Emotions Re-visited: Autoethnographic Reflections on a Qualitative PhD Thesis Using Semi-Structured Interviews. A Tale of Politicians, Professors and Ombudsmen

Published 15/06/2016
Type Article
Author(s) Dr Sabine Carl
Corresponding Authors Dr Sabine Carl, Senior Researcher, Max Planck Institute for Foreign and International Criminal Law

Crewe (2014: 393) holds that ‘emotions, feelings, and subjective experiences […] shape our research interests and decisions, and their documentation, therefore, illuminates the shape and findings of our studies’. This article examines the choices made for and during one particular PhD research project – through the course of which this author interviewed out-spoken politicians, persuasive professionals and quirky professors. This is done to extend the traditional scientific writing of the published thesis to reveal those ‘bits that most readers want to know’ (Becker, 2008: 90), which – in accord with the aim of this special issue – is to allow early-stage researchers to anticipate ‘how they will “feel”’ (Jewkes, 2011: 64) during the research process and how their work may be influenced by their own subjectivity. Writing this personal reflection has opened up new self-perspectives. In inviting others to pursue these autoethnographic reflections, I hope to encourage early reflexivity and embolden others to embrace the external and internal challenges of criminological work. To this end this article concludes with a set of questions designed to assist early-stage researchers in their reflective process.

When this author was approached by the then chair of the early-stages and post-graduate researchers working group (EPER) of the European Society of the Criminology with the idea of hosting an autoethnographic panel at the Eurocrim 2014 in Prague, some very careful review of the debate started, in the field of criminology, by Jewkes (2011: 63) preceded any commitment. In light of the ‘tradition of relative silence amongst researchers on the experience of undertaking in-depth ethnographic work’ in criminology and the resultant ‘gap in the methods literature on what to expect when carrying out research in the field’ (Sloan and Drake, 2010: 24) the demand for such a panel was easily apparent. The unprecedented level of attendance reaffirmed the thirst for guidance on ‘how to process and utilise their emotional experiences’ (ibid). As social research is a ‘craft occupation, in a large part “learned on the job” through apprenticeship, experience, trial, and error’ (Seale, 1999: 475), this knowledge gap exists principally for early-stages researchers.

This is where the value of autoethnographic writing as a way of knowledge transfer sets in. To recall a quote ascribed to Otto von Bismarck, ‘Only a fool learns from his own mistakes. The wise man learns from the mistakes of others.’ Accordingly, this author willingly offers up personal reflection for the advancement of others. To avoid the label of narcissistic navel-gazing often ascribed to autoethnographic writings, this fool aims to hop, skip and jump right over the ‘stage’ of evocative autoethnography with its goal of creating a ‘shared emotional space through autoethnographic stories, poetry, images or prose’ to analytic autoethnography with its ‘greater commitment to the critical and analytical spirit of realist ethnography’ that ‘[…] is not so much a method of self-investigation, but a technique of social investigation conducted through the self’ (Wakeman, 2014: 707).

Analytic autoethnography has been selected since this author neither intends to benefit her soul by means of a confessional tale (Peshkin, 1988: 17) nor to perpetuate a ‘sort of positivist fraud’ (Ferrell, 2012: 218) by clinging to the chimera of objectivity. Instead, this article aims for a middle ground along the long continuum that stretches between these two scholarly impossibilities (ibid) hoping to derive meaning by establishing a joint emotional space, created through sharing of lived experience, that forms ‘the basis of analysis rather than constitute[s] the account’ (Liebling, 2014: 484). Since ‘reflexivity is a process which continues long after leaving the field and completing the research’ (Lumsden, 2012: 4), it comes as no surprise that since the memento of academic self-reflection generated for the 2014 presentation in Prague, approximately two years after shipping the thesis manuscript off to the publishing house, this author has since progressed along the road of autoethnographic understanding that shall now be shared with the intent of benefitting others.

This article will first discuss the specific purpose and value of and approach to criminological autoethnography. This is followed by a brief depiction of the research type and an analysis of this author’s motivation for the conducted research. The scrutiny moves on to the revisited emotions experienced during and after the three semi-structured interviews conducted during the fieldwork. It will then go further by also including, as (self)-perspectives gained, reflections on research outcome concluding with a set of questions designed to assist the reflection process of early-stage researchers.

