Many years ago I read a book chapter that would have a profound effect on how I thought about my practice as a health professional, and dramatically shape the future direction for my research and the way I thought about the world generally. That chapter was titled Interviewing women: A contradiction in terms and it was written by Anne Oakley. Oakley has just published a follow up paper titled Interviewing Women Again: Power, Time and the Gift, and reading it reminded me why it had such a profound impact on me 20 years ago.
In the early 1990s I was working at The Children’s Hospital in Birmingham (UK) and studying a masters degree in research methodology. The degree was life-changing. It was offered by a department that was steeped in radical left-wing politics. Instead of boring lectures on One-Way ANOVAs and Chi-Squared tests, we talked about black feminist methodologies and critical disability theory. I felt like I’d come home.
I’d always been quite an argumentative physiotherapist. The worst thing that anyone could say to me was ‘we’ve always done it this way.’ It seemed like they were just begging me to say ‘why?’ Surprisingly, few people ever seemed to want to asked the question, so I often found myself being the odd one out in classrooms and staff meetings. Not in my masters class though. Here I felt like I’d walked into Greenham Common protest march wearing a pin-striped suit and a bowler hat. Here I was the conservative one: the one with all the problems. (I was, after all, a straight, white, male, middle-class health professional in a world that was anything but).
Rather than being intimidating, I found it completely liberating. I came to realise that there were library shelves full of books that resonated with the way that I thought, and none of these were in our medical school library. There were people thinking and writing about people not patients; experiences not pathologies; and illness not disease. I was hooked.
Writers like Simon Williams – now a Professor of Sociology at Warwick University – showed me a world no-one at physio school ever even intimated they knew about. His 1993 book Chronic Respiratory Disease was a revelation. I learnt more from that book about the realities of living with chronic respiratory disease than any clinical textbook I’d read in the years before. And then came Anne Oakley’s chapter.
I can’t remember why we read it, but I do remember that I couldn’t put it down. Finally, here was someone who talked about the power that exists between the clinician/interviewer and the patient/interviewee; the way that ‘classical’ interviews were all about taking things from people and giving nothing back; the ridiculous game of not being able to respond to interviewees questions; and so on. Here was justification for having conversations with my patients, not interrogating them in some excuse for rigorous science. Oakley’s argument that these techniques of interviewing are gendered made total sense to me, and probably began, for me at least, a lifelong interest in the ways that women are situated in health care.
It would be glib to say that from that day onwards I became a feminist, but it didn’t do any harm.
And now Anne Oakley has brought out a follow-up paper to her 1981 classic. In the new paper she reprises her argument and looks at the effect the paper has had on her career, on the development of qualitative research, and on feminism. She pulls no punches and is as honest about her critics as she is about the weaknesses of her own thinking back then. But I can forgive her all of these things, because she changed the way I thought about research, and there’s not a day goes by when I don’t think her little book chapter hasn’t influenced how I think and practice today.
Vive la revolution!
Oakley A (1981) Interviewing women: A contradiction in terms? In: Roberts H (ed.) Doing Feminist Research. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 30-61
Oakley, A. (2015). Interviewing women again: Power, time and the gift. Sociology. (online early). doi:10.1177/0038038515580253