Tuesday, August 2, 2011

The influence of one's roots in the arena of an interview

Reading Carol Warren’s chapter on Qualitative Research brought back to mind a comment a senior colleague once made to me when I was a journalist in California. Speaking about feature stories – personality profiles, in particular – he pointed out how interviews often revealed that people rarely overcame their roots, their childhood experiences, their pasts, no matter how far they went in life. I recall, we agreed unanimously that people’s roots indeed had the greatest influence on their worldview and their philosophy in life. At that time, though, it never crossed my mind, to what extent my own roots could be coloring what I heard in the numerous interviews I did throughout the day as a reporter. Being the “objective” journalist – that I presumed I was – I was oblivious of the fact that the discursive space of an interview was an arena where both my interviewee and I were engaging actively and simultaneously in the act of meaning-making; and that I, as the interviewer, was participating in the interview “from historically grounded biographical as well as disciplinary perspectives.”

But recently, while interviewing employees at Food Finders in Lafayette, I realized the truth behind Rubin’s statement as cited by Warren that “no matter how far we travel, we can never leave our roots behind. I found they claimed me at unexpected times, in unexpected places.”

In my case, as I listened to employees at Food Finders discuss the issue of hunger and food insecurity in Tippecanoe county, I found myself thinking about the food insecure back home in India – children and teenagers who came fresh from villages to big cities like my native Calcutta to do domestic chores so they could be assured of three meals a day; beggars on the streets, who we ignored thinking begging was their profession.

As I listened to workers at Food Finders articulate their zeal to help the hungry, I wondered what it would be like if we had non-profits such as Food Finders in Calcutta, with their mobile food pantries and warehouses where companies could donate food. I also remember thinking how great a task it would be to cater to all the poor in a metropolis as huge as Calcutta.

As the interviews went on, I also realized how, over the years, I had actually become a lot more sympathetic and aware of the needy than I was in urban India, amidst the financial security of the upper-middle class. Over the past eight years – first as a new international student in Nevada, then a modestly-paid reporter in over-priced California and now a married graduate student in Indiana -- I’m a lot more acquainted with financial stress and what it means to struggle to make ends meet. And although the woes of those that Food Finders caters are a thousand times graver than mine, I could perceive the agony of the food insecure through the lens of my own experiences with financial hardships.

So when I read Warren talking about the intersections between the meanings constructed by the interviewee with the lived experiences of the interviewer, I could at once see what she’s saying. After all, during my interviews at Food Finders, I had often encountered such intersections and paused to introspect at those crossroads.

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