Enhancing 1:1 research interviews: the secret power of the third thing

The one to one interview is a widely used means of generating data in qualitative research. It is a chance for a researcher to spend time exploring a participant’s experiences, practices, perceptions, stories, in detail.

I’d like you to imagine what this might look like. Perhaps you’ve done some interviewing yourself. Perhaps you are planning to do so. What will the set-up be? Here are some images I got from google that capture the sorts of practices I’m referring to.

The point here is the interview is constructed and conducted as a dialogue – a to and fro between two people. Generally one person (the researcher) is asking questions about the other (the participant). It is a dyadic interaction.

My argument is that interviews are better conceived and done as triadic interactions: between the researcher, the participant, and something else.



Screen Shot 2017-08-01 at 9.37.01 AM

Before I go further I need to lay out two assumptions:

  1. Interviews give direct evidence of what someone says in response to questions they are asked in particular circumstances. Nothing else. They are not a magical process that gives direct evidence of what people think or feel. Whom is asking them, what they are being asked, where and when this is happening all contribute to the way in which responses (ie. Data) are constructed within the context of situated social interaction.
  2. Good interviews help people construct useful answers. Useful has lots of dimensions – an element of ‘truth’ or at least genuineness is important, but also detail, relevance, clarity etc. We are not in the business of discovering what is in people’s heads here (at least not in the way I’m thinking about research interviews).

So the X on the diagram above is there to show that data come from interaction between you, the interviewee and a third thing.

This third thing, when used in particular ways, has amazing magical powers.

What am I talking about? What is this third thing?

The third thing can be an object or idea (ie concrete or abstract), but to have these magical powers it has to change the structure and function of the interaction.

A list of questions that the researcher has in her hands does not count. A digital audio recorder does not count. A cup of tea for each of you does not count. These things are useful but they do nothing in themselves to shift from a dyadic to triadic way of conducting the interview.

The objects or ideas that work as magical third things do so by changing the scenario from one in which the researcher asks the interviewee about herself to one in which the researcher asks the interviewee about the third thing.

If we wanted to know what a teacher thinks about, say, teaching in schools, we could ask “What do you think about ensuring accessibility for all learners?”. The question is aimed at the person, directly.

Instead, we could show a photograph of a classroom, or a video, or have one of the teacher’s lesson plans or some examples of resources she has used in her lessons. Then we could ask the interviewee to comment on those things. The interviewee can look at them, perhaps even pick them up.

We have changed from a question that follows a path directly from the researcher to the interviewee and back, to one that goes via a third thing.

Other examples could be diaries, concept maps, small cards with different words or pictures on them, computers or tablet devices, other relevant documents, artefacts people have produced or used – the list is pretty much endless. The magic is not in the thing itself, but in how it is used.

As I mentioned, some of these third things might not be concrete, tangible objects. They could be ideas that are invoked through the way the question is put together. Let me explain with an example.

I’ve been interviewing a lot of parents recently, people who have been experiencing significant difficulties, often for reasons beyond their control. When I was piloting, I found that the question “What do you think your strengths are as a parent?” didn’t produce very good answers. Duh. Why would it? These were vulnerable people who were often self-judging as failing.

Instead I starting asking questions like these: “If I asked your partner what he thinks your strengths are as parent, what would he say?” or “If I asked someone who knows what you’ve been through and knows you really well, what would she say has enabled you to get through it all?”. These questions still take an indirect route (ie via the top of the triangle on the diagram above), but this time the third thing is invoked in an imaginary way.

Why is this indirect, triadic way so valuable?

