As I sat in a conference a couple of weeks ago, reflecting on the time I’ve spent over the last year gathering data, I was suddenly filled with a strange panicked thought: why did I interview my participants? The initial answer is obvious: because that’s what you do when you’re trying to find things out about people and what they think — how else are you supposed to know if you don’t ask them? The data I’ve gathered has been more or less what I needed. People have told me about their experiences and as I’ve analysed the data, patterns are starting to emerge in how people talk about their experiences and there have been commonalities that are worth noting.
At the same time, the panic I felt, was the result of wondering, but what if people just told me things that were limited to what I asked about. What if there was something else that I needed to investigate, something beyond the limited questions that I asked and much more important than whatever it was I asked about.
This panic passed relatively quickly as I thought about it more: I had spent a lot of time with people just chatting, visiting them in their organisations and places of worship, having cups of coffee and tea with them, reading the literature, reflecting on my own experiences living in the city for eight and half years. Of course, there would always be limits to the data I collected, but the questions I asked were oriented toward the things I was investigating and the answers have revealed important and noteworthy findings.
But I do still wonder if I’ve put too much focus on the interviews as ‘data’ because they are something concrete. Unlike my notes, I treat them as more objective in some way, like they have a kind of truth that’s more tangible. I wonder what other data I could have collected, and what other things I might collect when I expand this project in the future: the recordings of worship services or websites or communications between people in a community. The interview transcripts are certainly not bad and any kind of data that is collected is oriented towards the collector in some way. There’s no magic reality where the researcher can be a kind of Emersonian transparent eyeball perceiving the world. That said, I think it’s important to treat these transcripts as only one part of the project and go back to those original notes I made when I met with people informally and give them another look in light of what I know now at the end of the project.