Interviewing – Creating the Space for Views

John Schostak


Manchester Metropolitan University


This is a draft paper, the second part of which is incomplete and was spoken about in the conference seminar – BERA 2004

The inter-view methodology described in this paper has now been fully developed in the book:

Schostak, J.F. (2006) Interviewing and Representation in Qualitative Research Projects, Open University press



Further developments of the ideas in terms of including difference can be seen in:

Schostak, J. F., and Schostak, J. R. (2008) Radical Research. Designing, Developing and Writing Research to Make a Difference, Routledge

The paper is in two parts:  the first is largely 'theoretical'/pholosophical; the second, sketching the implications for the development of projects.  Rather than seeing the interview as a tool employed in research, the concept of the interview is broken apart as inter and view, focusing on the divided space of views when two or more meet face to face.  As such, the approach is deliberately anti-technique.  This anti-techne, if it can be called that, opens up spaces for alternative views, for political and ethical decision making and action.


As I use the term, the inter-view shapes up the moment each consciousness recognises the other as one who desires something, awakening an emptiness, a gap, a lack.  The presence of the other, there, before me, here demands a response to fill the desire the other evokes.  This emptiness, this gap, this lack can be filled in many ways.  It can be filled Hegelian-like with the warrior's desire to conquer. Ever since Kojève, Wahl and Hyppolite introduced the French intelligentia to their readings of the Phenomenology of Spirit it has filled the inter-view space with its problematics positioning those like the surrealists, Sartre, Lacan, Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze and Lyotard amongst others - who would play within and against it (c.f., Descombes 1980, Butler 1999/1987, Roth 1988, Rabaté 2002, Baugh 2003, Davies 2004).  The importance for the inter-view of this French and later Anglo-American readings of the French readings via a melange of translations and collisions with other intellectual traditions is the complexity of positions and counter positions that reading consciousnesses may engage in with each other.  There are in the resulting texts a kind of mapping of the possibilities that face an individual facing another. These resources as a kind of anti-techne can be 'employed' parodically in the production (and de-construction) of a given project.  The full range of resources cannot hope to be covered in this paper.  A few will be elaborated from the central drama provided by the Hegelian struggle to the death between two warrior consciousnesses face to face fighting for mastery.  The problematics of mastery provide the engine, as it were, for the anti-totalitarian, anti-techne approach adopted in this paper in order to explore and engage with the ethical and political spaces of the inter-view.


The Face-to-Face

I start with the face-to-face event where one consciousness is confronted by another consciousness.  This is not the Cartesian event of the solitary ego doubting all in order to generate certainty about what is known and then having problems about the existence of others.  Rather it is more like the Hegelian warriors face to face ready to die to become master.  Doubting the existence of the other in such a circumstance is not likely to be a strategy for survival.  So, the situation I am working on, is when the presence of the other becomes an unavoidable Otherness for each of the face-to-face individuals.  The warrior consciousness is not the paradigm case for all such events.  An alternative is that of a Habermasian-like consensus seeking, or the anarchism of a Kropotkin-like mutual aid.  Nevertheless, co-operation and consensus do imply their other, that of conflict, the warrior consciousness.  Hence, a further way of thinking of the event is of its possibilities for war or peace not as mutually exclusive but as each having the seed of the other within it.  The face-to-face, then, demands some kind of response by those who face each other.  In order to know what kind of response to make requires some kind of judgement about the stance of the other: as warrior, as negotiator, as friend, as lover ... and so on.  Face-to-face each places the other in question – who is this?  What is desired?  What will they do?  And in turn one's own existence is placed into question:  will I survive?  How will I present myself?  What will the other recognise me as?  Such doubts are existential, solitary, eating away at any sense of certainty.  What may such anxiety provoke – a desire for mastery, for stability, for some kind of transcendental solution, some 'first principle', some fundamentalist position that cannot be shaken?