  1. It helps participants pause before answering. Other things (like cups of tea, biscuits etc) do too, but the point is at least when the third thing is a physical object, people can comfortable entertain silence while they think for a moment. I’ve found even the intangible versions work similarly too: if you ask someone about themselves, there’s this expectation they should know the answer. If you ask them about someone else, it seems more permissible to take some time to think. And generally in interviews, silence is golden! (the other important silence is the one you, the researcher, leave after the answer, but that’s probably for another blog post!).
  2. It is less confronting. Not X asking about Y, but X asks Y about Z. A very useful shift, particularly when we are talking about sensitive issues.
  3. It helps construct responses that are closely tied to concrete examples, giving rich empirical detail not generalised, vague abstractions.
  4. It is based on Vygotsky’s theory of learning (the principle of mediation of activity through tools and signs). There’s shelves of books on this. I’m not going to explain it here, other than to note that the idea does have sound theoretical basis.
  5. It helps balance pre-determined structure and emergence in the interview: the third things can shape (suggest direction, boundaries) but not fix the way the interview goes.

I’m not claiming these ideas are particularly new. People use them all the time. But I haven’t read much about them in the textbooks, at least not explicitly framed this way.

Finally, here are some brief comments from Sally Irvine-Smith, a wonderful doctoral student here at UTS. She has been working with interviews on these principles and kindly offered to share some of her experiences. Thanks Sally!

I am adopting a practice approach which focuses very strongly on what people ‘do’. My study which is about decision makers in the local sphere. One group of participants were involved in a community panel to decide how to spend a certain amount of money for a local council. They were given a large folder of documentation and I asked them to bring that along to the interview where we jointly examined it. Interestingly, although they all (but one) had quite an affection for the folder as a memento of their time on the panel, it was not particularly important to them as a source of information. The remainder of my participants were elected members  or council officers. I did something a little different in their case: I asked them to think of a decision they were making and I treated that decision as the object in the interview. I encouraged the participants to examine their decision as if it had material form, to discuss its genesis and outcome, to describe who helped to shape it, and how it transformed and developed over time. I haven’t written up any of my results yet, but my data analysis indicates that the results from this technique are rich and provide an authentic picture of what my participants actually do when getting information for their decisions. 



How might we respond to rejection in academia?

It seems the #rejectionwall is the gift that keeps on giving! The original tweet has made over 225,000 impressions, and there have been a few visitors to my office to ‘admire’ the collection.

I was contacted by @EvanGomes_ who wanted to do an interview – about the academic rejection wall but also about rejection and failure more generally. His write-up is available here.  I was also interviewed over email by Veronika Cheplygina for her ‘How I Fail‘ series, which prompted me to think further about some aspects of rejection, failure and their connections.

There was part of the interview with Evan that didn’t make the final cut. It was about how I think we cope with rejection and failure. Evan’s post does include a bit where I talked about how we might “encourage people to be confident in seeking help, rather than having to rely on yourself to dig deeper”.

Here is the point I want to make in this post: when someone is faced with a difficult circumstance, I don’t think it is necessarily fair, or good enough, to say the response should be ‘toughen up’, or ‘grow a thick skin’. Yes, there is an aspect of personal quality in how we feel (or allow ourselves to feel?) wounded and hurt when we are rejected. But I don’t think dismissing these feelings or trying to delegitimise them is the way to go. From yoga I’ve learned about acknowledging responses and then coming back to a different position from which options of what next look different. Being thin-skinned doesn’t make academic life and its inevitable rejections easier. But there’s a difference between denying the feelings of pain, hurt, shame etc, and acknowledging them but working on not letting them take overwhelming control of us.

This is where my hero comes in. Vygotsky tells us that as human  beings we have a really special capacity: to control ourselves (our behaviour, our minds) from the outside in. What this means is that instead of having to somehow tap into mysterious inner reserves (grittiness, thick skins, whatever), we have a huge, diverse, set of culturally available tools (both physical objects and those we use symbolically, including language) to help us do this work. A Vygotskian response to rejection could be understood as looking to this external environment as a means to shape our reaction.

That could be sticking the rejection up somewhere public (like an office door), so that you enrol others in responding to it with you, confirming that there is no shame, even if you feel it. It could be getting out a black marker pen and deleting the nasty, stinging comments from reviewers that are neither helpful nor justified. It could be finding a friend to go for a walk or drink with – someone who knows even more about rejection and failure than you. It could be some embodied practices like running, swimming, long deep breaths.

