Creating a Good Balance between Detachment and Involvement in Biographical Research

Wednesday, 18 July 2018: 18:15
Oral Presentation
Gabriele ROSENTHAL, Center of Methods in Social Sciences, Georg-August University of Göttingen, Göttingen, Germany
How can we succeed in creating the necessary balance in biographical research between detachment and involvement (necessary not only for good research)? When conducting biographical interviews and during their subsequent analysis, we are constantly confronted with the problem of how to show sympathy and understanding in our interaction with the interviewees on the one hand, while at the same time maintaining the critical distance that is needed when reflecting on their individual and collective self-presentations, and formulating questions in the interview (or in the observation situation). We are faced with the same dilemma when analysing the interviews and when making a contrastive comparison with interviews conducted with a different grouping. Thus, in the case of returned child soldiers in northern Uganda, I was aware of a tendency to identify with them and their fate, and consequently failed to understand the attitude of their relatives, who often refused to let them live in their compounds or tried to exclude them from their local and social community of origin.

In very general terms, we can say that while empathy is important in our relationship with interviewees, this always involves the risk of accepting their presentations too quickly, and perhaps too naively, and of failing to ask important questions. By contrast, maintaining a critical distance makes it difficult to conduct a good interview and to establish a relationship of trust with the interviewee. This dilemma is particularly acute when conducting research on armed collective conflicts or intrafamilial violence.