Qualitative Interviewing = Adventure!

The first sentences in the book Qualitative Interviewing: The Art of Hearing Data by Herbert and Irene Rubin book read:

Qualitative interviewing is a great adventure; every step of an interview brings new information and opens windows into the experiences of the people you meet. Qualitative interviewing is a way of finding out what others feel and think about their worlds.

Through qualitative interviews you can understand experiences and reconstruct events in which you did not participate. Through what you hear and learn, you can extend your intellectual and emotional reach across time, class, race, sex, and geographical divisions.

Qualitative interviewing builds on the conversational skills that you already have.

Bold emphasis is mine. I think I’m going to enjoy this book. Fingers crossed!

Interview Subjects

It occurred to me that I’ve never really outlined who I hope to interview. At least, not on the blog. I’ve set up a LiveJournal account to get insight into the huge LiveJournal Steampunk community, so I’m going to post the same basic introduction here that I posted there. For posterity’s sake and all that jazz.

I’m looking to speak to the following groups of persons involved in the Steampunk culture:

  • Artist
    Skilled in imaginative, non-functioning art meant for personal satisfaction
  • Cosplayer
    Skilled in creating imaginative fashion, assuming a fictional identity while dressing the part
  • Commentator
    Interested in reporting trends, new projects; the “town criers” of the community
  • Inventor
    Skilled in imaginative, potentially functioning art meant for experimentation and/or exploration
  • Merchant
    Interested in receiving payment for services and/or products
  • Scholar
    Interested in studying the phenomenon of Steampunk itself

What is the goal?

The goal is to create a holistic academic understanding of the act of creative appropriation, specifically, how involvement with Steampunk reflects and/or influences your personal identity. A potential outcome could be a design framework to help professionals design for such opportunities.

I hope to observe and/or interview at least two-to-three persons from each of the previously mentioned categories. I hope to observe the creative practices of artists, cosplayers, and inventors. I intend to interview all categories of persons. If you happen to live within 100 miles of Bloomington, IN, I would love to observe your creative practices, if possible.

Methodology for Analyzing Interview Data

I’d like to blog about some of my insights in terms of commonalities and differences between the four interviews I have completed. The goal, of course, is to determine the reflexive nature between personal identity and the act of creating/appropriating an object into one’s life.


Most important at this point is how I’m analyzing the interviews. Because interviews are qualitative data, my job as a researcher is to make sense of, and interpret, the information in terms of the meaning my interview subjects bring. Through my interpretation, I should be able to make abstracted connections between the interview subjects. This will help inform the nuances of my proposed design guidelines.

I’m using a four-point methodology of each interview, as follows.

Initial Background Reading

Upon finding the person and getting their interest to interview with me, I read whatever is available about them online. This is to help me understand who they are and to categorize their involvement with Steampunk.

Upon categorization, I look over my questions to determine which would be more applicable to the person.


The interviews are held over Skype, GTalk, and phone. I am recording them using my FlipCam Ultra so that I can burn the data to DVD-Rs for archiving. The discs are labeled as P#, the number being the cumulative number of persons I contact, in the order I contact them. This helps ensure privacy, as the identifying data relating to P# is held elsewhere.

The interviews begin with me telling the subject a little about myself and my study, so they have some context and feel comfortable with me. I then invite them to speak about themselves, first just in general, and then as the interview goes along, more specifically relating their personal history with Steampunk.

This means that I ask questions that relate to how the person found Steampunk, why they are interested in it, etc. As a researcher, I attempt to find connections between their other hobbies/habits/professions that don’t have anything to do with Steampunk, in order to determine how Steampunk works (or doesn’t work) as a case study for the subject’s personal identity formation.


After the interview, I look over my notes and copy the interview data to DVD-R discs. I leave the data for a day or two to distance myself from the person and my memories of interacting with them. I return to the data to transcribe the audio into a transcript so I can look for patterns.  When determining patterns, I ask such questions as:

  • How does their involvement with Steampunk relate to their personal history?
  • How does their involvement with Steampunk relate to their personal interests and hobbies?
  • How does their involvement with Steampunk relate to their profession, if at all?

Comparative Analysis

As I synthesize patterns of information, I relate the patterns across persons and categories of persons. How do the insights from the merchant interview relate to the insights from the cosplayer interview? What about the inventor interview insights? How do they compare and contrast? What can I learn by the similarities and differences?

Then I abstract out to the community and culture. How do the actions of the individual help shape the community? How is this relationship reflexive, i.e. how does the community help shape the actions of the individual?