     Each standpoint that can be adopted generates the possibility of a grand project:  the development of a science that would explain all, or an ethics that would ground all in first principles, or a politics that would emancipate all from slavery, drudgery and fear.  Counterposed to this possibility are the antitotalitarian, anti-grand narrative stances adopted by those such as Derrida, Foucault, Deleuze, Baudrillard in their different ways.  Being antitotalitarian, however, does not mean that they escape the Hegelian problematic.  Rather, as in the case of Derrida, there is a kind of infinite delay or deferral of the kind of closure that would lead to the Hegelian form of Absolute Reason under a master signifier that recuperates all differences.  It is here in this space of delayed closure that I situate the inter-view.


The Inter-View

The inter-view is both an ethical and a political space articulated by acts of witnessing, judging and deciding.   Here's an example:


I was really looking forward to Tom starting school 'cos it had been like 10 years I'd been you know, all the time taken up with the children which I adored but I had a real crisis, I was so looking forward to it, as I say I didn't want to get shot of them I just thought I'd have some bit of me back um and I just completely lost it and I cried for a fortnight I completely and utterly lost it and uh Stephen wasn't having any of that so he said you need a job, you need to get out and do something, you know.  I think it's just like self esteem cos you just feel like you've, all you've done (..) I was 35 and I'd got three children, they're great and I'm Stephen's wife and that's great and then where's me uh you know, I just felt like I didn't have an identity.

(from Change to Teaching project 2002)


This is a complex event.  First it is a quote, an extract from a much longer transcription of a particular event called an 'interview with a mature individual training to become a teacher'.  Second, it is placed within a text with appropriate markers setting it off from what may be called the 'body' of the text.  Third, this citation refers in some way to other written texts (as indicated by the statement: 'from Change to Teaching project 2002').   Thus it is already intertextual in nature.  Fourth, it gestures towards being representative of some other event that was the occasion of its production as talk between an interviewer and an interviewee.  Fifth, it reports other events supposedly 'contained' within the 'life story' as some sort of bigger, more comprehensive text of the interviewee that somehow defines the identity of the interviewee. Sixth, the interview was undertaken within the context of a project seeking to explore the experiences of people who decide to change careers and opt to train as teachers.  Seventh, it was funded by the TTA as a means of generating insight to aid the recruitment of career changers (see its written up form at:   The list could be extended and each of the points further sub-divided.  The inherent complexity undermines any attempt to fix or master the meanings of this extract and yet the very complexity is generative of meanings. 

     The process of saying something about the extract involves adopting a reading stance, that is to say, an approach that either founds itself on conflict, or upon some presumed consensus, or upon some process of negotiation.  Meaning, for Bloom (1979: 5) involves a combat that consists in 'a reading encounter, and in an interpretative moment within that encounter.'  He is writing of poetry where he argues the need for a strong reading which is also a 'misreading'.  Only through the combat of strong readings do meanings arise leading to interpretations rather than to some single 'truth' or meaning that in some way masters the text.  What might such a strong reading look like?  Derrida (in Bloom et al 1979:77)  for example in deconstructing the word 'survivre'  breaking it up into 'on' and 'live' created the potential for a play of meanings against meanings where not one could saturate or master the whole range of possible meanings:


For ever unable to saturate a context, what reading will ever master the 'on' of living on?  For we have not exhausted its ambiguity: each of the meanings we have listed above can be divided further (e.g., living on can mean a reprieve or an after life, and 'life after life' or life after death, more life or more than life, and better; the state of suspension in which it's over – and over again, and you'll never have done with that suspension itself) and the triumph of life can also triumph over life and reverse the procession of the genitive.


So returning to our interview extract above what sort of reading might be explored that risks an interpretation, that renders explicit the parades of possible ambiguities lurking in each word, each phrase, each stressing one word rather than another, each play of tone?  For an interpretation to take place some sort of decision has to be made.  One word seems to jostle for attention, that of identity.  The interviewee bemoans her loss of identity as the children go to school, leaving her alone, leaving her 'utterly lost'.  How will she survive?

     This, of course, is too easy:  placing Derrida's play on survivre in relation to the extract, spinning it for the rhetorical purposes of this text.  Yet, why not?   In the absence of any final master signifier that is able to gather the single truth of the extract into itself, there can only be either a contest of meanings where the one with the most power wins or some quasi-stable, quasi-master meaning established through consensus as to what it should mean.  So, when the interviewee said she felt that she no longer had any identity, identity seems to be acting rather like a master signifier that had been drained of content, leaving her at a loss.  This empty signifier had to be refilled.  Its refilling was in terms of her husband taking charge and getting her to search for a job.  The political and ethical issues that this raises are clear, at least to those who still care for some degree of freedom, agency and respect for the otherness of the other. 