Value, Purpose and approach
Is it still necessary to defend the value of autoethnography? The answer appears to depend heavily on both the timing of the question as well as the quantitative or qualitative preferences within a specific scholarly discipline. While the autoethnographic turn reached social sciences such as educational sciences well before the end of the last century (Peshkin, 1988; Lumsden, 2012), ‘[w]ithin criminological research, the positivist roots of the discipline still assert a strong hold, and emotions such as confusion and empathy are more likely to be condemned than cherished. Anomalies and contradictions may well be ignored, made invisible or denounced’ (Farrant, 2014: 465). Due to the courageous interdisciplinary cross-fertilization efforts initiated by Jewkes and others this stronghold is currently under on-going attack.

The purpose of autoethnography, and with it the purpose of this piece, can be determined either from a researcher, or a research-focused perspective. While the former caters more to the interest of early-stages researchers, the latter serves to improve the quality of research itself. While every researcher and research situation is unique, reading the accounts of other researchers may serve as a preparatory instrument. This is due to the fact that ‘rich description is akin to actual experience’ in allowing to anticipate the own emotional response as well as the confusing blurring of professional and personal identities determined by and in turn influencing the “inner worlds” of fieldworkers (Liebling, 2014: 481; Jewkes, 2011: 65). Wherever this ‘discovery of the self through the detour of the other’ (Hunt, 1989: 42) breeches the level of the subconscious and is made explicit, it may prevent an over-emphasis on researcher voice, which still leaves much academic latitude for autoethnographies to ‘vary in their emphasis on the writing and research process (graphy), culture (ethnos), and self (auto)’ (Reed-Danahy, 1997: 2). The acknowledgement of subjectivity humanizes the emotionally sterile research process and enriches the analysis by accepting feelings as ‘reasonable – and hence rational – subjective judgements about objective experiential worlds’ (Yar, 2009: 8). As ‘authors use their particular knowledge and experience to illustrate problems with and failures in extant research’ this acts to fill ‘experiential “gaps”’ (Ellis, 2014: 262). Consequently, ‘[a]mbiguity, anomalies, complexities, and contradictions rather than being “matter out of place” […] became fruitful sites of analysis and research practice’ (Farrant, 2014: 462). The positive outcome of this process, that includes acknowledging the underlying motivations for research interest, is the generation of ‘honest’ knowledge. If we are conscious of how we and others ‘“I-witness” our own reality constructions’ (Spry, 2011:706) it alleviates the inherent flaw that ‘[…] while ethnography can and should be carefully attuned to the dynamic of groups and situations, it cannot be made to be “objective” – it cannot be honestly divorced from the ethnographer’s own reflexive presence in the research process’ (Ferrel, 2012: 218).

How then is this meaningful reflection on the links between our emotional and biographical experiences and the outcomes of our research to be achieved (sic. Lumsden, 2012: 3) since subjectivity in itself is irremovable? While this author did not follow the approach of extensive (personal) journaling during the fieldwork, the practiced method of continuous informal exchange with fellow researchers in various stages of their own career helped in seeking out one’s own subjectivity that ‘inescapably’ shapes one’s inquiry and outcomes (Peshkin, 1988: 17). Unlike Peshkin this author believes that active subjectivity-monitoring during the research process, while certainly a sensible activity, is not necessarily superior to retrospective analysis. Whilst being embroiled in fieldwork, personal blinkers frequently forbid stepping back even for the benefit of possible adjustments to one’s subjectivity. Restrictions on granted funding often forbid serious changes to research plans. Accordingly, this pre-dominantly (retrospective) self-analysis will combine Ellis and Lumsden’s suggestion to reflect deeply on the personal experience, social location and background (including gender, ethnicity, age, social class, religion, political beliefs and so on) that predetermined the selection of this particular research topic and how these circumstances ‘may have influenced various aspects of the research process’ (Ellis, 2014: 268; Lumsden, 2012: 3).

