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Qualitating Romantic Relationships in the Digital Age: The Role of the

Semi-Structured Interview

written for an academic paper

My research questions how existing technology transforms and impacts our culture, as well as pinpoints and highlights existing human social behavior. In doing so, it seeks to explore whether technology is used as an apparatus to inflate and deflate existing human compulsions rather than being a destructive tool on its own. Hence, by examining the role of social media technology in regards to the quality of romantic relationships, my research specifically investigates the usage of Whatsapp and Facebook Messenger between the daily communication of romantic couples. Therefore, exploring the space in which digital usage within romantic communication informs notions such as fidelity, intimacy, commitment, and trust. In executing this research aim, the research methodology chosen is using a qualitative approach in response to the proposed questions with the specific methodology of using semi-structured interviews. The reasoning behind this interview methodology varies from the subjective qualities inhibited in both the research subjects as well as the interviewer, the difficulty in quantifying subjective intangibles such as emotionality within foundationally subjective relationships, the factoring in of the epistemology of the interviewer, as well as the overall research purpose of producing specific data that attributes to the overarching question of technological mediation. However, there are also key limitations of utilizing semi-structured interviews as well as the undertaking of a qualitative methodological approach to research. These limitations include the small as well as limited data samples collected during qualitative interviews, the irreplicable nature of the specific data collections, the continuous modifications needed due to the uncontrollable and diverse variables in the human research subjects, as well as the non-representational nature each research subject has concerning his or her correlating demographic. But despite these imposed limitations, there are also multiple advantages in utilizing semi-structured interviews; supported by the attributes embedded within reflexive interviewing as well as feminist interview methodology.

In regards to research quality, utilizing reflexive interviewing means to consider beforehand the undeniable subjective nature of the data created between the interviewer and the interviewee as “reflexivity refers to the researcher’s ability to be able to self-consciously refer to him or herself in relation to the production of knowledge about research topics” (Roulston, 2010, p. 116). However, to be fervent in the examination of one’s subjectivity is to also be considerate of the gender and power dynamics that extend into the interview space. As a consequence, this employs the additional factoring of the interviewer, and in this case, the researcher's epistemology with the understanding that one of the common traits of feminist interviews is the ready-understood notion that interviews cannot be neutral or objective. On that account, the acceptance of this trait helps shape the goal of the interview with the grounded inception that the aim would not be to create objective answers but to instead, utilize the valuable input that the subjective interviews have for the overall research aim. Accordingly, the research requires that:

The researcher and the researched as objective instruments of data production be replaced by the recognition that personal involvement is more than dangerous bias - it is the condition under which people come to know each other and to admit others into their lives. (Oakley, 1981, p. 58)

Hence by critically evaluating the methodology of semi-structured interviews through the lens of reflexive and feminist interviewing, this practice acknowledges both the limitations and advantages of the methodology; the decision to catalog the unique experiences developed in each interview as valid components lend itself to the aim of investigating technological mediation within romantic relationships.