All of this leads back to how the creative act of appropriation reflects personal identity and how personal identity is reflected in acts of creative appropriation.

The Most Epic of Epic Technology Failure

Remember how I said I was going to do some artifact analysis? Well, it turns out that I have had major technical difficulties when it comes to recording my interview sessions. That is, my supposed future interview sessions. You see, I upgraded to Windows 7 on both my 32bit and 64bit machines. However, Skype doesn’t play nice with Win7 64bit, my primary computer. So after worrying that my interviewee wouldn’t want to wait for me to install Skype on my 32bit machine, I sent an email and got to work.

Not only did my interviewee not appear, and still hasn’t responded to me, but I also don’t have a way to record my Skype calls yet. I have done everything possible. I bought a microphone headset. That works. I bought an audio splitter because my computer didn’t have a stereo mix. That didn’t work, no matter the combination of settings or plugging hardware together. I updated the driver for my sound card, so I now have stereo mix. Only guess what? It’s recording the air waves, and nothing from my computer. That’s right, it’s recording radio. Actual, honest-to-God radio that I can’t hear with my puny human ears unless I turn a fricking radio on. My computer is picking up radio waves somehow and I don’t know how to stop it.

I just want to make a call through Skype, and record it. I want to have my voice and my caller’s voice on the file. Why is that such a difficult thing to ask for? I have spent three days trying to figure this out. Three days where I should have been working on ceramics, or doing artifact analysis, or working on my work-in-progress paper (which was accepted to CHI 2010, by the way), or anything else.

Instead, I sit here, fuming, wanting to slaughter something. I hate technology. I hate technology because it doesn’t work the way it should, even when you follow the instructions. Welcome to the reason why I’m a human-centered designer: technology-centered design makes us want to blow our brains out.

I’m meeting with my thesis adviser today. I don’t know what I’m going to say. Oh, yes, I said I’d try to have one observation and one interview, as well as… oh, I don’t know, analyze three artifacts? Well, I got one interview and a follow-up, my second interview disappeared, I can’t record future interviews, and I haven’t done any artifact analysis because I’m so frazzled I want to hurt something. I don’t like not meeting my goals. It’s aggravating. Even moreso when it’s because of a technology failure that, when you consider it logically, the technology should work.

Interviews, Insights, and Paradoxes

Because I’m required to protect the names of my interview subjects, I can’t say anything other than P1 gave me these insights for my capstone. However, these insights are so awesome, I have to blog about it. Later, I’ll finally get around to doing more artifact analysis in another blog post. In the meantime, the two insights are:

  1. Janusian Thinking
  2. Old to New vs New to Old

So far, I’ve been able to contact a number of interview subjects, but I desperately need more. If you know anyone who crafts or is a DIYer with an interest in Steampunk, do send them my way.

Janusian Thinking

The first great insight is about Janusian Thinking. Janusian Thinking, in short, refers to the Greek god Janus, who has two faces looking in opposite directions. He is the god of doors and gates, endings and beginnings; i.e. paradoxes. People are drawn to paradoxes because they work. A pencil has lasted over time because on one end, you can write, and on the other end, is the opposite tool, where you can erase. It is both a writing tool and an erasing tool in one, and therefore a paradox that works for us. Same thing with a hammer, you can hammer a nail into place, but you can also pry it out with the same tool.

The paradox in the case of Steampunk is the relationship between old and new, real and imagined.

Steampunk, firmly situated in the imagined worlds of HG Wells and Jules Verne, cannot really exist, right? But it does; people are appropriating modern, real technologies as if they were invented during a time where technology was powered with steam. They are adapting the Victorian and Edwardian aesthetics to modern life, making old things new, and new things old. There is something pleasing in seeing an object that looks old but behaves with modern sensibilities. Old items are familiar, inviting, and have a story accompanying them that modern objects rarely have.

This makes me wonder if the reason why Steampunk is so interesting to so many people. But I wonder, why now especially? Why is Steampunk growing in popularity now? I know it’s not the focus of my capstone, but it’s still something to think about.

Old to New vs New to Old

While interviewing P1, I realized that I once again have to scale down my capstone study. True, I am interested in the appropriation of old items and functionality to new functionality. It’s something I would love to do myself. You know, like find an 19th Century camera and making a new projector out of it or something.

However, it seems to me that the side of the coin I should focus on is the conversion of something new to something with an old visual aesthetic. This isn’t to say I will disregard converting something old to have a new functionality, as I see this as being equally important, and might, in fact, be the same thing for some projects.

Perhaps this isn’t making sense. Is this making sense?