Type of research
The research underlying this autoethnographic reflection was conducted in Germany and the United Kingdom from 2009 to 2012 as a doctoral research project on the proliferation and implementation of prison ombudsmen. Due to the subject matter at hand the research was based on a comparative, qualitative design employing grounded theory methodology. In order to uncover all available information this author conducted semi-structured interviews with all ombudsmen and influential politicians available. The research findings are now published under the title ‘Proliferation and Implementation of Prison Ombudsmen. Comparative Analysis of the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman for England and Wales and the Justizvollzugsbeauftragter des Landes Nordrhein-Westfalen’ (Carl 2012).

As usual for qualitative research the number of available research subjects was rather limited. After trying to contact earlier incumbents of the two ombudsman posts and other politicians discovered by means of the literature review, the author was only able to conduct three interviews due to inaccessibility or ill-health of further research subjects. Reybold et al. (2012: 699) consider participant selection to be ‘one of the most invisible and least critiqued methods in qualitative circles. Researchers do not just collect and analyze neutral data; they decide who matters as data. Each choice repositions inquiry, closing down some opportunities while creating others.’ Reflecting on my own choices, this holds definitely true. While this author did track down the German central political figure for an interview, more of an effort could have been expanded on triangulating the results especially with members of the parliamentary opposition. In light of the introduction of the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman (PPO) as early as 1990, little effort was expended to track down British politicians of that time pointing at the twenty year time lapse as well as financial and time restraints. However, gaining access to an interview partner might have brought valuable information as to the legal transplant process of the institution. In retrospect, closing down these avenues of data collection may have inclined research results to show an overall favorable predisposition to the ombudsman institution. While purposeful selection may be a successful strategy for obtaining rich data, it leaves the young researcher open to unconsciously spinning or even consciously manipulating the research findings that are constructed through researcher choice and interpretation (Reybold et al., 2012: 700, 713).

While all interviews were semi-structured, some variation as to the interview structures was unavoidable. Two of the research subjects were ombudsmen – one German and one British, with the only politician being a German. All interview situations highly differed prior, during and after the fieldwork. Due to the space constraints of this article the author selected those two interviews providing the richest ground for reflection. Since frequently not only the emotive researcher is lacking from the final research product, but the participants as well (Wakeman, 2014: 707) this author will, unlike in her published thesis, use rich description to mimic the actual interview experience.

The research underlying this reflection was undertaken by a female in her mid-twenties freshly out of law school with a well-to-do upper middle-class background in which earning a doctorate degree was considered simply upholding the family standard. That the author chose to specialize in criminal law and criminology almost counted as living out a rebellious streak. And yet, since the thesis research took a comparative law approach and focused on prison ombudsmen, the resulting conglomerate of policy analysis, human rights and international perspective was considered suitable enough. The selection of the research topic resulted – as in many cases – from the arousal of curiosity through chance.

In this case the author was, in a blind-process, set the question of the ‘Usefulness of Implementing a Prison Ombudsman in Germany’ as the take-home essay question for her criminology specialization. Albeit knowing that the person having set the exam had previously argued against prison ombudsmen in the German parliament (Bundestag), this author, after faithfully researching this matter for weeks, chose to make an argument in favor – earning not only a mediocre grade from the first examiner but also his scathing red-inked remark in the blind examination process “I am personally offended that the candidate has taken this standpoint”. While this is of course highly unprofessional behavior by the examiner, it ignited this author’s insistent opposition. In retrospect this might be due to the previous stance this examiner had taken during a very small seminar course of ten students on penal law, which he enjoyed running as his intellectual stimulation beside his everyday work as a prison governor. During that course he had benevolently smiled upon this author’s eager application for an essay and subsequent presentation on the set topic of ‘Religion in prison’. According to the examiner in his 20 years of teaching that exact course nobody had ever even considered the topic, but it ‘looked like a suitable topic for a Fräulein (young Miss)’. The excellent mark received for this piece could never blot out the stain of having been pre-judged based on at least gender and social class if not age and religious beliefs as well. Making the most visible, compelling case possible for prison ombudsmen may thus in part be construed as a personal vendetta. Three years of cooling off have eventually kept this author from gifting the resultant book to an unsuspecting recipient.

