The Miner at Work: On difficulties foregrounding the process instead of the results 
The Miner at Work: On difficulties foregrounding the process instead of the results 

The Miner at Work: On difficulties foregrounding the process instead of the results 

by Magdalena Nowicka

Reflections on teaching the seminar “Interview in qualitative research”, Summer Term 2022, Humboldt University Berlin

Enabling students to engage in research has always been at the core of my approach to teaching. In the last years, I have regularly offered courses in qualitative methodologies in social sciences in which I engaged students in various hands-on activities. Given the profile of training in research methods at the Institute of Social Sciences at the Humboldt University in Berlin, where I hold a professorship, I usually chose to train students in qualitative interviewing, as this instrument is most common in social science, and students often use it in their master thesis research. 

In the summer term of 2022, I offered a course: “Interview in qualitative research” that was aligned with the research of the VISION project. The project offered the students a common framework for group exercises and discussions in the classroom. I introduced the students to the project’s overall framework and aims in the first meeting but stressed that their own interviews should be primarily driven by their own research interests. I requested them, however, to focus their individual projects on the three research sites in Brandenburg. 

Given the considerable size of the group (30-40 students attended each meeting), the participants were encouraged to divide into groups of 2-6 to plan and implement the interviews. In the first meetings, we discussed the readings on ethics and data protection in qualitative research, the different kinds of interviews, the nature of qualitative research in general, as well as the challenges and possibilities related to interviewing. Also, the students had to train interviewing within the group of three: when one person was interviewed, another took the role of the interviewer, and the third person was an observer, paying attention to the interactions between the two. In this exercise, students took turns changing their roles. The script was simple and focused on the students’ experiences of remote learning during the COVID-19 pandemic, but I requested the students to care about a proper introduction and closing of the interview. Afterwards, we discussed their impressions from this first training.

Then, students were requested to formulate their own research question, do an initial desktop research on the subject, and design their study. They could choose any form of interview. I was not surprised that most of the students chose to interview someone in relation to the Tesla Giga Factory in Grünheide. Only few people decided to look at the agriculture sector and engage with asparagus pickers or producers in Beelitz. Nobody wanted to study the logistics sector. Tesla and the local protests in Grünheide are hot topics in the regional media, and the link between this investment and climate protection issues seems to move the students. The selection of a research topic could be a good starting point for a reflection on how research is often driven by popular interests.

Some of the students intended to interview local politicians, others aimed at reaching out to ordinary inhabitants, and others were more interested in the opinions and practices of civil society actors. Some groups wanted to address the work conditions in the factory, and only a few had the ambition to interview migrant workers. To my disappointment, all students chose to use semi-structured interviews with a thematic guide instead of ethnographic or biographical interviews, which would also suit their research aims. They reflected upon these choices and admitted that a thematic guide gave them the confidence necessary when interviewing unfamiliar people for the first time. Moreover, most interviews were with experts sampled because of their professional position. 

Each group shared some of the tasks preceding the interview, such as literature overview, preparation of the interview guides, and sometimes also the sampling. Yet, interviews were to be conducted individually. Because of this requirement, the groups imitated a research project team in contributing different data to answer a single research question. For example, one group engaged with regional politics, but each student interviewed a politician representing a different political party. 

To obtain the credit points and grading for the seminar, the students were expected not only to design and conduct an interview, but also to transcribe it using specialised software and to apply basic thematic coding. The focus of the seminar was on the interview design and implementation, but coding was supposed to help them estimate how their guide and the way they generated a narration helped them to answer the research question. 

The students were expected to summarise their methodological reflection from all phases of research in a short research report or a blog contribution. The majority chose a longer form of a report, but all the submitted blog contributions are published here.

Having read and graded all the reports, I realised that the actual challenge for the students was to foreground the process of collecting data with the help of an interview, rather than focusing on what was said. The desire to report on the content of the interview was very strong for many of the students who struggled to reflect on the interview in a more conscious and systematic manner. While I did encourage students to briefly inform the readers about their research interests and the research results, I expected the reports to be predominantly methodological and thus informing about the students’ subjective experience of interviewing and how they consider the instrument to be useful, or not, for their research purpose. 

The students were encouraged to engage with own positionality as well as with ethical and data protection considerations. They were also asked to take notes immediately after the interview to capture the immediate reflections that they could use in the report later. It turned out that students had no problem describing their feelings, in particular of insecurity at the beginning of the interview, and a sense of relief afterwards, yet in many cases these sensations were not linked with reflection upon the quality of the data. Many reports were also detailed about a rather difficult process of sampling. Unexpectedly to me, many reports were revealing details about the students, in terms of their family background, religion, or political outlooks. Giving feedback to the reports, I frequently stressed that not all information is relevant in terms of positionality in research, and I also felt uncomfortable reading such personal information. 

In most of the reports, the students considered their role in research as a miner, referring to Kvale’s metaphors for the roles that interviewers take (see Kvale 2007). Indeed, this approach was often mirrored in the reports, in how they described facts and feelings dug out during the interview. Thereby, often the facts were collected from the interviewed, and the feelings from the interviewing person.

If I were to teach the same course again, I would put more emphasis on the methodological reflection as such, next to teaching the interview as a research tool. The challenge is to develop the critical reflection as a key skill in qualitative research that is essential both for doing research as well as writing about it in a transparent and accessible manner.


Kvale, Steinar. 2007. Doing Interviews. Qualitative Research Kit. London: SAGE Publications, Ltd.

Magdalena Nowicka is the principal investigator leading the VISION project; she is Head of Department Integration in the DeZIM Institute and honorary professor in the Institute of Social Sciences at the Humboldt University in Berlin.  Nowicka is a sociologist with research interests in migration and migrant transnationalism in Europe, diversity, conviviality, and racism. Her recent publications include the book Revisualising Intersectionality (Palgrave, 2022, with Elahe Haschemi Yekani and Tiara Roxanne), COVID-19 Pandemic and Resilience of the Transnational Home-Based Elder Care System between Poland and Germany, in Journal of Aging&Social Policy (with Susanne Bartig, Kamil Matuszczyk, Theresa Schwass), State of normality: Transnational migrants’ shifting views of state institutions and their obligations, in Journal of Sociology, and Understanding Migrant Masculinities through a Spatially Intersectional Lens, in Men and Masculinities (with Katarzyna Wojnicka).

Recommended citation: Nowicka, Magdalena. 2023. “The Miner at Work: On difficulties foregrounding the process instead of the results.” VISION Notes 3: 1-4.