The point is, instead of the person in the difficult situation being asked to dig deeper (and therefore constructed as both the victim and the villain if they fail to do so successfully), that person looks outside themselves for assistance in determining their response.

To be clear, I’m not saying we have to share our rejections publicly. Many won’t want to do so; many will feel vulnerable doing so (despite the experience being universally shared among academics). That’s fine. I am saying it is a tall order to expect of ourselves, or others, to cope and develop the best possible response based on these mysterious, intangible and poorly defined inner qualities alone. So much better to draw on the cultural legacy of human history and start to take control from the outside in. For this, I thank Vygotsky for his most amazing insights.

My wall of rejection and why it matters

See the tweet and all the comments about it here!

If I had a magic wand and could change something about academia, I would make it commonplace for people to share their rejections – on blogs, by emailing colleagues, by running to their office neighbours, print-out in hand, saying “You won’t believe how awful the review I got this morning was! Come and laugh at it with me over coffee!”. I’d love for our workplace walls to be covered with juicy rejections.

#rejectionwall #failurewall #rejectionisnormal #noshame

I recently updated my shadow CV and this got me thinking about rejections. The topic came up last week when I was sat with three very highly respected female professors. The four of us shared our battle scars together, almost competitively one-upping each other: “you think that rejection was bad, mine was worse!”. It turned out three of us had actually been rejected after having papers accepted (as an editor, I didn’t even know ‘unaccept’ was a button you could press in the system!).

The conference that brought us all together had a strong theme relating to materialities, and I started thinking about the materialities of rejection: or, in fact how hidden away academic rejections are from public view, how often they remain in the private digital aether. I made the decision there and then to tear down all the copies of publications that were currently festooned on my office door. After all, while I felt good coming past them each day, it probably didn’t have the same effect on my colleagues. I realised, perhaps  *little* late, that my successes are public enough. People have no problem accessing the ‘Nick is awesome’ version of my career; it is even foisted on them at times without them having to look. What was clearly needed was a visceral, material reminder, an exposé of my many journal rejections, failed research grant applications, and missed job opportunities. Yes, these are in my shadow CV, but that itself is shadowy: only accessed if you know to look for it.

There are some wonderful examples of people sharing rejections (see this fantastic blog by the always awesome Pat Thomson, for example). But I still worry this stuff is too hidden from view.

Ta dah! Here is my new wall of rejection – there for all my colleagues and visiting students to see. I intend to keep it there, and keep adding to it as the rejections flow in.


Why am I doing this?

One responder to a tweet in which I shared a similar picture, @drlizziewho asked: Why do you do this? Good question.

I was simply amazed by the response to the tweet. Over 90,000 impressions, and nearly 700 retweets in the first 15 hours (unprecedented in my contributions to the tweetosphere). People commenting seemed to be from two groups:

  1. Students and early career researchers, who took solace in realising rejection affects us all, is normal, and is nothing to be ashamed of; the value here was that rejection doesn’t mean you’re not good enough, but this message isn’t communicated very often
  2. More experienced researchers who wonderfully acknowledged their own rejections. I’d like to quote a few of them here and thank them for joining the fun

@Liam_Wagner: I think I will plagiarise your idea and cover my office wall with my own list.

@StephenBHeard: You might like my job-rejection list (an awesome blog that develops the theme of the shadow cv)

@SimmsMelanie: I love telling people that I got rejected from my own journal – more than once

@RoseGWhite: I’m sure I could cover a whole corridor like this!

@JRobinHighley: I would start my own display, but not sure I have a wall big enough

@TrevorABranch: My wall is not big enough

@naynerz: If that were my office, not enough all space for my rejections LOL

@mathewjowens: I’m tempted to do this for grant rejections. Though I fear for the deforestation effect

@SJC_fishy: I would need a much larger wall

@RobHarcourt: So would I!


And so it goes on… I simply love how the tweet has prompted those of us who have enjoyed some successes to relish in sharing our less fortunate moments.