Consequently, it is important to note that the factoring of the epistemology of the interviewer informs the semi-structured interview methodology as well as the production of knowledge that results from the research data gathered during the interviews. Harding refers to epistemology as “a theory of knowledge” in which “knowers” are referred to as “agents of knowledge” and within epistemological theory - stems questions from “who can be a ‘knower’” to “what kinds of things can be known” such as does “subjective truths count as knowledge?” (1987, p. 3). However, although there has been theoretical debates as to “who can be a knower” with feminist theorists having argued that although “the subject of a traditional sociological sentence is always assumed to be a man”, women too should be legitimized as “knowers” even if subjective novelizations such as history has been “written from only the point of view of men” (Harding, 1987, p. 3). Consequently, given the theoretical context in which “sociologists of knowledge characterize epistemologies as strategies for justifying beliefs" then it is understood that being aware of one’s epistemology is to understand the nature and scope of your knowledge as well as the heightened importance of the effect that it would have on subjective topics similar to the given example of history (Harding, 1987, p. 3). For example, American psychologist Larry Davidson “initiated a program to prevent re-hospitalization [for schizophrenic patients] based on [a] model of individual psychopathology” when he saw that the previous explanations “were almost exclusively conceived within a narrow medical model and focused on the signs and symptoms of the disorder” based on his existing knowledge from relevant literature that showed “explanations and attempts at prevention all focused on factors internal to the individual person” (Magnusson and Marecek, 2015, p. 13). However, the research study was not successful as his team discovered that “although people enjoyed taking part in the program’s activities while they were inpatients, the frequency of re-hospitalization after they had been discharged did not decline” (Magnusson and Marecek, 2015, p. 13). Therefore, if the purpose of Davidson’s study was to prevent re-hospitalization then he did not consider that his patients, or research subjects, would not view re-hospitalization in the same lens as he did. Thus as Davidson’s team had to inevitably “reconsider what re-hospitalization means to the individual person with schizophrenia,” it becomes evident that his preconceived notion so greatly influenced the design of his research that the aim of his study was not remotely possible given his misunderstanding of both his research subjects, as well as how his epistemology led to that misunderstanding (Magnusson and Marecek, 2015, p. 13). Namely, Davidson did not fully consider how his “theory of knowledge” would permeate into the unsuccessful, yet apparent results produced (Harding, 1987, p. 3). Accordingly, it is in this space of awareness that it becomes clear that the researcher’s epistemologies both shape and form the choices made during the research study. On that account, the pre-existing knowledge of the researcher greatly affects the duration and outcome of the interview before it even begins.

To use semi-structured interviews is to take into account the subjective nature that is inevitably present during social science research when human beings are the research subjects. In other words, there are inherently subjective qualities inhibited in the interviewer, from how one asks and perceives the answers given to their questions as well as in the interviewees, the research subject themselves, in how they answer and perceive the questions asked. Moreover, there is also an underlying difficulty in quantifying subjective intangibles such as emotionality within foundationally subjective relationships that results in the need to take a more qualitative approach. Consequently, in confronting the layers of subjectivity within the research project, Roulston asks researchers to first examine one’s subjectivity in order to “understand the importance of situating oneself within the broad spectrum of social theory, and outlining how one’s research design, methods, and researcher stance on reflexivity are informed by particular theoretical positions” (2010, p. 118-119). Thus, if the research goal is to track how technology affects one’s romantic relationships then as a researcher you must be subjectively integrated into the relationship to investigate these interactions as one cannot be viewing them from a distanced perspective. Therefore in practice, this integration would be embodied in how “the researcher’s epistemological and theoretical assumptions concerning how social knowledge is produced, as well as the theoretical and substantive literature in a specific field of study” is then reflected within “the formulation of research questions, criteria used to identify the population to be studied, sampling strategies used to select participants, methods of data collection and generation, and analytic approaches and forms of representation employed” (Roulston, 2010, p. 74). Hence, it is crucial to have a reflexive approach to interviews by taking ownership of the subjectivity within the method, as even without the researcher’s full awareness, the interview process is already entirely saturated with the researcher’s epistemology.

