Getting ‘behind’ moral tales in interviews

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    I am a PhD student in Educational Research and about to go into my second year.  My research is focused on the relationship between academic work and parenthood from the perspective of academic staff.  I have recently conducted a pilot study which brought my attention to the challenges involved with interviewing academics and the issues around ‘moral tales’.  While I know I cannot overcome this completely, I am wondering if anyone has any advice on ways/methods that could possibly get behind moral tales in interviews?

    Thank you for any advice, Kayleigh   


    Can you start by saying more what you mean by “moral tales?”

    Roger Gomm

     Subjects using interviews to tell moral tales is very common, and is only one facet of narrativity: the tendency to frame accounts so that they make ‘good stories’ whether ‘moral’ or not. Maybe this is ubiquitous: maybe not, but researchers rarely have any means of verifying what subjects say. Those who are enthusiastic about narrative analysis, often claim that the narratives people provide show how it is that those people understand and make sense of their experience, not just at the time of the interview, but in a more general way. If this were true, and so long as you are not interested in ‘what really happened’ in the event being described then these narratives can be regarded as the important data: the route to understanding how subjects understand things. However, personal experience tells me that my accounts are recipient designed, and that about the same event the story I tell one person  may be different from the story I tell another: both stories may be data about the way I make sense of my experience, but not necessarily about the way I made sense before the event in question (which shaped my behaviour therein)or at the time  – and of course the same event might have been told by me often and variously so that my own understanding would be various, occasioned and situated.


    Your query says that you want to ‘get behind the moral tales’: that you imagine there is some reality which is distorted in the telling, as indeed there will be but you need to be quite clear as to what kind of reality that is before you can take measures to correct subjects’ accounts in order to find ‘the truth’. The key issue is whether it is the kind of reality which could in principle be verified: matters of fact to put it crudely. Only if it is thus would it be possible to correct accounts to ‘get behind’ moral tales. For example, if the reality you are seeking is self-knowledge,. such as ‘what it felt like in that situation’ then this is unverifiable (even by the person telling it) and could not be corrected.


    There is, of course, a strong tradition in sociology, of almost algorithmic correction, which takes one of two lines: one is to ask what kind of account benefits the speaker, and to then treat that with scepticism. The other is to ask what powerful interests some form of account might serve (capitalism, imperialism, patriachy etc) and then treat such accounts as false consciousness/ mystification and treat them with scepticism. In psychology the same effects are created by deploying the idea of defense mechanisms.All rely on highly speculative notions about underlying interests, which are, by definition hidden (hidden behind the moral tales if you like), so these enterprises are  tautological.


    Equally, getting behind the moral tales is a practical concern in systems of criminal justice, social work, psychotherapy, employment recruitment, benefit management and such like and involves technologies such as polygraphs, and much lucrative but highly dubious training in how to read non-verbal communication, or how to analyse texts for dubiety and probity. These practitioners have much greater resources of coercion and persuasion to detect untruth than the sociological interviewer and the balance of evidence is that they often fail.


    If I were you I’d give up the idea of ‘getting behind’ and treat the accounts you have as interesting in their own right or turn your thesis into an examination of the methodlogical difficulties of knowing whether to believe what subjects tell you – lots of interesting things to say about that.



    Hi Leslie,

    When I say ‘moral tales’ I mean during my interviews it seemed that those academics I interviewed seemed to feel a pressure to present their identity as an academic and a parent as morally responsible.  They were very aware of what they were saying and avoided discussing anything negative about their roles as an academic and a parent. 


    Hi Roger,

    Thank you very much for your reply, it’s much appreciated.  I also agree with you about giving up the idea of getting behind these accounts and is something I am looking forward to discussing with my supervisor!

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