@SiouxsieW asked: Does it not depress you seeing that every day? My answer is no! Not at all. It helps to project me from being wounded when the rejections come (and they are definitely coming!) – by keeping me real and helping realise despite all the rejections in the past, I’m still doing okay – indeed I’m doing better every year (though this doesn’t mean the rejection rate goes down). I also admit it gives me a buzz to think the wall, or pictures of it, are perhaps helping others in some small way.


Exposing our rejections is not just important, but necessary in my view, for these reasons:

  1. If we don’t do so, we collude in producing a half-truth about academic life and careers: it’s like hiding all the out-takes.
  2. It’s not just about fun and laughing with (not at) others. The point is that research, careers, publications are not smooth; their journeys into the light of success are bumpy, full of dead ends and disasters. We have to come clean that this is part of knowledge production.
  3. Research would suggest that rejections don’t affect everyone the same way. It’s easy enough for me, with a full time, ongoing job, to brush off a rejection and keep going. It’s not the same for people whose positions are less secure, or whose immediate futures relied on that grant or article getting through.
  4. The professors I was talking to commented that there might be a gender dimension in how we respond to and are affected by rejections. Not that all women respond one way and all men another, but that historically, perhaps the publicity around male success and continued disproportionate representation of men in leadership positions generally, might mean that rejections can ‘bite’ women in particular ways.
  5. There is a pedagogy here – not only normalising rejection, but also potentially modelling ways to deal with it. I’m no masochist. I don’t find rejection fun. I fear rejection. Of course I do. Everything I’ve had rejected has mattered to me, reflected hours of work and emotional input. But I don’t let fear of rejection stop me from trying in the first place. And I don’t let the experience of rejection prevent me from keeping going.

So, here is a really serious call for help:

If you’ve had a rejection, or a whole pile of them, please share with us! Maybe publish your shadow CV, or take a picture of your own #rejectionwall – or do something else creative! Maybe write and tell me what you and colleagues are doing to normalise rejection and build pedagogies of how to deal with it.


STOP PRESS! I’ve been (joyously) overwhelmed by the response to the tweet and blog. Here are some links to things I’ve received from people 🙂

Peggy Blair’s blog in which she shows off her rejections from the publishing industry

An article about another Shadow CV – this time from a really big prof!

A heads up about a paper that will be coming out in the Professional Geographer journal, about failure in academia (Thom Davies et al) – will update with more info when it comes out!

And the first person to share their #rejectionwall – thanks a billion @AlexaDelbosc

AlexaDelbosc rejection wall


New paper on double stimulation: how parents escape impossible situations

Another paper from my Creating Better Futures research project, funded by the ARC, has been published.

Hopwood, N., & Gottschalk, B. (2017). Double stimulation “in the wild”: Services for families with children at risk. Learning, Culture and Social Interaction, 13, 23-37. doi:10.1016/j.lcsi.2017.01.003

There is a 3 minute video abstract available to view, which summarises the key points of the paper.

The paper uses the Vygotskian concept of double stimulation to understand how nurses in early intervention services can help parents who find themselves trapped in impossible situations (for example wanting to be close to a child to comfort them, but feeling they need to separate because they are in a highly distressed state and worried they might harm them). The solution lies not in correcting parents’ ‘wrong’ behaviours, but in helping them take control of the situation by using objects in their environment, their bodies, and ideas, in specific ways. The paper refers closely to Annalisa Sannino’s recent work in which she developed a model of double stimulation.

Here is the abstract:

The concept of double stimulation provides a framework for understanding the promotion of volitional action. In this article the concept is applied “in the wild”, to analyse professional practice in parenting services for parents with young children at risk. We answer questions about (i) how concepts of double stimulation account for features of professional–parent interactions and what new insights are offered by this, and (ii) how double stimulation in the wild relates to the processes specified in a recently articulated model of double stimulation, and wider concepts of expansive learning. Examples of interactions between a professional (nurse) and a new mother illustrate how an absence of auxiliary stimuli may trap parents in conflicted situations. We found that in promoting double stimulation, professionals work simultaneously in two dialectically related fields: getting the parent to act using new auxiliary stimuli and getting them to think differently about the object. Such work may unfold in non-linear and discontinuous fashion and places complex demands on professionals.

