One of the most meaningful concepts in qualitative research is that of “Othering”; that is, the concept of “us” versus “them” that presents itself (knowingly or not) in the researcher-participant interaction. Othering is an important idea across all qualitative methods but it is in the in-depth interview – where the intensity of the interviewer-interviewee relationship is pivotal to the quality of outcomes – where the notion of Othering takes on particular relevance. As discussed elsewhere in Research Design Review, the interviewer-interviewee relationship in IDI research fosters an “asymmetrical power” environment, one in which the researcher (the interviewer) is in a position to make certain assumptions – and possibly misperceptions – about the interviewee that ultimately play a role in the final interpretations and reporting of the data. It is this potentially uneven power relationship that is central to the reflexive journal (which is discussed repeatedly in this blog).
In 2002, Qualitative Social Work published an article by Michal Krumer-Nevo titled, “The Arena of Othering: A Life-Story with Women Living in Poverty and Social Marginality.”1 This is a very well-written and thought-provoking article in which Krumer-Nevo discusses the “sphere of power relationships” in IDI research, an environment in which the interviewer and interviewee are continuously swapping their power status – “One minute I was the ‘important’ interviewer, with power and status…and the next minute I would find myself facing a closed door” (p. 307). In this way, the Other (or “us”) in Othering moves back and forth, with both interviewer and interviewee attempting to socially define and/or control the other.
From the perspective of the interviewer, it takes more than keen listening skills (something discussed many times in this blog, esp., in October 2013 and April 2011) to delve beyond unwarranted assumptions concerning the interviewee, it also takes a keen sense of one’s own stereotypical “baggage.” In her IDI research with women “living in poverty,” Krumer-Nevo found herself in a stereotypical trap by way of “seeing [the interviewee] as a victim” rather than seeing the strengths and contributions made by the impoverished participant. By succumbing to the notion of victim, Krumer-Nevo was defining this interviewee in a flat, one-dimensional, stereotypical way instead of perceiving the complex, multi-dimensional character she was.
Krumer-Nevo is right when she talks about the need to resist Othering in IDI research and, particularly, the tendency to define our research participants by our own socio-economic or theoretical framework which blinds us to the reality of the very subject matter we want to know more about. Shedding our stereotypes means putting “aside the normative knowledge acquired from one’s membership in a society, a family, an educational system of values [because] the values, positions, and attitudes acquired in the process of socialization…work against the ability to understand those who live in poverty [or in situations unfamiliar to us]” (p. 316).
Resisting stereotypical beliefs – resisting being the Other to the other – is one critical step all researchers can take in their IDI research towards achieving quality data outcomes and credible, useful interpretations of the findings.
1Krumer-Nevo, M. (2002). The arena of othering: A life-story study with women living in poverty and social marginality. Qualitative Social Work, 1(3), 303–318.