Guest post by Livia Johannesson. Livia is a researcher in political science at Stockholm University. She specializes in Swedish migration politics and more generally in the role of courts in public policies. This is the fifth post of Border Criminologies’ themed series on ‘Accessing the Migration Apparatus’ organised by Damian Rosset and Christin Achermann

When researchers request access to interviewees, what exactly is it they want? Is it their authentic opinions and values, their discursive strategies or their performative identities? And what part of themselves are interviewees willing to share with researchers?

In a recent research project about how judicial practices generate administrative justice in Sweden’s migration courts, these questions became salient to me. Migration courts in Sweden are part of the administrative courts and they function as an appeal organ in the asylum system. Nearly every asylum application that gets rejected at first instance – by the Swedish Migration Agency – receives a full review by the migration courts. Their prime role is to guarantee the fairness of the determination procedure. Therefore, my research project aimed to explore how administrative justice was understood and practiced by judicial workers inside the courthouses. As part thereof, it sought to understand the different ways that judges at these courts perceived their roles.

From the very start of the project, I anticipated difficulties in obtaining access to the courts. Judicial settings are hard to reach. Judges are high status actors concerned about issues of confidentiality. However, to my surprise, migration courts were not the impermeable institutions I imagined. When I asked the heads of the courts to get permission to interview employees, they were accommodating and facilitated access. Instead, the real challenge was to make sense of what I experienced during some of the interviews with these judges. Two interviews, in particular, provoked feelings of failure as I could not extract the information I wanted from the interviewees.

Waiting area at one of the Swedish migration courts

Interview Failure I: the Non-talkative Interviewee

In the first case, feelings of failure were provoked by my interviewee’s reluctance to answer my questions. The interview was conducted in a small seminar room at one of the migration courts. The judge had been asked to participate by the head of the unit, as had the other three judges I interviewed that day. To start with, she refused to have our conversation recorded on tape so I took notes of the conversation instead. She answered the questions very briefly and vaguely, often speaking in general language about daily practices as a judge at the migration court but never formulating any personal thoughts on the topic. Several times this judge simply evaded to answer the questions by explaining that they were irrelevant. During the course of the interview, my questions got longer and longer in order to elaborate them in hope of receiving any sort of answer to them. At the same time, the interviewee’s answers got shorter, often just a plain ‘no’ or ‘I don’t have an opinion’.

This interview stands in bright contrast to the others I did the same day at the same court. Those judges did not find my questions irrelevant. Instead, they shared many personal opinions and thoughts with me. I do not know how the difference in attitudes can be explained, but it illuminates how partial research access can be.

Interview Failure II: the “Legalese”-talking Interviewee

Another experience of a challenging interview occurred with a judge, whom I had reached through personal contacts, and not through the official management hierarchy as in the other cases.  This person elected to be interviewed in a seminar room at the courthouse and introduced me as a researcher to colleagues that we encountered in the corridors. Due to the more informal introduction to this interviewee, I anticipated our discussion would be relaxed, open-minded and less censored than others. I was, however, mistaken.

During the interview, he appeared very tense and used formal legal terminology. Although I tried to ask for clarifications of judicial concepts, the interviewee continued to use unintelligible, to me at least, concepts. As opposed to the other interviewee, he agreed to be recorded and was talkative, but in large parts of the conversation I could not follow. He also asked me several times about whether I was familiar with certain internal procedures of the court. When I said no, he sighed and mumbled “this will be a long interview”. In some instances, I did not feel like a researcher probing information from a respondent, but rather felt like I was a law student at an oral exam, which made me feel very uncomfortable. To me that was a failed interview, however, from the perspective of the interviewee it might very well have been a moment of success as he managed to accentuate a hierarchy between me as a young, female scholar without a law degree and him as a senior male judge. 

In this interview, I had no problems getting the interviewee to answer my questions, but because of the institutionalised way of talking that this interviewee purposively used, I could not access the meaning of what was said.

Making Sense of Inaccessible Interviews

These two 'failed' interviews bothered me because I did not manage to get useful information from them. I needed to find a productive way of analysing them but without focusing on what had been said since the content of the talking had not been very fruitful.

Starting with my own emotions, I asked myself in what way failure became relevant for me as a researcher. I realised that it was my researcher identity as a ‘prober’ that had been damaged in both interviews. I had, more or less unconsciously, identified myself as a probing researcher aiming to go beyond the institutional talk and discover the true, authentic opinions and world views of my interviewees. However, was our conversation the only truth to be revealed in these two instances?  What was it that they tried to communicate to me during the interviews? I began to analyse the interview situations as interactive moments saturated with performative elements, which communicated certain values and images. To search for the performative elements of social interaction is to ask oneself, not what is real, but rather which effects discourses, talk, and practices have on social reality.

Painting by Carl Sitzweg, 1857. Justitia
One way to think about interviewees’ discursive strategies during our interviews is to understand the interviewee’s perception of the interview situation as a communication of a professional ethos. I interviewed judges in the role of being a judge, and I assume that they all tried to show me their most judge-like appearance. Some of them did that by taking my questions seriously and tried to answer carefully and explained aspects which I did not know much about. Others interpreted judge-like appearance as showing distance, authority and detachment. These two ‘failed’ interviews were the clearest examples of the latter kind of interpretation of how a proper judge should behave. As judges, these two interviewees wanted to show distance and appear authoritative, and one way of performing these abstract principles is to either say very little about one’s own opinions, feelings or attitudes or to use institutional language to reflect one’s authority and superiority. From a performative perspective, the interviewees were not evading my questions; they were only answering them in the distant, general and impersonal mode worthy of judges.

This experience made me reconsider some of the things I have learned about conducting research. One thing is to carefully identify which kind of content you want to get from an interview study. If it is the authentic opinions of the interviewees that interests you, it might be a good idea to prepare strategies for how to access these during interview situations for, in many settings relevant for migration scholars researching migration bureaucracies, bureaucrats and decision-makers are not encouraged to show their authentic opinions but to ‘follow orders’ or ‘apply the law’. If it is not the authentic opinions but rather the professional norms within an organisation that is the core focus of the research, then you have good chances of turning unproductive and failed interview situations into productive units of analysis. 

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style)

Johannesson, L.  (2017) Access to Interviewees or Access in Interviews. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2017/11/access (Accessed [date]).