Mr Paterson's rounded testimony: ethics, intersubjectivity and the interview



Design Education Research


  • biographical, ethics, cultural influence, research approaches

As the interview as a method of data gathering has gained in popularity in the disciplines of art and design, templates of consent letters are generated in their hundreds, and the absence of a duly signed document  —  in  a  research  output  using  humans  as  a  source  of  data  —  usually  renders  the undertaking unethical and invalid. However, in the rush to protect the institution and its agents against litigation, it is perhaps forgotten that the signing of the obligatory letter is only a first, technical, step in a personal encounter between individuals.

An important function of the interview is its role in life-story research, that   despite   the need to record the experiences of designers that constructed and shaped the country’s design culture, is not yet a wide-spread methodology in design research in South Africa. However, the term ‘interview’, if it is associated with ‘history’, loses its journalistic intent; when the purpose is to collect memories and personal commentaries of historical significance, the interview is escalated to the level of oral history.

Oral historian Lyn Abrams notes that participants in an interview interact to produce an effect called intersubjectivity, a three-way conversation: the interviewee with himself/herself, with the interviewer and with culture.  Therefore, after the obligatory letter of consent has been signed, subtle — and even unmentionable — relations of power come into play that can empower, but also disempower and disturb.

My paper identifies and reflects upon three aspects of intersubjectivity that are likely to be absent from an institution’s ethical clearance form but that are important to acknowledge and address with regard to the potential experiences of novice interviewers, namely

  • the  effects  (and  opportunities)  of  gender  differences  on  interpersonal  relations  in  an interview
  • the   challenges   of   interviewing   individuals   whose   political   agendas   are  'unsavoury, dangerous, or deliberately deceptive', and
  • academic hubris and the pursuit of truth and factuality in an interview.


Drawing on my own experience, and that of other researchers such as Hilary Young, Daniel James, Kathleen Blee and Kate Altork, I argue that the occurrence of intersubjectivity in a research undertaking is itself an intriguing, but elusive, area of investigation in the discipline of design.

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