     First the political:  Laclau (in Mouffe 1996:58) argues that '(d)econstruction is a primarily political logic in the sense that , by showing the structural undecidability of increasingly larger areas of the social, it also expands the area of operation of the various moments of political institution.'  By this he means that because there is an essential undecidability pervading everyday social life, there can be no algorithmic style logic that could simply be programmed to make the right decision and thus the instance of any decision is as Derrida remarks, citing Kierkegaard, an act of madness (Laclau in Mouffe 1996:53; Derrida 1992).  This decision in the context of an essential undecidability Laclau sees as one with the instituting moment of society and thus as political – or hegemonic - since it is 'self-grounded', excludes alternative decisions and is split between being this particular decision and a decision, that is, it seems to me, one held over time and across contexts, more generally, it is a split between the particular and the universal (p. 60).  Essentially, the political is agonistic, that is, founded upon a conflict of views instituted by the decisions that people make and those that they exclude through the exercise of power.  So, our interviewee is driven to take a decision through the insistence of her husband.  Is this an exercise of power?  Or an exercise of caring?  Or the desire to get some peace and quiet?  In many ways, it matters little.  It could be argued that the power lies elsewhere, diffused as it were, subtly framing the possible decisions, shaping them in one kind of direction rather than another.  To explore this requires a detour around the role of 'identity' as some sort of controlling signifier, focusing desire.

     The role that 'identity' is playing in the interviewees account of her loss of identity and what she did to reclaim it is what  Laclau refers to as the empty signifier.   An empty signifier has universalising effects, but essentially no content.  Take for example, the notion of being patriotic.  What it means to be patriotic will depend on the historical circumstances of the time when the call to be patriotic is made.  The content that fills the signifier may be capitalist, fascist, socialist, democratic, revolutionary depending on which faction wins.  Laclau (in Butler et al 2000:82-3) tells the story of a preacher, Antonio Conselheiro, in Brazil unsuccessful for most of his life in gathering followers.  One day he entered a village where people were rioting against tax collectors and said 'the Republic is the Antichrist'.  These words became the universalising signifier gathering the people together, under its banner and starting 'a mass rebellion which took several years for the government to defeat.' In effect, the particular becomes universalised under the signifier.  The effect is to generate a quasi-transcendental which stabilises meanings for a period of time, that is, until another contest takes place.  For Zizek (in Butler et al 2000: 100-1) Laclau's position is that 'each Universal is the battleground on which the multitude of particular contents fight for hegemony,' thus 'all positive content of the Universal is the contingent result of hegemonic struggle – in itself, the Universal is absolutely empty.'

     Bringing all this back to the interview extract, the identity of our interviewee becomes the battle ground for a range of alternative contents.  The battle was soon over since her identity was soon filled with the contents associated with all the steps required to train for a job.  It was indeed a long journey since she started with no qualifications.  It took her six years from taking the exams necessary to get her on a degree course that would then lead to a teacher training course.  Recalling the multiple levels of the inter-view described above it would not be hard to explore the role of the empty signifier within the wider fields of social action and decision making that position the woman as the home maker, the wife, the mother and subsequently make available other contents for the identity-as-empty-signifier as a member of the economic workforce, as a caring professional, as a transmitter of the knowledge and cultural values of mainstream society.  However, this political analysis leaves a gap.  It merely describes a process without making any judgement as to its worth.  Essentially, who ever wins the battle to fill the identities of individuals with particular contents can generate their own books of Reason by which to justify their dominance.  The result does not overcome the Hegelian problematic.  The only reason why Laclau is a radical democrat and Rorty, for example is a liberal democrat is through preference.  Neither see any way of founding their preferences in any first principles.

     In his search for an alternative, Derrida has drawn on Levinasian ethics.  This move draws us back again to the face-to-face event which for me is the foundational instance of the inter-view, that essentially split, impossible space where consciousnesses regard each other at a moment before either battle or friendship, a moment where decisions have to be made but in conditions of undecidability.