Within understanding the subjective nature of semi-structured interviews, there needs to be a ready-made acceptance of the underlying assumption that interviews cannot be neutral or objective, a common trait of feminist interviews. Accordingly, although there is no distinct set definition as “feminist interviews do not identify with particular ways of asking questions, or structuring interviews,” feminist interview methodology does require focusing attention to the impossibility of harboring objectivity (Roulston, 2010, p. 23). In practice, “the feminist interview method encourages and promotes a more reflexive and reciprocal approach and seeks to neutralise the hierarchical, exploitative power relations that were claimed to be inherent in the more traditional interview structure” (UK Data Service, 2018). Therefore by identifying the issues in which the gender and power dynamics can be easily manipulated within a controlled traditional interview, feminist interviews instead, employ “an awareness of gender relations in [both] the analysis [as well as] through a reflexive understanding of interviews” where researchers treat “the interview as co-constructive” (UK Data Service, 2018). In clarity, there is both the needed notion of understanding the subjective and reflexive factors at play within the interview structure, as well the delicate balance of establishing trust and openness with the interviewees in both in regard for the interviewees themselves but as to also achieve higher quality within the interview content. In relation to this paper’s research aim, there is a distinct vulnerability present within the context of interviews that investigates romantic relationships, which is inherently both an emotional and subjective matter. Practically-speaking, if within a traditional interview format “the interviewer directs the questioning and takes ownership of the material”, then the feminist interview method would instead have the interviewee “recount her experiences in her own words with the interviewer serving only as a guide to the account” (UK Data Service, 2018). Hence, as Oakley eventually evolved within the contextual framework of the relationship that she had with her research subjects, women whom she interviewed for her research project (regarding childbirth), the trust and openness established between her and her interviewees led to Oakley both gaining access into their experiences as well as generating useful data due to the heightened quantity and quality of the content the women shared in their interviews (1981, p. 45). Accordingly, Oakley’s research methodology and approach can be seen as utilizing a conceptual framework within the lens of feminist interviews as she developed a rapport with interviewees that was “an essential part of establishing trust, respect and maintaining an empathetic position” in the interview process (UK Data Service, 2018).

On a similar wavelength, the methodology of semi-structured interviews is utilized to create data that is generated together (between the interviewer and the interviewee) through their unique and specific interactions. Therefore in its rooted definition, a semi-structured interview is:

A qualitative data collection strategy in which the researcher asks informants a series of predetermined but open-ended questions. The researcher has more control over the topics of the interview than in unstructured interviews, but in contrast to structured interviews or questionnaires that use closed questions, there is no fixed range of responses to each question. (Ayres, 2008, p. 2)

Hence, as qualitative interviews requires the researcher to be in the same space as the research subject, advantages of said method is to enable researchers to view “the texture and weave of everyday life; the understandings, experiences and imaginings of research participants; how social processes, institutions, discourses or relationships work; and the significance of the meanings that they generate” (Edwards and Holland, 2013, p. 90-91). Therefore, the methodology makes aware that there is strength in the researcher occupying the same space as their subject as it is through this particular interaction, conveyed through conversation, that generates the specific data that will contribute to the research aim as there is no “fixed range of responses to each question” (Ayres, 2008, p. 2). Simply put, the benefit of having open-ended questions within the semi-structured interview allows literal room for the interviewee to voice more content for the interviewer to digest, interpret, analyze, and catalog. In comparison to a structured interview, close-ended questions would deplete access to the content that the interviewee would otherwise share during a semi-structured interview as well as deconstruct the interviewee’s epistemology through controlling the answers they are allowed to say. This would not only work against the research purpose of producing unique data (conveyed through unique answers via responses to open-ended questions) but also offers limited insight into the effect technological mediation has on romantic relationships if viewers cannot freely share their large and crucial scope of subjectivity within the topic.

However, there are also limitations that need to be acknowledged in the research methodology of semi-structured interviews. A key limitation grounded within the research subject themselves, diverse, complex human beings involved in equally diverse, and complex interpersonal relationships is that continuous modifications would be needed due to adjusting to these uncontrollable and diverse variables. For instance, there is an irreplicable nature embodied in the specific data collections produced from interviews as “they are a social interaction with many elements coming into play [that] include location and context, the physical and social space within which the interview takes place, power relations at the social and individual levels and a wide range of characteristics, predispositions, understandings and emotions of interviewer and interviewee – a complex social relationship with a long and evolving history” (Edwards and Holland, 2013, p. 91). As humans are multifaceted beings on the individual level with heterogeneous backgrounds, the infinite variables that factor into one research subject would only increase when multiple individuals are being interviewed together or even if the interaction is just between two human beings (the interviewer and the interviewee themselves). Moreover, the data generated would not be replicable as the unpredictable nature within the research subjects in how they perceive, and answer questions, even if the same set of questions are being asked to multiple interviewees would result in an infinite amount of different answers due to both the singularity in each research subject but also the subjectivity present in the different lens each question may be received. Therefore as semi-structured interviews are conducted to a set number of interviewees, a number disproportionate to the individuals affected by the research topic, then it is understood that there would be a small as well as limited data sample collected during qualitative interviews. In other words, the couples to be interviewed within the context of persons that utilize Whatsapp and Facebook Messenger in everyday communication in this research aim would not be the only people alive who use social media applications in their romantic communication. Moreover, as “critiques of the outcomes of this kind of research include the charge that compromise and negotiation during the research process can lead to ‘watered down’ findings, and concerns that the collaboration is authentically represented in reports and that research collaborations merely disguise unequal power relationships between researchers and participants”, then it can also be understood that a research subject is sufficely not a sufficient representative of his or her correlating demographic (Roulston, 2010, p. 117).