The paper:

  1. Applies conceptual model of double stimulation in practice setting
  2. Extends literature on double stimulation in relation to volitional action
  3. Casts new light on parenting intervention for families at risk
  4. Highlights overlooked forms of professional expertise in early intervention

Please get in touch if you would like a copy, or add a comment below if you have read it!



Guest post on Pat Thomson’s blog

I recently wrote a post for Pat Thomons’s blog about being a researcher on someone else’s project, and then coming to be the person whose projects have others working on them. The post is in dialogue with a series on pat’s blog about being a ‘jobbing researcher’, and has comments also from Teena Clerke, who works with me on the Creating Better Futures project. We hope you enjoy it, and thank you Pat for the opportunity!


New video series on publishing in academic journals

A while back I made a video about publishing in academic journals. It has been pretty popular (nearly 3,000 views). However the time has come for an update! So many things have changed in terms of publishing infrastructure, artefacts, relationships between authors and publishers, etc.

This time, I’ve broken the video down into four parts.

They can be viewed as a complete series in one video here (32 minutes), or as separate videos via the links below:

Part 1 – Trends in academic journal publishing: what is changing, what is staying the same? (11:45)

Part 2 – Copyright, Open Access and what these mean for authors (05:14)

Part 3 – Journal quality, status indicators (Impact Factor, alt metrics etc) (09:18)

Part 4 – Introduction to peer review (05:52)

There are also versions available with subtitles in Arabic. A huge shukran to Abdullah for the translation!

Part 1 (Arabic)  |  Part 2 (Arabic)  |  Part 3 (Arabic)  |  Part 4 (Arabic)

Please add your comments below: What did you take from the videos as key points? Were some things surprising? What would you like to hear more about? What is missing? Do you disagree with some things I say?

If you’re coming to a workshop with me on publishing and peer review, watching all four parts is essential in your pre-workshop preparation. We will start by asking what your key points and further questions are.

Given how many researchers I’ve worked with from Aotearoa New Zealand, there’s a (rather unsubtle) silent shout-out to you at the start and end of each video! Hope you like it…


New paper – free download and video abstract!

Another paper has come online this week – again relating to my Creating Better Futures ARC funded study. This one was my second publication with Anne Edwards from Oxford University – someone I admire greatly for her work developing and applying cultural-historical theory. We worked together on the analysis reported here while Anne visited UTS as part of our Distinguished Visiting Scholars scheme in 2016. It is a privilege to work with the world’s best researchers in my field.

Hopwood N & Edwards A (2017) How common knowledge is constructed and why it matters in collaboration between professionals and clients. International Journal of Educational Research 83, 107-119. doi: 10.1016/j.ijer.2017.02.007

A couple of firsts for me in publishing, too!

  1. This paper can be downloaded free of charge until 12 May 2017 – some Elsevier offered without me asking! Use this link: https://authors.elsevier.com/a/1Ulvf38nswHXMT
  2. There is a video abstract to accompany the written version – just a couple of minutes talking through the key points. I really like the idea of video abstracts, and know Routledge/Taylor & Francis are offering similar options to their authors now, too. Here is the link:


And here is the text abstract:

Professionals are increasingly called upon to work with clients. We employ cultural-historical concepts to reveal how professionals and clients accomplish joint work on problems in services for families with young children. Professional–client interactions in day stay and home visiting services are considered, first focusing on how matters of concern are worked into departures of significance (employing ‘D-analysis’), then conceptualising joint professional–parent work in terms of common knowledge and the object of activity. The importance of motives and their alignment is revealed. We show the value of D-analysis in elucidating how common knowledge can be constructed and why this process may be problematic. Finally, we reflect on the fluid and situated nature of this kind of collaborative work.