Wrestling With the Challenges of a Qualitative Interview

Zane Šime |

Original date of publication on the UACES Ideas on Europe platform: 11 January 2020

Photo by Amy Hirschi on Unsplash

If the earlier blog entries (OctoberNovemberDecember and January) covered the thematic scope of the envisaged research project, then this one is dedicated to the complexities of data processing, namely, qualitative interviews, the challenges in analysing the acquired insights. Recently reviewed scholarly remarks on the process tracing and practice tracing most relevant for my research project are put together in a concise manner as the initial point of departure for further mapping of the most optimal ways how to plan, conduct interviews and analyse the acquired insights.

One of the key historically contested aspects of a qualitative approach of semi-structured interviews is the interpretation of certain acquired information according to specific dispositions of the researcher. Both Bourdieu highlights this challenge with a reference to the observations of Pieto that “the meaning of a linguistic element depends at least as much on extra-linguistic as on linguistic factors, that is to say, on the context and situation in which it is used. Everything takes place as if, from among the class of “signifields” abstractly corresponding to a speech sound, the receiver “selected” the one which seems to him to be compatible with the circumstances as he perceives them” (Bourdieu, 1977, p. 25). Similarly, Keukeleire among the three major challenges and limitations of a decentered perspective on the EU foreign policy mentions the “conscious or unconscious filtering out of information that does not resonate with” the researcher’s “own world view” (Keukeleire, 2017). It is a flaw of the analytical capacities witnessed not only among researchers but also among the diplomatic corps (Cornut, 2015, pp. 394, 396).

Another risk identified by Bourdieu is that “the analyst is liable to fall into all the error that flow from tendency to confuse the actor’s point of view with the spectator’s point of view” by asking questions about the practice which seem to the community of practice self-evident, obvious and unquestionable (Bourdieu, 1990, pp. 82-83). Some prior work experience among the analysed circles of experts lessens the likeliness of being prone to the “Mauss problem” (Adler-Nissen et al., 2013, p. 50).

The same complexity of filtering of information applies to the key selected sources of insight – the project managers and their ‘subjectivist bias’ (Adler-Nissen et al., 2013, p. 103). Moreover, Bourdieu rightly indicates also the importance of the situatedness of the offered insight: “the participant is likely to be governed in his actions by several interests, purposes, and sentiments, dependent upon his specific position, which impair his understanding of the total situation […] What is meaningless for an actor playing a specific rȏle may well be highly significant for an observer and analyst of the total system […].” (Bourdieu, 1990, p. 36) Habitus is “the principle of selective perception of the indices tending to confirm and reinforce it rather than transform it […]” (Bourdieu, 1990, p. 64). That is why attention should be paid at the selection stage of invited experts for interviews. In case of the selected scope of the Southern Neighbourhood, the diverse geographical representation might contribute to the richness of the acquired insights. Interviewees perspectives are affected by the subfield and corresponding habitus – institutional and national settings – which shape their judgement.

It should be also added that what matters is not how narrow-minded are the interviewees in comparison to a notional comprehensive picture as “the ‘big T’ truth” (Adler-Nissen, 2016, p. 13). No matter how seemingly narrow or broad their judgements, all of them are valuable as important components which contribute to the construction of the meaning of implicit science diplomacy practices towards the EU Southern Neighbourhood taking place in the context of a “shared, dispersed and disaggregated” sovereignty (Adler-Nissen et al., 2013, p. 182).

The theoretical foundations of practice tracing increases the author’s awareness about the dubious nature of an attempt to capture and dissect the essence of practice since “accounts of practices are interpretations of interpretations” leading to an acknowledgement that “there is no point in trying to show that the practices discussed in a scholarly account correspond exactly to what practitioners do” (Bennett et al., 2015, p. 250). However, such considerations are not discouraging the research project’s author from keeping apace with the latest developments in the policy implementation and theorise these processes or ‘sobjectivise’ by building new ‘experience-distant’ theoretical layer of science diplomacy as a component of the EU structural diplomacy based on the acquired “messy arrays of practice” in the form of ‘experience-near’ insights (Adler-Nissen et al., 2013, p. 50; Bennett et al., 2015, p. 244; Pouliot, 2007).



Adler-Nissen, R. (2016). Towards a Practice Turn in EU Studies: The Everyday of European Integration. Journal of Common Market Studies54(1), 87–103. Retrieved from http://static-curis.ku.dk/portal/files/162256180/Practice_turn.pdf

Adler-Nissen, R., Pouliot, V., Villumsen Berling, T., Guzzini, S., Mérand, F., Forget, A., … Guiraudon, V. (2013). Bourdieu in International Relations: Rethinking Key Concepts in IR. (R. Adler-Nissen, Ed.), The New International Relations Series. London, New York: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group. https://doi.org/10.4324/9780203102282

Bennett, A., Checkel, J. T., Jacobs, A. M., Schimmelfennig, F., Waldner, D., Evangelista, M., … Pouliot, V. (2015). Process Tracing: From Metaphor to Analytical Tool. (A. Bennett & J. T. Checkel, Eds.), Kwalon (Vol. 19). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. https://doi.org/10.5553/kwalon/138515352014019003004

Bourdieu, P. (1977). Outline of a Theory of Practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Retrieved from https://www.hf.uio.no/ikos/english/research/news-and-events/events/phd/2017/reading-list-power-and-authority-Bourdieu.pdf

Bourdieu, P. (1990). The Logic of Practice. Stanford: Stanford University Press. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF00680104

Cornut, J. (2015). To be a diplomat abroad : Diplomatic practice at embassies. Cooperation and Conflict50(3), 385–401. https://doi.org/10.1177/0010836715574912

Keukeleire, S. (2017). Decentring the analysis of European foreign policy (2/9): How to decentre? Exploring EU Foreign Policy. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yucVBDCFwNo

Pouliot, V. (2007). “Sobjectivism”: Toward a Constructivist Methodology. International Studies Quarterly51(2), 359–384. Retrieved from https://www.jstor.org/stable/4621718