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Using objects to help facilitate qualitative interviews

by Signe Ravn

Doing empirical research on imagined futures is a methodological challenge. As scholars have argued, generating rich insights into how such futures might look can be difficult as participants may produce somewhat generic or stereotypical accounts of what the future might hold or even refuse to engage in such tasks (which of course provides other insights). Over the past decade, these challenges have led many qualitative researchers to explore different forms of creative, arts-based and/or participatory methods to approach the topic in new ways. In some cases, these approaches have been productive, and in other cases they lead to new questions about how to then interpret the findings. And sometimes they don’t really generate more concrete insights after all.

In my longitudinal research on the everyday lives and imagined futures of young women with interrupted formal schooling, I also used various creative methods to break away from the traditional interview format and to seek to approach the ways in which participants imagined their futures from multiple different perspectives. This approach was inspired by Jennifer Mason’s work on facet methodology. In my recent paper for the International Journal of Social Research Methodology I explore one creative method that proved particularly fruitful, that is, an object-based method. In brief, this method was deployed in the third interview with my participants (after one year) and involved asking participants to bring ‘one thing (like a gift, some clothing, a thing you once bought, or something else) that reminds you of your past and a thing that you relate to your future’. Only one participant asked for a clarification of what these items could be, while the remainder were happy to do this task, and some even said right away that they knew exactly what to bring. On the day of the interview, some participants did say that deciding on a ‘future’ thing had been difficult, but nevertheless they all had chosen something. Towards the end of the interview I asked about their ‘things’ and we spoke about each object in turn, exploring why they had brought a particular object, how it related to their past/future, and whether and how this was something they used in their day-to-day lives.

Reflecting on the interviews I was wondering what made this particular exercise helpful for exploring and speaking about ‘futures’. Other scholars have successfully drawn on objects to study memories, but none have turned their attention to the potential of objects for studying futures. In the paper I argue that what makes the object-method productive is to do with materiality. More specifically, I argue that what makes this method unique is the combination of ‘materiality as method’ as well as the ‘materiality of the method’, and that this double materiality at play is what is producing elaborate future narratives. In other words, via the materiality of the objects, specific imagined futures become ‘within reach’ for participants, with the object serving as an anchor for these future narratives. The method suggests a temporal complexity as well: the future objects come to represent futures that the participants have already taken steps towards; they are ‘futures-already-in-the-making. Drawing on Jose Esteban Munoz, we can consider them ‘futures in the present’, that is, futures that already exist, perhaps just in glimpses, in the present.

To make this argument I draw on both narrative research, material culture studies and qualitative research methodology. One key source of inspiration was Liz Moor and Emma Uprichard’s work on material approaches to empirical research, where the authors argue for paying greater attention to the ‘latent messages’ of methods and data, for instance in the form of sensory and emotional responses but also, as I point to in the paper, the messages conveyed by a dirty and bent P plate and a carefully crafted name tag.   Due to limitations of space, the published paper focuses on the ‘future’ objects and the future narratives generated through these, and only briefly mentions the ‘past’ object that participants also brought to the interview. This is due to the paper’s ambition to highlight the potentials of using object methods, and a focus on materiality more generally, in research on futures. However, for a full analysis of the insights gained through this method, both in terms of the settled and unsettled future narratives and the normative dimensions shaping which objects became ‘proper’ objects for the interview situation, both ‘past’ and ‘future’ objects should be analysed together.

Read the full article in the IJSRM here.

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