While umbrage is a strong motivator it would not have been enough to carry this author through the three years it took to complete this PhD. Another strong motivating factor was certainly to prove self-sufficiency. A doctoral thesis cannot be bought or breezed through by means of plagiarism without severe and highly embarrassing consequences, at least in Germany. Thus, for this author, who is grateful to her parents for supporting her through law school without loans or overly extensive side-jobs, paying for and moving through this career stage was the first experience of ‘independent life’.

Two other motivators have to be acknowledged here. One is that by writing about penal concerns this author felt to take up the family’s active involvement with penal affairs. The latter abruptly ended with the aneurism of the pre-deceased grandfather, Adalbert Schäfer, who was heavily hunted by the German Red Army Fraction (RAF) for being the judge presiding over the Staatsschutzsenat at the Oberlandesgericht Frankfurt and who felt it his duty to keep in postal contact with any willing sentenced prisoners in the hope of encouraging them on their path to rehabilitation. This familial interest in prison life combined with the author’s life-long political curiosity to discover how individual humans shape (penal) policy in reaction to political life events. For an active party member from the earliest possible age (in Germany 16) and an engaged employee with a social media focus supporting a major election campaign, an opportunity to discover the inside story of an individual politician pushing through penal policy was not to be missed. This author now understands that all of these factors formed the motivational back-ground with which she set out on her research.

Emotions revisited
In revisiting her emotions the author aims to open up the discussion on how her gender, class and age impacted on her fieldwork – in particular access to the field, the interview situation itself and post-fieldwork negotiation (c.f. Williams and Treadwell, 2008: 66). The reflection will extend to how she ‘used knowledge of the self or the topic at hand to understand what the interviewee was saying’ (Ellis 2014: 268).

Interviewing the former Minister of Justice
Accessing a Minister of Justice (MoJ) is always difficult, a situation that is compounded further in the case of a former MoJ fully retired from political life. Consequently, all interview requests to the Ministry or the Länder parliament went either unanswered or were denied. With no googlability beyond the Minister’s years in office, all official routes were closed. However, being a member of the same political party, it was not too difficult to identify a personally known, former fellow MP, who would forward a personal request. That interview request was instantly approved. All of the involved politicians as well as the author were female and while it has never been thus pronounced by the former MoJ, it seemed to the author at the time that the interview was a personal favour granted due to an unofficial female mentoring network, common background in law and joint political affinity.

While the setting in the conference room of the former MoJ’s private law firm radiated a stiff atmosphere and the author had correctly anticipated and matched the professional outfit of the interviewee, which indeed very much adhered to the suit choices in politics and law firms all across Germany, the overall feeling of the interview situation was that of a non-academic, familial atmosphere. Noting the author’s pregnancy the MoJ sprung into immediate mothering mode with the remark that during her confinements she always was grateful for every opportunity to pee (sic!) and that the bathroom was right through the door. Even in retrospect this author cannot determine whether this was simply one friendly MoJ or one highly unprofessionally conducted interview. Replacing the situation on a professional footing was definitely outside the competencies of this interviewer. Consequently, after that beginning even with the academic interview structure answers always flowed freely and the interview transcripts show joint laughter in several instances. Whether tactically right or morally wrong, this interview led to some very rich data.

The partial immersion in the community was arguably greater than in all other conducted interviews. Retrospective reflection of this interview case makes it very clear that only the author’s connections to the studied community facilitated access in this instance. The superior understanding of the processes involved in parliamentary work and political realities, including e.g. the concept of a MoJ’s political responsibility for prison deaths that frequently severely endangers any future political career, combined with the extensive literature research done in advance of the interview resulted in a free flowing interview. There was certainly a broad base for emotional identification and possibly even admiration with this particular interviewee that might have been visible for the MoJ, but which proved to be ‘a positive and powerful stimulus in the formulation of knowledge’ (Jewkes, 2011: 69). This interview in particular provided with its openness and the author’s full release of catching qutotations astonishing insight into the why and how of ombudsmen implementation and proliferation. At the time the positive atmosphere during the interview, with it being the first of albeit only three interviews, gave this author the confidence to look forward to the other two interviews that were conducted with two ombudsmen incumbents in Germany and the UK.

