Interviewing and the Sociology of Past and Future

At the American Sociological Association meeting in San Francisco last month, I attended two panels that were oriented in very different directions conceptually and methodologically but that together generated some interesting questions. The first panel was a critique and defense of interviewing as a method. The impetus for the panel was Shamus Khan’s recent article, which argued that interviews, as opposed to ethnography, were unsuited to uncovering the causes or motives of action. As Howard Becker remarked in his introductory comments, the general thrust of the critique was not new. Both Alford Young and Alison Pugh were invited to respond to Khan and identified important ways that interviews could add to sociological understanding even if they could not replace other methods. Even if interviews cannot uncover causal forces, they at least access something telling about social life. Young made the crucial observation that people often said very different things in different contexts and that, at least some of the time, you need to remove people from one context to explore different avenues of their thinking. Pugh noted that interviewers were not just “stenographers” (a term Khan used) who capture the ideal presentation of self the interviewee offers. Instead, a good interviewer is attentive to emotion, contradiction, inconsistency, and so on. Moreover, the interviewer brings their own self to the interview.

What struck me most about both Khan’s elevation of ethnography and Young and Pugh’s defenses of interviewing was the temporal character of each argument. Both interviewing and ethnography were bound to the past and present, capturing motivation in the moment or else uncovering something meaningful about the past. Because my own work is interview based, the question I had, but did not ask at the time, was how the interview changes as a method when it is done more than once. In particular, I wanted to know how they thought about the interview as it related to the future. For instance, if you interview someone at one point and they project possible courses of action and their motivations are you able in the next interview to make different kinds of statements about motive based on the actions that the person took. In other words, if people make predictions about the future and provide reasons for those predictions does this change anything in respect to valid claims about motive?

This question arose from my research on narratives and the temporal character of social existence. In Being and Time, Martin Heidegger argues that people are always extended in time and oriented toward a range of possibilities. Picking up on Heidegger’s notion of future-oriented existence, Paul Ricoeur adds that existence is narrative in character. While narratives draw on past events and order them to make sense of the present, they also extend into the future. In fact, narratives derive much of their effectiveness from the plots that describe where people are going. If, as people like Margaret Somers have argued, social life is narratively structured, then can we use multiple interviews to understand how events emplotted in the future orient action?

It was this line of questioning that made the panel on ethnography and interviewing such an interesting point of reference for the panel on the sociology of the future. Each of the talks dealt with a set of problems that confront the study of the future: what precisely is being studied, what is it telling us about social life in the present, and can understanding the future help us predict anything about the future? The future is most clearly marked by tremendous uncertainty, and John Hall made this point with an old communist joke about central planning that turned the notion of future uncertainty on its head. Rather than the future being uncertain in a planned society, it is rather the past that is completely unpredictable. And although Hall noted that scientific knowledge is continually being revised so that what we have known does in fact change, the joke went unremarked upon. In fact, in completely the opposite way from the methods panel, the futures talks were temporally oriented to the future and present.

Yet this joke, I felt, had a great deal of truth to it and raised some interesting questions. After the panel, I asked Ann Mische, who had presented on the different grammars of the future that different organizations use, whether the past was very sticky or whether it was more subject to change. I recalled Richard Sennett’s description of a group of laid-off IBM workers in the 90s who, once they had been fired and found the lives they had expected completely upended, spent their time reworking the past in order to go forward. Hannah Arendt similarly described the challenges that people face when the future is uncertain and there is no possibility of return to the past. At these moments when the normal order of life has been taken away, people may be caught between past and future. To return to Ricoeur, a new plot might require the reordering of past events so that one’s trajectory makes sense. In some cases this might be the ideal presentation of self that Khan was wary of. But it is important to ask what future the past that’s being reconstructed is meant to lead to. It might be less about self-presentation than about existential coherence. And this may be the case for individuals as well as larger social phenomena. For example, as capitalist crises lead people to formulate alternative arrangements for the organization of societies there is a tendency to articulate a new past. Philosophers such as Zizek and Agamben, for instance, have explored early Christian groups who managed to form societies outside of the bounds of contemporary society.

Again, at least in some cases, it seems that the way to get at the movements of the past is through multiple interviews over a period of time. Moreover, taking a narrative approach to interview data may be helpful for thinking through questions of motive. Either way, the study of the past and the study of the future should be more clearly linked.

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