above. Additionally the paper has argued that researchers owe ethical and moral responsibility, firstly, to adult students to contest the power of Policy Agents to position themselves between researchers and the researched and, secondly,  to include their informant in the making of knowledge.




Faulkner, D. et al (1994) Professional Development in Action, Methodology Handbook, The Open University, Milton Keynes.

Group for Collaborative Inquiry (1993) The Democratisation of Knowledge, Adult Education Quarterly, 44 (1): 43 – 51

Igbinomwanhia, J.O. (2009) Explorations of Ethics of Lifelong Learning, Forum 51 (3): 363 – 375

Igbinomwanhia, J.O. (2009) The meanings of Inclusion in Cross-Cultural Contexts: eploring the experiences of adult learners and teachers in two further education colleges in the London Area, PhD Thesis, Goldsmiths, University of London.

Lather, P. (1986) Research as Praxis, Harvard Educational Review, 56: 257 – 73

Robson, C. (1994) Analysing Documents and Records in Bennett et al (eds), Improving Educational Management through research and consultancy, London, Paul Chapman

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques 1712 – 1778 Du Contrat Social, Principes du droit politique; trans. Cranston, M. (1968) Penguin Books

Wragg, E.C. (1994) Conducting and Analysing Interviews in Bennett et al (eds), Improving Educational Management through research and consultancy, London, Paul Chapman



[1] Marsfield College is a pseudonym