Interviewing the JVB
The second interview was conducted with the Justizvollzugsbeauftrager des Landes Nordrhein-Westfalen (North Rhine-Westphalian Prison Ombudsman, JVB) and caused very little problem of access. Since the incumbent’s term had ended just before, two potential interview partners were available. While the previous officeholder refused an interview on the grounds of ill-health, the new incumbent was very willing to be interviewed after a period of some months of getting acquainted with his new role. Before taking the new position, the then new, but now deceased JVB was a well-renowned professor for criminology and penology at the University of Cologne, Germany.

In compliance with best practice standards, this author outfitted all interview requests with an explanatory note addressing the intended interview partner and stating what the research was for, that tape-recording was intended and that these interviews would be quoted in the thesis. This was not an issue for the former MoJ or the PPO. The JVB did not comment upon agreeing to be interviewed. On the day of the interview, this author was surprised that per decree of the JVB, who introduced himself using his title of Professor, the interview was to be conducted with the entire staff present. In retrospective this might be attested to insecurity in the early months of his new position, albeit none can be found when reviewing the interview transcripts. The JVB always replied personally, quickly and in-length. However, the unexpected interview situation caused some hopefully covered-up emotional upheaval with the author feeling over-whelmed, under-prepared and out-numbered 4:1. After having the polite request for a personal interview denied, the author decided to go ahead with the interview in hope of finishing her data collection.

The interviewer began with an in-person re-statement of what the research was for, that tape-recording was intended and that these interviews would be quoted in the thesis. This was acknowledged with a benevolent smile of the grandfatherly figure and the permission given to the ‘girl’ (sic!) to go ahead. While the JVB very willingly followed the structure of the interview, the author felt at the time due to the ‘teaching style’ of the incumbent and the lengthiness of the answers to have entered a remedial criminology class focusing on penal policy. The interview overran the allotted time limit of one hour – proved adequate in both other interviews – by two hours. The transcript shows whole pages with no (successful) input of the interviewer. Even at that time this author was constantly aware that the interview situation was clearly outside of the control of the interviewer. The author has to confess that unlike the first interview with the MoJ – which was left with an added spring in the step of a job, if not well done then at least successfully completed – this interview situation was left feeling exhausted, incompetent and entirely unsure of the quality of the data collected. Closer analysis of the data showed that there was some invaluable information as to the political processes involved in the remodeling of this institution including e.g. the renaming the “Ombudsmann”, so purposefully named by the former MoJ, into the more traditionally German “Beauftragter” in order to reduce institutional independence. All adjustments were influentially shaped by the well-meaning academic opinions of the new incumbent.

After typing up the data into a transcript, this author, following academic standards provided the transcript to the interviewee highlighting the eleven quotations that were intended for inclusion in the thesis. Due to her clear and repeated statements of her intended use of the interview, the author was very surprised when the JVB – unlike both other interviewees – replied that he considered the interview to be confidential and granted for educational purposes only and denied the use of any quotes. At this time the author was well into typing up her research and felt like the last three years of her life were being pulled from under her. In retrospective it might have been possible to write the thesis under the exclusion of this interview, but its argument was definitely strengthened by the inclusion of the nine quotes for which permission was finally given after a week-long struggle involving many emails and uncomfortable phone conversations between the interviewer and the interviewee. Looking back it seems that the interviewee got carried away in this situation falling back into old teaching roles and giving out too much inside information – especially on how much the implementing politicians shaped a young institution to suit their ends using the ideas of a retiring academic willing to take on one last position.

(Self-) Perspectives gained
The reactions and emotions at the time of the interviews were described above. They are much too small and subconsciously enacted to be considered ‘reflections’. However, this author has now twice re-visited her emotions and may thus legitimately be asked about (self-) perspectives gained from this exercise.

The first reflection in 2013 unveiled the extent of the self-deception as to this author’s independence in life and research and has been expounded on above under ‘motivation’. It took another reflection to realize that the predetermination of the author’s academic journey does not negate the purpose and value of her research, but demands it be placed in the proper context so that the readers of said research may judge its merit based on a full account of methodology, challenges of the research and predilections of the researcher. This angle has encouraged this author to extend the description of the research process included in the official PhD publication by means of this article. In listening to the story her research tells about herself, this author gained a better understanding of herself (Jewkes, 2011: 68). Accordingly, the self-analysis has led to a private reassessment of life goals – with some being discarded and others reprioritized.