However, it is important to acknowledge that these limitations are not a deterrent to achieving the research goal. The complex makeup of each research subject from their background, stemming from socio-economic aspects to their individual characteristics and personalities to the subjectivities within each interviewee in how they view and choose to answer each given question would result in a myriad of diverse narratives that would add richness to the research through the specificity of the data generated. In other words, the research aim is not in creating objective neutral answers through this research methodology but in being aware of the methodology and recognizing its benefits. Therefore, as there is no starting point of objectivity within interviews, as highlighted within feminist interview methodology through Oakley’s experience, then it can be understood that when entering an already subjective environment, there is no perfect method to achieve neutrality. Hence, the research aim is not achieved by generating objectively collected data that gives a definite answer to a question but rather through utilizing semi-structured interviews that: take into consideration the interviewer’s epistemology within the power dynamic of the interview, employ reflexivity within a subjective interaction, generate specific data created through the subjective lens between the interviewee and the interviewer that contribute to the larger research question of technological mediation. For instance, concerns that qualitative interviewing would not produce results in which “the collaboration is authentically represented in reports” is an ill-advised aim that is not relevant or possible to this research (Roulston, 2010, p. 117). In other words, if the interactions are being viewed subjectively by both parties, then there would be no possible creation of an ‘authentic’ report as that authenticity would require an objectivity or an objective party that does not exist. Therefore, although “a researcher might take material from qualitative interviews to illustrate a particular point, or describe some aspect of the behaviour discussed, but this is not the aim of the game” since “it is the analysis and the cogency of the theoretical reasoning that underlies it that is the source of the generalizability of qualitative data” (Edwards and Holland, 2013, p. 91). Accordingly, the irreplicable nature of the data generated only further attributes to the originality, uniqueness, and specificity of the data. The utilization of semi-structured interviews would not be objective in answering how technology affects all romantic relationships but it would demonstrate the data findings from a very specific group of people that would contribute to investigating how digital usage within romantic communication informs notions such as fidelity, intimacy, commitment, and trust.

Reference List

Ayres, L., 2008. Semi-Structured Interview. In: The SAGE Encyclopedia of Qualitative Research Methods. SAGE Publications, Inc., 2455 Teller Road, Thousand Oaks California 91320 United States.

Edwards, R., Holland, J., 2013. What are the strengths, challenges and future of qualitative interviews?, in: What Is Qualitative Interviewing?, The “What Is?” Research Methods Series. Bloomsbury Academic, London, pp. 89–98.

Given, L., 2008. The SAGE Encyclopedia of Qualitative Research Methods. SAGE Publications, Inc., 2455 Teller Road, Thousand Oaks California 91320 United States.

Harding, S.G., 1987. Feminism and Methodology : Social Science Issues. Indiana University Press, Milton Keynes [Buckinghamshire].

Magnusson, E., Marecek, J., 2015. Doing Interview-based Qualitative Research: A Learner’s Guide. Cambridge University Press.

Oakley, A., 1981. Interviewing women: a contradiction in terms. In: Roberts, H., 2013. Doing Feminist Research. Routledge.

Roulston, K.J., 2010. Reflective Interviewing: A Guide to Theory and Practice, 1 edition. ed. SAGE Publications Ltd.

UK Data Service, 2018. Feminist interviews [WWW Document]. UK Data Service. URL (accessed 2.1.20).