If I conduct myself particularly well with regard to someone, I know that it is to the detriment of an other; of one nation to the detriment of another nation, of one family to the detriment of another family, of my friends to the detriment of other friends or non-friends, etc.  This is the infinitude that inscribes itself within responsibility; otherwise there would be no ethical problems or decisions.  And this is why undecidability is not a moment to be traversed and overcome.  Conflicts of duty – and there is only duty in conflict – are interminable and even when I take my decision and do something, undecidability is not at an end.  I know that I have not done enough and it is in this way that morality continues, that history and politics continues.

(in Mouffe 1996 :86-7)


Does this tell us how to judge?  No.  Both the political and the ethical act are radically free.  However, does this freedom mean arbitrary?  No because Derrida moves to what he refers to as a quasi-transcendental to produce a quasi-stability in the otherwise potentially random collapse:


Do I speak just speak of this 'quasi' in an ironical, comic or parodic manner, or is it a question of something else?  I believe both.  There is irony and there is something else.  As Simon Critchley said, quoting Rorty, I seem to make noises of both sorts.    Now I claim this right to make noises of both sorts in an absolutely unconditional manner.  I absolutely refuse a discourse that would assign me a single code, a single language game, a single context, a single situation; and I claim this right not simply out of caprice or because it is to my taste, but for ethical and political reasons.  When I say that quasi-transcendentality is at once ironic and serious, I am being sincere.  There is evidently irony in what I do – which I hope is politically justifiable – with regard to academic tradition, the seriousness of the philosophical tradition and the personages of the great philosophers.  But, although irony appears to me to be necessary to what I do, at the same time – and this is a question of memory – I take extremely seriously the issue of philosophical responsibility.  I maintain that I am a philosopher and that I want to remain a philosopher, and this philosophical responsibility is what commands me.  Something that I learned from the great figures in the history of philosophy, from Husserl in particular, is the necessity of posing transcendental questions in order not to be held in the fragility of an incompetent empiricist discourse, and thus it is in order to avoid empiricism, positivism and psychologism that it is endlessly necessary to renew transcendental questioning.  But such questioning must be renewed in taking account of the possibility of fiction, of accidentality and contingency, thereby ensuring that this new form of transcendental questioning only mimics the phantom of classical seriousness without renouncing that which, within this phantom, constitutes an essential heritage.

(in Mouffe 1996:  81-2)


Compare this with our interviewee's loss of the concrete contents of the signifier and then its replenishing.  In the account there is no hint of parody, no irony in the use of identity as a transcendental signifier.  She is then forever a prey to empty signifiers that draw her under their universalising or transcendental logics.

     There is something of an emancipatory logic to deconstruction that Derrida makes clear:


Emancipation is once again a vast question today and I must say that I have no tolerance  for those who – deconstructionist or not – are ironical with regard to the grand discourse of emancipation.  This attitude has always distressed and irritated me.  I do not want to renounce this discourse.

(in Mouffe 1996 :82)


This then is the final aspect of the inter-view that I want to explore in this paper:  the question of emancipation. 


The Emancipatory Logic of the Inter-View

If we take Derrida seriously in his desire for a deconstructive logic of emancipation, then too often those who would call themselves deconstructionists, or postmodernists or post structuralists in order to undermine hierarchies, and the modernist or enlightenment projects are still working the edges of diffèrance, lost in a maze of incompletions unable to work the gap between here and there. The ghosts of presence, of completion, of closure, of the subject haunt us daily at every point when face to face demands are made, anger is expressed, cries for help are uttered and even when in some rare intimate moment eyes open up to the other, the you I want to be with.  This you and this I, face to face, what is it?