Concluding with this reflection on self-perspective would neglect the reader’s interest in what may be taken away from this ‘intensely personal and highly individualized experience’ (Jewkes, 2011: 72). What then can be derived from an analysis of the re-visited emotions? How have the experienced emotions during the different interview situations impacted on the findings and their analysis? What are the long-term effects of emotional responses in interview situations?

Reflecting on the MoJ interview, it can be concluded that the emotional connection between the interviewer and the interviewee led to richer results. As to an impact of the emotional dimension on the analysis, it might be considered that the author considered the MoJ’s quotes in a generally positive light by placing them in the favourable context of political realities. Reconsidering the analysis, there would have been equal room for critiquing the noticeably lackadaisical approach to the transplant of a legal concept as a process undergone with the primary intent to save the MoJ’s personal career instead of with any real strive towards prison reform. While this author still believes that the findings were appropriately represented in her write-up, the emotional component certainly affected a limitation on the critique of the individual politician and consequently a possible underrepresentation of the influence of the individuals involved in the introduction on the success of legal transplantation. A long term effect of this interview might be that during her further career this author always strove to commence interviews on a decidedly professional footing before allowing small emotional connections in favour of enriching the data.

The rather more negative emotions experienced during the interview with the JVB had quite a different impact. It certainly made for a more critical analysis of the data collected. The intense discussion involved in organizing the release of the quotations motivated their extensive use to demonstrate the individual and systemic political failings involved in legal transplantation processes. While even in retrospective this analysis seems to be the only possible mode of interpreting the data, it may be assumed that there is a difference in the tone used during the write-up of the analysis. Interestingly, this tone was not itself emotional or critical but rather more formal and professional. This interview had a lasting effect on the author’s approach to the formalities of data collection. While previously the informational protocols were firmly followed, the author has come to understand that these formalities not only shape the expectations and protect the rights of the interviewee but also those of the interviewer. Consequently, when since conducting interviews the author has made interviews conditional on the pre-signed agreement of (where appropriate anonymized) release of research findings. Additionally, the author has made a point to explicitly inquire whose presence to expect and to diligently research all interviewees’ backgrounds.

From this autoethnographic account the early-career criminologist may conclude that whilst emotions impact findings, this can be equally enriching the data and discouraging to the researcher. However, emotions experienced during data collection and analysis, if recognized, must not negatively influence the quality of the research. To increase objectivity, a conscientious effort must be made to step back from the specific research situation. This can be achieved by allowing for some time to lapse between repeated analyses. A loss of data richness can be circumvented by a high-quality early write-up of the data collection process. Due to the above-described experiences, this author encourages an immediate first analysis and a later second (possibly a third) analysis. The eternally ill-fated strive for objectivity may be aided by these questions: How did the interview situation deviate from the ideal scenario? What was my personal influence on this? In what way, on what level did I connect with or felt repelled by the interviewee? How can I avoid/repeat this in the future? How do I feel about this data collection process? What emotions were involved? What findings did I expect? How does the collected data deviate from this? How do I feel about that? What is my first interpretation of the data? Are there other, possibly contrasting lines of interpretation? How would another PhD student, my supervisor, the interviewee or even an uninvolved third party (a radical but helpful image tends to be one’s grandmother) interpret the data? How do I feel about that? Can I perceive an impact of my emotions on my findings or my analysis? Of course, this set of questions neither claims completeness nor represents an obligatory sequence, but may prove a helpful guideline for (self-) reflection. This author’s aim was to set a scene that allows the careful reader to transform the presented personal reflections into an again exceedingly personal ‘understanding of the processes, pleasures, and pitfalls of qualitative inquiry’ (Jones, 2005: 765). She hopes to have at once encouraged the early-stage researcher to embrace the emotional dimension of their research and provided some small assistance in recognizing and handling emotional pitfalls.


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