A glance through the keyhole

A fieldnote from Oslo, Norway (October 2013)

Estimated reading time: 2 minutes

The bus is slowing down. I switch off the radio I was listening to, pack away the headphones, connecting to the world again. I get off the bus, look around in search of a young lady – my interview partner of the day. We never met before. But we both know that we are going to talk about very private stuff, now, very soon. More or less without any foreplay.

I am going to briefly explain the context of my current research project, trying not to put the level of expectation to high. I want to create an atmosphere of relaxed confidence, as if not every word were going to be registered on my recorder and later being transcribed and analysed. No, I want to create an amicable ambiance, where my vis-à-vis doesn’t feel the interview situation anymore. It demands a lot of concentration from my side, not loosing the overview in all that laid-back setting. Often it works. It is a good feeling.

We talk about belonging and heimat, about leaving the country of origin, and arriving at a new place. We discuss early family memories and stories, feelings and emotions for parents and siblings, longing after old friends and loved places. And I get to know dreams and visions about the future of my interviewee. The conversation feels intimate, almost as we had been good friends for a long time.

And still – every time in this kind of interview situation there is a moment of anxiety. What am I doing here? Who gives me the right to penetrate somebody’s live with my curiosity, asking questions the person wouldn’t think about, insisting on details she doesn’t consider important? It is this brief reluctance, which for a second makes you question your own profession. I guess this is a very healthy moment.

It is crucial to be aware of the high privilege we have when doing fieldwork, entering peoples live, getting a glance on some very intimate thoughts, sharing moments of long thought lost memories. And then to realize how much the stories enrich our (professional) lives, in the very moment of the experience.

All this happens long before the with meaning loaded words turn into working material and then later are going to be put in categories and edited into an analysis. In this very first moment of the interview experience we are not more and not less than a lucky individual who can catch a glance trough the keyhole to somebody else’s life. The questions remains open: How do we deal with the responsibility of knowing so many details about somebody’s life? Where are the ethical boundaries of friendship between researcher and interviewee? And how to draw a line there?


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