     I ask this not to cause embarrassment nor to shake the foundations of the diffèrance that enables a critique of unthinking empiricism nor of the slavish desires for gold standards that rust and crumble at the first moment of use.  I ask because I want to think about the strange presence of feeling alive that I have.  Maybe this is just my problem and others, more ghostly than I, may be happy in their haunting existence inside the infinite text.  But to those others who feel something, just a little something more than a textual pleasure (or indeed horror) in perceiving the pains or indeed the joys of others and want to engage, not textually alone, but bodily, physically with the world about, I want to think through the notion of the project as an ethical, political and educative space for thinking, feeling, acting and creating.  This project space is precisely the space of hauntings and of engagements.  I call it the inter-view.  It is the space of face to face engagement, of consciousness facing consciousness whether as protagonists, or in subjection, or as equals in friendship, or as lovers or one of the other infinite modalities of being with or confronting the other.  This interface is split in its very essence being nether reducible to the view of the one or the other consciousness.  Hence, it is founded in diffèrance without being reducible to any particular difference.  The inter-view thus exceeds each consciousness and each representation the one may make of the views of the other.  The inter-view is the very condition for desire.  Without the inter-view, there would only be hunger or other felt needs that a world of objects can be used to satisfy.  The recognition of the conscious other places an uncertain space between what one wants and what the other may do in response to any action taken to satisfy a want.  In that sense, uncertainty of decision is an element in a play of recognitions between the one and the other.  The immediacy of satisfaction is deferred by the possibility of an intervening action on the part of the other.  Uncertainty is further complicated by undecidability.  One decision excludes other decisions each having consequences the effects of which cannot be calculated.  In this sense there can be no fulfilment of the desire to mastery over consequences.  Yet, it is possible to imagine future states, incompletely, in critical dialogue with others who also desire to mastery over consequences that can act as quasi-transcendentals guiding action.  It is possible to think through and continually revise and subject to critical deconstruction the conditions that are deemed necessary by people advocating alternative views.  It is possible to think through the conditions for debate and dialogue necessary to explore consequences.  That is, it is possible to generate non-arbitrary politics and ethics that are incomplete and even radically revisable over time.  And time is essential to the play of recognitions, judgements, decisions and review of consequences in the inter-view.  This is an emancipatory logic that does not depend on universal, first principles but does depend on the recognition of the other as a desiring being concerned with consequences: the consequences of taking a stance for war or for peace and friendship.


Resources of the Anti-techne

For resources to be mobilised, all the ways in which structures fix and freeze behaviours, materials, structures, mechanisms, laws and identities into repeatable, auditable, stable patterns have to be undone.  A project mobilises resources in ways that include:  a) disturbing foundational statements by revealing the manner in which they were constructed; b) identifying difference in apparently homogeneous structures, entities and categories, c) exploiting ambiguities, puns, contingent associations of all kinds; d) examining the rhetorical structures through which social action is organised; e) short-circuiting closure by any master or transcendental signifier; identifying alternative quasi-transcendentals, quasi-stabilities that evoke or incite or act as lures for desire; f) opening spaces for dialogue about alternative views that mutually challenge and mutually mobilise desire for alternative purposes.  No doubt the list can be extended indefinitely by exploiting the ways in which the apparently complete, solid, self contained melts, fades, or recedes as the apparent boundaries separating 'this' from 'that' blur.  The result is the generation of a vocabulary for ever in movement, changing.  There is an inventiveness in this process that in subverting the transcendentals and stabilities of formal systems of classifying and reasoning generates a parade of quasi-transcendentals and quasi-stabilities.  That is to say, these are vocabularies that resist fixing and freezing into systems.  They remind and keep open the gap between representation and the referent, the real, the existential. 

     Constructing the resources of the anti-techne therefore involve the exploitation of margins, the porousness of boundaries, the slipperiness of language, the remainders that return to haunt.  Engaging with others face-to-face sets in motion a conflict (or an anxiety as to what might happen next) between 'my' view and 'their' view, that is, my way of organising contents in relation to key (empty) signifiers to (incompletely) satisfy desires (or at least hold anxiety at bay) and theirs.  What ever decision I make about what to do next has consequences – most of which I'll never know about, and most of which will surprise me.  So for instance,



1.  Meeting Jacko


2.  Doing a whole school Action Research Project


3.  Engaging complexly with a large school


4.  Engaging stealthily with organisations and systems


5.  Telling stories



Each of these instances, provide examples of the creation of temporary vocabularies which act as the resources by which engagements with people, environments and texts can  take place.  I give them the status only of quasi-stable resources which are open to deconstruction in other readings and for other agendas.




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