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Research interview approaches in International Relations

‘You do realise that they’ll talk differently to you because you’re British?’ I thought about this advice a lot. It came from a Zimbabwean who I met as I began research for my book about Zimbabwe’s International Relations. I planned to interview Zimbabweans to find out how they saw the world, and how they understood themselves in relation to it. The problem was that quite a large part of the story of Zimbabwe, and the world, would be about its relationship with Britain, the former colonial power and Robert Mugabe’s favourite bogeyman.

I began to think about what might happen if I saw the interviews themselves – between a Zimbabwean and a Brit – as part of the empirical material. Could I examine the dynamics of the meeting, the ways in which my interlocutors treated me and my own reactions and responses, as another way to understand the broader relationship?

There are many ways to conduct research interviews. A classic approach is to try as far as possible to be neutral, so as not to affect the outcomes and to make it possible for another researcher to replicate your findings. I have never believed in this approach – I don’t think it’s possible to remove yourself from the research process and it’s better to be thoughtful about biases than pretend that you can get rid of them. In this case, as has already been pointed out, the interview dynamics would be shaped profoundly from the very beginning by the fact of my Britishness. Another approach might be to try to establish empathy with the people I was interviewing – to try to get as much as possible inside their perspective. But this made me uncomfortable too: the search for apparently ‘common ground’ is often built on superficial perceptions on both sides, and can limit understandings of profound difference. If you jump too quickly to a position of ‘understanding’, you lose the insights you can get from sticky or problematic misunderstanding – on both sides of the encounter.

In my own field of International Relations this can be a particularly bit problem. Researchers are often reluctant to engage with the real world, to put themselves in it, preferring to remain overly theoretical, or where they do conduct empirical work, to concentrate on elites and state-level analysis. In trying to understand IR in a bottom-up way – and from an African perspective to boot – I was entering into what might look like particularly murky waters.

In the end, I decided that there was value in jumping into the murky waters. My implication in the story of Anglo-Zimbabwean relations and my relationships with the people I was interviewing would become part of the research. In particular, I would need to allow myself to explore my own feelings of empathy and warmth, fear and rejection, confusion and dislike during interviews, and to think about how their dynamics reflected on the broader questions I was asking about Zimbabwe’s international relationships.

I conducted nearly 200 interviews, with people from many different walks of life, up and down Zimbabwe. Many of these meetings were warm and friendly. One example was with ‘Rose’, a 64-year-old woman from a poor area of Harare. Rose described a miserable life under a terrible government. She thought life under British rule had been better. She wanted me to encourage the extension of British sanctions against Mugabe and the ruling party, and she described me as a ‘gift from God.’ Others were uncomfortable or downright hostile. In one encounter with a group of elderly men in Bulawayo I was challenged over sanctions and asked why I wanted to hurt Zimbabweans, to ‘kill the child coming from the womb.’ And in a meeting with two young men I found myself being attacked for being out of touch, selfish, and patronising.

Beyond the content of what was actually said – which revealed things about attitudes towards sanctions, the importance of the historical relationship, expectations of British attitudes towards the Zimbabwean government – I also learned from the emotional aspects of the interviews. Rose’s trust and assumption that as a white British woman I would ‘understand’, and my own sense of ease at slotting into this role, revealed a lot about the mutual idealisation that is a significant aspect of the Anglo-Zimbabwean relationship. This was badly shaken by more aggressive encounters in which the British role in Zimbabwe was made clear. Here I was forced to own the painful brutality and racism of colonialism and the patronising elements of the post-colonial relationship. I confronted people’s feelings of anger, alienation, and my own feelings of fear, guilt, or distaste.

The whole process was at times deeply uncomfortable, even disturbing. Rather than imagining that I could maintain the objectivity and distance of a researcher, or put myself on the side of Zimbabweans, I was plunged deeply into the mess, forced to examine my own preconceptions, and to absorb the ways in which the people I met projected theirs into me. But, emerging from this kind of messiness were layers of insight into what makes the Anglo-Zimbabwe relationship tick. I understand more about Zimbabwe, more about Britain, and more about myself, as a result.

Featured image credit: book research by João Silas. Public Domain via Unsplash.

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