Research interviews and the value of new perspectives
Postgraduate Researcher Stuart Bowes discusses his experiences of conducting research interviews and considers their impact on his work with the Royal Armouries.
What do you think of when you hear the word ‘interview’?
For many people, I imagine it will conjure impressions of sitting in an unfamiliar meeting room and having your credentials examined by a potential future employer. I am certainly no stranger to this particular rite of passage. However, interviews can be much more than the final hurdle in the pursuit of a new job. In the form of research interviews, they are a catalyst for the development of original intellectual perspectives.
There are many compelling reasons to conduct interviews as part of a research project: to supplement knowledge from existing sources; to gain the perspective of key individuals on a particular subject; to ask questions tailored to a study’s research aims; to forge a stronger connection between the participants. The list goes on.
For a combination of these reasons, I have decided to undertake a series of research interviews for my PhD project with the staff of the Royal Armouries, my partner organisation. There are few better ways to reveal the intricacies of registrar practice in museums than speaking to those responsible for implementing it.
However, research interviews are more than just an impromptu conversation. They require considerable planning.
I started by working out the basic structure of the interview process: their number, length, format, themes, and so on. This was closely linked to my provisional selection of suitable interviewees at the Royal Armouries, who could be invited to participate in due course. Finally, there was the small matter of drafting the specific questions I would ask.
Alongside these preparations, I had to fulfil a number of administrative obligations so that my interview findings would conform to academic standards. I needed to gain the University of Leeds’ approval in advance by submitting my proposed approach for ethical review. I have also had to secure consent from the interviewees to have their contributions recorded and reproduced. Only with full endorsement from all involved parties could I begin.
Back in November, I enlisted my two supervisors at the Royal Armouries as my first participants. As they both play important roles within the institution and are fully invested in the project, they were the natural choice for my first experience of conducting research interviews. We convened in the familiar space of the online video call, ready to the explore the complex legal frameworks that govern the Museum’s weapons collections.
Screenshot from of Stuart Bowes' online Interview with Laura Bell, Director of Collections at the Royal Armouries, 29 November 2021.
Over the next few hours, we discussed the intricacies of offensive weapons law, firearms law and explosives law, and how the Armouries manages its collections in line with their many requirements. My supervisors shared a wealth of insight into the realities and challenges of this work, their lived experience breathing life into the dry legal texts that regulate weapons collections in museums. Safe to say, I learned a lot that afternoon.
As for interviewing technique, I think I did a reasonably good job for a first attempt. Effective interviews are supposed to resemble a natural conversation rather than a series of staccato questions and answers. I kept our dialogue flowing relatively smoothly on the whole, although there was one alarming moment where I accidentally knocked over my webcam. Otherwise, my pre-interview nerves were proved groundless.
The interviews themselves may have been over, but this did not mark the end of the process. Before any evaluation could take place, I had to transcribe the conversations in full. This is a laborious and time-consuming task, but ultimately a valuable one. It made me engage with the material on a word-by-word basis, the first step in digesting my supervisors’ answers.
With the transcripts complete, I was finally able to analyse the discussions in their entirety. In addition to the direct citation of key evidence, I have used coding to draw out the major themes that emerged from the responses. My writing on the position of museum collections under weapons law has been much the richer for the new insights this method has generated.
Looking back on my first research interviews, it has been a rewarding experience. They have revealed a lot about the inner workings of the Armouries, knowledge that is invaluable to the project yet difficult to obtain from other sources. I especially valued the opportunity to engage closely with the museum and its staff, as the ongoing ravages of the pandemic have so far prevented me from starting my work there as a registrar trainee.
At the same time, this process has revealed areas for growth. I could have been more responsive to my supervisors’ answers, for instance, and relied a little less on my prepared questions. Now that I am aware of it, this is something I can work on for next time. As with all research skills, proficiency in interviewing is gained through a combination of practice and self-reflection.
Now, armed with first-hand experience, I feel better prepared for the subsequent interviews I hope to conduct as part of this project (and perhaps beyond). If they are even half as fruitful as my first efforts, they would still be completely worthwhile.
Ultimately, there are few better ways to examine an otherwise familiar subject from a fresh perspective.
You can follow Stuart’s journey as a Postgraduate Researcher on the Registrars: Training for the Future blog.
Student Counselling Services, University of Leeds. Photo: Andy Lord.