Revisiting field interviews

I’ve been going back lately to my interviews with French philosophy teachers and students. I just never had time to transcribe or work on most of them during my dissertation, so I have a backlog of dozens of taped interviews, most of which are quite long and rich. I’d like to transcribe all of them, since I’m under less pressure to finish a manuscript right now, and I think they may have some documentary value in their own right.

It’s a strange, intense experience to relive conversations that took place five, six or seven years ago. All the anxieties of fieldwork come back to me; I’m annoyed by my own vague, poorly structured questions, and by the imperfections in my French accent. Often I’m amazed by the richness of my interlocutors’ experience, and their impressive ability to recount things to me, in spite of my limits as an interviewer.

One thing that becomes inescapably clear from these interviews is that the structure of a narrative is a shared accomplishment. I was quite entertained today by a moment where my interviewer took more responsibility for narrative continuity than I did:

Student: [after a long, fast-paced narrative] I dunno if I answered your question.
Me: Uh…
Me: What was my question?
Person: [partly concealed laughsmiles] Uh, the question was about my political history [parcours politique].
Me: Oh yeah.
Person: Voilà.

It’s a bit embarrassing to see that I had forgotten my own question, but what I liked was that, with a bit of smiling at my expense, my incompetence was quickly patched up. In essence, my interlocutor took over my role, established agreement with me (“Oh yeah!”) and then ratified the whole exchange as finished. (“Voilà” is a standard end-of-sequence discourse marker, like English “there you are.”)

Ethnographers are always so dependent on the small kindnesses of others.