Whose Privilege? On Interviews and Intersectionality

Edwina Fingleton-Smith is (still) a PhD candidate and lecturer at the ANU. Her ethnographic research focuses on how to use energy to maximise development outcomes, drawing greatly on interview data from both urban and rural communities across Kenya. She is also the convener of the Vietnam Field School, an in-country course offered at the ANU where students engage in hands-on qualitative research, so you probably want to be her friend. Through hundreds of hours sitting on uncomfortable stools chatting to people, in places too loud for her recorder to record anything, she has hopefully gained some insight into the interviewing process, particularly into how privilege fits into this sort of research. In this interview, Edwina sits down with, well, herself, to reflect on things, life and the universe.

How do interviews inform research differently to other, more qualitative, forms of data?

I don’t think they do differ so much as they are one of the many bows in a qualitative researcher’s quiver. At its heart, qualitative research is the attempt to understand the world, by understanding individuals. And talking to people is an incredibly rich way of doing it. The responses aren’t always objective — but that’s half the point. Most of the world is a subjective experience — how you experience policies, environments, work, relationships, power … it’s all subjective. So the best way to get a balanced, objective portrait of life is to stitch together all of these personal, subjective stories.

What is the role that privilege plays in research?

Doing qualitative research in a developing country must always start with a deep reflection of privilege. If you are reading this, you are probably someone who is very much winning at global privilege bingo: Accomplished? Fit? Smart? Rich? White? Educated? Talented? Beautiful? Productive? Travelled? Loved? It is important to connect deeply with the power of your position relative to the person you are interviewing. And to reflect on just how unequal that situation is. The next step is to forget everything you have just thought.

Because everything you thought you knew about privilege is now wrong.

Ironically in our attempts to highlight privilege, we use narratives which are very much based in the industrialised world, and that often have very little relevance in poorer countries. So many of the things that we value, the things that we base our privilege on, are not valued at all in other countries. You probably aren’t as successful as you think you are in everybody’s eyes — or at least not seen as successful for the same reasons. And on the flip side, there are tragedies and triggers for people that you’ve never ever dreamed of.

What are some misconceptions about privilege that need to be dispelled?

While I rage against global systems that perpetuate poverty and inequality, it is equally true that not all poor people feel poor. Not every poor person I interview feels a sense of inferiority for being uneducated; nor do they all dream of bigger houses, better cars or more productive farms. This is not because they are not aware of all the options the modern world affords some people, but more because, on reflection, they realise those goals are false gods.

I hate nothing more than the cliché of the happy poor person in a developing country, who has nothing but knows the value of life. It’s lazy, superficial and reductive. However, sometimes there is some truth in it, all the same. Often, poor people are happy to talk about what life is like being poor. Often, they are happy to tell you in great detail how hard and stressful and precarious it is. And often, they will pity you for your life: stressful, busy, distanced from your parents, unwed and unchilded. If you are so busy thinking about how comparatively rich you are, you are forcing your own narrative on another person; more than that, you are missing the opportunity to learn about what their world is really like — that is, to understand through their perspective, where the real adversity of their lives lies, and where prestige and happiness are.

People are so much more than members of a more or less “privileged” group. They are individuals with secrets and dreams, eccentric little foibles, short tempers, cheeky senses of humour. They have had massive successes and horrible pains — some of which they will want to talk about, and some of which they won’t. And not always in that order.

Being afraid of offending people in places and spaces different to our own is something many people can relate to. How can this be navigated?

If you want to interview people and really get to know people, you will ask offensive questions. You must ask offensive questions. If you don’t, you haven’t asked meaningful enough questions. Because the things that mean most to us in life, that tell the most honest stories about who we are, are often the very things that can break us.

This goes for everyone you meet. If you want to really know them, you must know their pain too. But we seem to increasingly shy away from sadness, both our own and that of others. Think about every platitude you have ever uttered to a friend: “At least you got to say goodbye”, “it doesn’t matter”, “you will find someone else”, “just look on the bright side”, “think how privileged you are”. What if, instead of that, we simply said: “That must be hard, do you want to talk about it?”

If we are honest, we are embarrassed and awkward about other people’s failures and heartbreaks. And that embarrassment creates a wall between us. It creates shame and embarrassment for others, even where there may have been none.

If I had to share some sweet interviewing knowledge with someone hoping to go into research similar to mine, my hottest tip would be …

Don’t be afraid! Don’t be afraid of the other humans and don’t be afraid of yourself — you are only human too! You will be clumsy, offensive, insensitive and occasionally brilliant. Sometimes your incredibly insightful questions will get completely dud answers. Sometimes you will be tired, hot, dusty and bored, and suddenly someone will say something that smashes open a brilliant new dimension of awareness about a situation. Go with good intentions and change the world — it’s a cliché, but there are far worse ones to be. And there aren’t as many people trying to do this as you think there are.