On "Double vision" : Learning about issues via a practice story

Creating a practitioner profile helps us to find out and learn -- to do research -- about issues of practice we care about. In order to do that, you need to know what your research agenda is, to know what you want to learn.

So your first step in creating a strong profile is to decide what aspects of practice you're curious about. What are issues – or analytical themes – that you expect that your interviewee can help you learn about? (See Focusing Your Interests for more help doing this.)

Although you will try to learn about these things by focusing on a particular “case,” the profile is primarily about the work of an experienced practitioner – a planner, mediator, community educator, etc. Its goal is to illuminate that practitioner, to teach us about what they have to deal with in their day-to-day work, about their judgments and responses, about how they handle things.

For this reason, you need to keep track of two things as you conduct your interview:

  1. The story of the practitioner's struggles in this case
  2. The analytical issues that you want to learn about through this case

So you need to cultivate a kind of “double-vision.” You must elicit the story of the case, and, at the same time, watch for opportunities to learn more about your particular interests.

This means that on one level, you must draw out the story of the case. Since it’s rarely possible to get concrete information about your analytical concerns by asking your interviewee about them directly, you must create questions that enable your interviewee to show you, by telling you about how he or she did something, how these matters were handled in practice. These questions tend to focus on the action or plot: What happened? What happened next, and next? Who was involved? What did they do? What did you do? How did it end? (See "Creating Questions" for tips on writing these kinds of questions.)

At the same time, you are not “objectively” collecting details about absolutely everything that happened. This would be impossible. Nor can you simply letting the interviewee tell you what he or she finds important – although you must give them the opportunity to do this. You are also shaping the story based on your own analytical interests. Thus, you must always keep in mind what it is you want to know about.

This second-level of interest will focuses your attention on some things more than others. For example, if you are interested in how a planner deals with anger and conflict, and your interviewee says, “That was a heated meeting” – the word “heated” should catch your attention, stimulating you to ask, “What do you mean by ‘heated’”? or “Heated? In what way?” Your interviewee will give you the opportunity to ask about things you care about. They will provide openings; you must respond by trying to dig for greater understanding.

One caveat: although we begin the interview with certain presumptions about our interviewee’s work (perhaps believing that planners mediate among community interests or community educators serve as community organizers), we are not simply trying to get our interviewees to confirm beliefs or theories that we already hold. Rather, we are seeking to complicate our ideas, to make them more complex, to understand more deeply aspects of professional work that are often unstated.