cross-cultural interviewing: feminist experiences and reflections
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Discussions of ‘cross-cultural interviewing’ usually start from the assumed perspective of scholars from and/or based in the Global North studying a group of people from a different ‘culture’. The groups under study are usually from the Global South, or members of immigrant communities from countries of the Global South, who now reside in the Global North. The parameters of cultural difference are assumed to be religion, language, social conservatism, and ‘traditional’ kinship structures and forms of social organisation. In relation to these markers, the researcher is an outsider, and these assumptions of difference occlude other factors that point towards common ground and shared outlook or experience, such as class, age, marital status or maternity, life experience, and political views. At the same time, when it comes to research labelled feminist, there is often a problematic assumption that gender ‘trumps’ other markers of difference, creating an illusion of shared ground that is often misleading and can mask considerable power imbalances.
The great strength of this excellent collection of case studies is its contributors’ conscious efforts to look beyond these taken for granted assumptions about what constitutes cultural difference and, by that measure, what we read as ‘culture’, and to critique and nuance the idea that ‘women interviewing women’ is automatically a more fulfilling and less politically fraught experience for all participants. The book contains thirteen short chapters divided between four sections: ‘Cross-cultural interviewing’, ‘Interviewing in another culture: managing difference’, ‘Intra-cultural interviewing: dealing with hard-to-reach participants’, and ‘The vicissitudes of interviewing “the same”’.
The collection does include accounts of ‘Northern’ scholars (in both the senses detailed above) interviewing ‘Southern’ research respondents, including Beatrice Akua-Sakyiwah’s (then at the University of York, now based at the University of Ghana Legon) chapter on interviewing Somali refugee women in the UK about their experiences of accessing services (Chapter 3), Stephanie Smith on interviewing urban and rural women in Botswana on their attitudes to womanhood (Chapter 5), and Christina Svens on interviewing actors and theatre directors in Iraqi Kurdistan (Chapter 6). In all three of these chapters (and in many others), the question of ‘insider/outsider’ status in relation to the subjects of the study comes up, with the authors concluding that the boundary between these two locations is far from clear and can change over the course of the interview, often shaped by the factors outlined above that are occluded in assumptions about cultural difference. For instance, Akua-Sakyiwah found that the experience of having lived in a highly unequal, patriarchal marriage was something that gave her ‘insider’ status with her research participants, while her level of education pushed her ‘outside’. These three chapters also deal with the more practical aspects of cross-cultural interviewing, such as working through (and with) interpreters and fixers, adapting interview techniques to dominant social mores and customs (for instance, abandoning one-on-one interviews for group interviews), and negotiating access to research participants.
While these accounts are interesting and will be of particular value to students preparing for fieldwork, the real strength of this collection is the work that it does to challenge the assumed boundaries of cultural difference and of what constitutes cross-cultural research. Stevi Jackson, Petula Sik Ying Ho and Jin Nye Na’s very honest account of attempting a cross-cultural, collaborative research project (Chapter 2) is the contribution that really starts this conversation. The authors acknowledge that at its very starting point, their project to explore the impact of social change on mothers and daughters in Hong Kong and the UK ‘was [already] framed in terms of debates that, at least in their origin, are Eurocentric and in which even Asian contributors have tended to take European modernity as the benchmark against which Asian specificity is asserted’ (p. 31). Once the work of gathering interview data had begun, the research collaborators began to understand that the methods they had selected—one-on-one interviewing and the use of vignettes to prompt discussion—were not ‘neutral’ tools but were understood very differently by the UK- and Hong Kong-based researchers, producing very different data. For instance, in Britain, mothers and daughters were interviewed separately, while in Hong Kong, multigenerational living arrangements and rules governing courtesy meant that in most cases, mothers and daughters were interviewed together.
Elsewhere in the collection, authors describe research encounters that fell outside the typical understanding of ‘cross-cultural’, but in which evident ‘cultural’ difference nonetheless had a huge bearing on how they were able to conduct their research and the data that they collected. Hwajeong Kim-Yoo’s account (Chapter 8) of interviewing heterosexual and lesbian co-habiting couples in South Korea (where Kim-Yoo is from) raises thought-provoking questions about disclosing aspects of one’s personal situation during the research process (in this case, sexual orientation), and the paradox of such disclosures acting both as a way of facilitating and as a barrier to access. Patrycja Sosnowska-Buxton raises similar questions in her account of interviewing stepmothers (Chapter 10). Another highly salient point made by Kim-Yoo is that in the context of conducting research in South Korea, age trumped all other markers of cultural difference or similarity, with an older lesbian couple interviewed by Kim-Yoo equally invested as their heterosexual counterparts in maintaining strict age hierarchies.
Age as a signifier of cultural difference in otherwise ‘same-culture’ research encounters is also an issue taken up by Angelika Sjöstedt Landén and Anna Sofia Lundgren, in their chapter on intergenerational interviewing (Chapter 13). Sjöstedt Landén and Lundgren write of how the older women whom they interviewed used shared gender identity as a way of stressing similarity, and age as a way of stressing difference, but that together these amounted to ‘efforts to achieve consensus’ (p. 211). Sjöstedt Landén and Lundgren also write extensively of the use of silence by their research participants as a source of power, to close down discussion of particular topics or to withhold information that the researcher is trying to obtain. Sosnowska-Buxton also discusses the use of silence by research respondents, although in this case she interprets this as a form of self-censorship and self-protection.
Finally, while not directly connected to the issue of ‘cross-cultural interviewing’, the (I would argue politically) important question of emotions in qualitative research, and how these should be reflected and incorporated into the analysis of data, is addressed to a greater or lesser extent in every contribution, but particularly those by Akua-Sakiwah, Smith, Sosnowska-Buxton and Katarzyna Wolanik Boström (writing on interviewing fellow Polish professionals who had migrated to Sweden, and Polish professionals who had remained in Poland—Chapter 11). The most explicit example is Ida Elin Kock’s account of ‘friendship as method’ in her research with sex workers in Norway (Chapter 9) and the wrench of ‘separation anxiety’ she felt when it came time to begin writing up her research: ‘… in the field, my ideas of the researcher as friend and non-hierarchical relationships had seemed the most natural thing in the world, but as I was leaving, the poignant sense of a shift in power relations, of “writing up” the results of these relationships, filled me with horror’ (p. 153).
Overall, this is a fascinating and thought-provoking collection that will prove particularly useful for students and for those teaching research methods. That said, it also provides much to reflect upon for more established scholars. My only wish is that it had included more contributions from scholars based outside of the Global North and, in particular, of their experiences of cross-cultural interviewing ‘the other way’.