Using ‘neutral’ language to report interviews – a case of symbolic violence?

It is interesting how an informal chat over coffee can really get you thinking. I’ve just been discussing shared research concerns with a visiting colleague from Australia, who has been developing some innovative approaches to recording and analysing life histories. Somehow we turned to the question of language, and how people’s spoken words are changed through the processes of transcription and publication.

During a recent large scale life history study, I was struck by the number of participants who responded to their transcripts with horror. What they said was that they didn’t ‘realise I spoke like that’. What did they mean? The most common answer was that they sounded ‘uneducated’, and this was because the transcriber had done her best to reproduce their words as spoken, dialect and all. We offered all participants the right to correct the transcript, but they didn’t use it. Clearly, though, some were responding to the written record with shame – and this was something we hadn’t anticipated.

The decision to include hesitations, slang, swearwords and dialect also crops up when you try to publish your results. I have yet to get a paper accepted that includes the words and sentences that the research participants actually used. Invariably, referees insist that direct quotations are turned into what we usually think of as standard English. Some referees get quite indignant about the use of dialect (‘How can I be expected to understand this stuff?’ was one comment), while others gently remind you of the journal’s international readership. So the quotations are duly turned into standard English.

This is a difficult area, and there isn’t a simple solution. But I think we are committing a kind of ‘symbolic violence’ against people who give us their time and their narratives, but do not speak a socially approved version of our language. And we are also losing sight of an important body of evidence, because language never is truly neutral.

The way people express themselves is bound up with their identity and it provides a series of cues about them. And this is true for all sorts of people, including the advantaged. One woman, who ran camps for the wives of unemployed miners in County Durham during the 1930s, provides a good case in point. She came from a highly privileged background, and she spoke in a very precise, grammatical and clipped manner. By standardising all the direct testimony of my participants, I was suppressing the particularities of her speech, along with important cues about her social status and her sense of who she is.

In summary, we are imposing an invisible standard – or rather, an unheard standard – as the norm. The non-normative are not just stigmatised but written out of sight, and out of hearing as well.


6 thoughts on “Using ‘neutral’ language to report interviews – a case of symbolic violence?

  1. i loved the clarity and impartiality of these observations, not to mention their significance as a plea for justice when ethical requirements expect such a standard to be integral to the work. What you also identify is how even the ontological. and evidential integrity of the data is jeopardised by such covert, normative tinkering. Thanks very much for that, John!

  2. This was why the history workshop movement and worker writer movement developed I think – at least in part A

    Sent from my iPad


  3. I was struck by your post John. The research I/we do is not peer reviewed by’ the academy’ though it is critically assessed. It is done for clients in education and other sectors and is (loosely) ‘problem solving’ or evaluative research relating to policy development/change/implementation. So I don’t face the same strictures you describe, but I look for ways to ensure the client (sometimes quite removed from the interface) hears and importantly also sees what some of the respondents have to say.

    In recent years I have been using film alongside the usual research methods to record people’s responses to the ‘research questions’. Working with professional film makers to do this… the outcome is a research paper/report which includes verbatim quotes from respondents (written and verbal) and one or more films to accompany the report. The film or films may have several functions – to provide a representative snapshot of findings and conclusions… to promote the veracity and authenticity of the report… to capture non-verbal responses – text alone sometimes does not do it… to show how the research and report is ‘representative’ of the voice and views of respondents.

    Filmed interviews/interactions provide the researcher with a rich source of data that can be used for different purposes. The ‘long cuts’ of interviews add to the archive of source material. In one project we used film to create a learning hub for museum practitioners held on the Museums Association website as well as using the same film as source material for evaluation of a UK project. A similar approach was taken with evaluation done for Skills for Care (Adult Social Care sector in England) this year. I am in the middle of evaluating a project on public responses to a Museum’s international shoe collection, using the same approach. So it has potentially wide application.

    Caveats? I think you need to know what you are doing, integrate methodical use of film into the research plan and you must produce high quality material. It is true you can put anything on YT – but this does not mean you should.

    To come back to your point above… the idea of adapting the language in filmed interviews to meet a ref’s demand to standardise would be absurd. Use SE subtitles? If you could imagine doing this with some of your own material the effect would be hilarious I am sure. Film can also convey meaning in a way that a text transcript alone cannot. E.g. in one interview with a learner recently:

    ‘Oh yes it was great. I really got loads out of it’. (On camera rolls their eyes).

    Of course there are lots of questions here – what constitutes authenticity, selective editing of transcripts/film interviews, time involved, expertise required and costs. But I think there is a value in exploring this way of working further. And it would be fun to see what the referees made of it.

  4. language and how it is bound to identity, and allocating the speaker as respectable / or not against the dominant frame of the norm.
    peer journals are collaborating in symbolic violence whereby only mode of speech is acceptable. This symbolic

    violence needs to be interagated as it runs through the education system at it’s free will

  5. Pingback: an ethics of analysis and writing | patter

  6. Pingback: An ethics of analysis and writing – educationandsocialpolicy

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