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Research diary: Interview reflections

To conclude my MSc in organisational psychology, I am conducting a research project which looks at the moral discourse in the defence industry; in other words, how do people working for defence companies experience and talk about the potential moral challenges which come with being part of this industry, given the products it generates, the possible consequences of their use, and other considerations around the international market for defence material. I am using qualitative methods, particularly interested in lived experiences, and how people articulate and frame them. Over the past two months, I conducted what is referred to as the "data collection" phase of the project, a rather dry name for the 15 interviews, which I found to be an extremely rich, absolutely fascinating, and somewhat humbling experience, for which I wanted to put down and share a few reflections. In this article, I reflect on my role as interviewer, the impact of the interviews on the participants, and lessons I take away. Actual findings from the process are still a good few weeks away, and will be subject of a later article, once I have completed the in-depth analysis of these interviews, which I am now eager to get started on.

Recruiting participants

The protocol on recruiting my interview participants, which I had agreed with my supervisor, stipulated that I would recruit participants from within my LinkedIn network. After a few years working in the industry, and connections from within it in the hundreds, I was quite confident that this wouldn't be an issue. And in truth, it wasn't really, although it took a little more effort than I was, naively, anticipating (spending an hour having a chat with Moi, surely an offer that can't be refused??). Some of the challenges encountered were, in themselves, interesting in the context of the research. Some people had concerns about sharing views on their company or the industry, despite the guarantee of confidentiality (which I can absolutely appreciate and wouldn't blame anyone for), others were very honest in their response that thinking about their own moral values in relation to their work is something they are actively trying to stay away from, and were concerned that an in-depth discussion might open Pandora's box, and trigger some personal reflection they weren't prepared to have, something I had the utmost respect for and showed a great level of self-awareness and honesty. Those responding positively to my invitation to participate also expressed varied motivations, some simply happy to help, while others showed great personal interest in the topic, and admitted regularly thinking about it. In the end, I feel grateful to have had around 50% of the people I asked respond positively and dedicate some of their time to my research.

Independent researcher?

For those who consider that effective research relies on total impartiality and neutrality of the researcher, my work may come across as flawed from the start. Indeed, not only do I already know my research participants, seeing as they are LinkedIn contacts, and for some, former colleagues; in addition, most are aware of the personal decision I made to leave the defence industry a few months ago, on the back of the challenges I personally faced from a moral standpoint (more on this in an upcoming article..). There is much to be said on this topic, and I would argue that aiming for total researcher objectivity and impartiality, or claiming for this to be the case, would be questionable. After all, research interest themselves are often rooted in the researcher's own lived experience or frame of reference, and this positionality cannot be ignored. To quote the words of an academic friend, I believe in doing research with people rather than doing research on people. Of course, I have followed the same interview guide with all participants, and refrained from sharing any in-depth personal opinion during the interview. And interestingly, very few references were made by participants to my own experience in the defence industry, and even fewer to my more recent circumstances - even though I couldn't help but wonder sometimes if some were subtly implied.. Still, I can't ignore how my circumstances might have had an impact on how participants decided to respond, and an important part of my analysis and write up will be to acknowledge my positionality and work with it as an integral part of the project.

A privileged position

Looking back at the series of interviews, one thing I got on every single occasion was a feeling of being in a privileged position, given how participants were sharing a very honest account of their experiences, and their views. One that they sometimes admitted very rarely talking to others about, and that some make concerted efforts to keep for themselves – something I will explore further in my findings. That said, I was very mindful of how different mine and my participants’ experience was through the interview: it was good to see that they all shared their thoughts and stories in quite a relaxed way; it was their truth, which came quite naturally, and often appeared evident to them. On my end, I could appreciate, as we went along, how rich, complex and heavily contextualised each of these responses were, and couldn’t help (strictly in my head only!) starting to draw parallels between interviews, similarities and stark differences, as well as connect those to some of the theories around moral reasoning and disengagement I am considering for this research. I was also mindful of holding this additional information, and how that in itself put me in a privileged position, which needed to be mitigated through active listening, and brought with it a sense of responsibility.

A significant responsibility

During the process of building the research proposal and defining the approach for running the interviews and managing the data coming out of it, a great emphasis is put on securing ethics approval of the approach, including how any risks or impact on participants might be mitigated. This might seem a little over-zealous for a research project at an MSc level, however conducting the interviews brings to life just how important thinking through these considerations really is. I quickly realised that, through asking some seemingly straightforward questions, I wasn’t, in some cases, only just capturing the reality people consciously held in their head, but triggering a deeper reflection process, one which could have the potential to create some ripple effects beyond the interview. This is mitigated by providing access to supporting resources following the interview, and I don’t believe my interviews would have got people into a position where these would have been necessary; it is a much more subtle impact, however one which cannot be ignored or brushed aside. The other, more obvious responsibility comes with confidentiality and anonymity. This is a core foundation of the process, one which cannot under any circumstances be compromised, and enables the researcher to put themselves into this privileged position. This was important in my view to start with, and became even more critical as I started gathering people’s personal stories and perspectives, making this responsibility feel very real indeed, as a matter of academic rigour, but most importantly as a simple mark of respect.

15 versions of reality

A final reflection I would have on the interview process comes back to the variety and richness of what participants were prepared to share with me. Early on in the research proposal process, I positioned myself as adopting a social constructionist position. This is something I have talked about in earlier articles, and effectively is the assumption that our view of the world is individually constructed through our own thinking process, which is influenced by a variety of factors, individual and contextual, as opposed to the view that there is a social reality out there which can be effectively mapped and predicted. Of course, I have identified certain patterns through my interviews, however wouldn’t go as far as trying to generalise these across a broader population. And beyond these patterns, what I have collected are 15 clearly distinctive versions of what working in the defence industry means. From my perspective, trying to understand how people come to present this the way they do, why they talk about certain things, do not talk about others, and how their own history, their surroundings, and their personal experiences play a part in shaping all this is where the interest really is. It is also the value which I think this research can be adding, an appreciation from organisations of the need to take into account all those individual perspectives, and learn how to explore and understand them.

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