Explanatory interview or clarifying interview

Domain of activity : Interview, Survey of territory
Objective of the tool/method : The explanatory interview enables formulation in words of an experience after the action. It does not require confronting the interviewee with direct elements. It is based on the processive conscience memory (relative to the process of adaptation to an environment). It enables the interviewee to avoid relating theories which have not been experienced directly and skills which have not actually been used in action.
It has the interest of highlighting tacit skills which are frequently difficult to formulate or identify. The interviewee is required to explain his/her actions, thus being brought to think through given tasks in order to understand the precise procedures involved and, in wider terms, how they act and react. It is therefore aimed at understanding an action. The action in this case designates the behaviour of a person in the intent to produce an observable effect (Balas, 2002). When a person acts, he/she is aware of the environment in which they are acting but is not necessarily aware of his/her activity in terms of regulating the said action. His/her conscience may notably be focused on the subject/object relationship without being fully aware of the acts themselves and the skills he/she is calling upon or the emotions they feel or the objectives they wish to achieve. The explanatory interview is used to invite expression of the above.
Description of the tool : During the explanatory interview, it is important that the interviewee relives an action from memory while forgetting the presence of the interviewer to the best possible extent, in other words the interviewee takes a position of the ‘incarnate word’ (Vermersch, 1994). In order to enable this, the interviewer must meet several conditions. First of all, it is important to ask the interviewee to agree to speak about the chosen situation, for example:

- Do you agree to speak about what happened this morning when you said ‘I couldn’t manage to inject the cow’.
- Hmm, yes, I agree.

This enables the interviewee to commit (or not) to verbalisation and, for ethical reasons, confirms that he/she agrees to give information which may well touch on the intitmate (Balas, 2002). It is important also, as when talking about one’s life, not to make any judgements which may give the impression that the interviewer knows, validates or invalidates certain positions.

The implementation of the questioning is based on several qualities. The context of the interview must enable a certain level of intimacy between the interviewer and the interviewee. The questions should be open and not enable yes or no type answers. They should not induce proposals which would limit the interviewee’s thought process and invite him/her to answer the interviewer rather than describe the action in question. It is important to use, where possible, the interviewee’s vocabulary. Using other terms may run the risk of the interviewee reacting and disconnecting from the narration. One should never question the reasons for an action, which would require the interviewee to interpret the action, but only how an action takes place.

The aim is to arrive at a chronological description of the action. In order to favour the narration, the interviewer may invite the interviewee to go into more detail or go back to the beginning of an action if the interviewee had started in mid-process, the interviewer may also invite description of an element of the context which may be used to refocus the interviewee onto the action, for example:

  • Where were you positioned with regards to the cow when the action started?

The physical position between interviewer and interviewee is also important in explanatory interviews. One should avoid face to face positions, favouring, side by side, in order not to impose direct visual contact which may be then broken by the interviewee during the narration.

In order to ensure that the person is duly narrating a given situation, the interviewer must pay attention to non-verbal signs too: looking away, vocal rhythm slowing down, uses of past or contextualised present tenses... Similarly, if the interviewee starts to use general terms in the present this may indicate that he/she is not in a position of narration but interpretation.

The interviewee may translate, generally in a non-verbal manner, surprise or irritation for certain questions. It is necessary to reformulate the contract and verify that he/she agrees to continue the interview.

The explanatory interview considers action as central and considers the objectives sought, the knowledge on which the action is based, the personal judgement, the context, the emotional dimension… as satellites of the action. It focuses on the explanation of the act itself, i.e. the procedure, whether practical, material or mental, the satellites only being achieved through the action. The satellites of the action (cf. figure n°1) are the context, the intentions and the emotions felt during the action, the objectives of the action and the knowledge of the situation which governs the action and the elements of context which may influence it.
The explanatory interview defines the most pertinent ‘granularity’ in relation to the information sought, i.e. the description of the action in its finest details to access the emotions, feelings, objectives, skills and knowledge used during the action.

We propose a description of two examples of explanatory interviews aimed at understanding how to feed a calf for one and how to lead a flock of sheep for the other.

The explanatory interview demonstrates our research object in its full expression. This type of interview guides the interviewee towards “providing a reliable source of inferences to highlight the reasoning actually used and to identify the objectives really sought after in order to identify the theory and skills effectively used in practical situations and to get a grasp of representations or sources of difficulty” (Vermersch, 1994, p. 18). The explanatory interview gives access to the unconscious acts that comprise an action and the unconscious nature of the intention behind the action.
More information : Tool support : written course

This is an interview which supposes a given position from the interviewer and requires an audio or video recording. The latter is less recommended because the presence of a camera may be considered as intrusive by the interviewee and thus hinder the narration process.
Where the analysis of the explanatory interview is based on the person’s narration, the interviewer must be vigilant with regards to signs that the interviewee may express, such as body and eye movements which give signs as to the quality of the explanation.

Link to the tool : www.grex2.com
Succes factor : Prior to any explanatory interview, the interviewee must be in full agreement and trust the interviewer. Some of the exchanges may well touch on intimate subjects.
Carrying out an explanatory interview requires prior training of the interviewer but even a poorly conducted interview can be a rich source of information. The interviewee may well be initially surprised by the content and direction of the interview, and this may lead to a certain level of resistance in verbalising actions or thoughts. As the interviewer gains experience he/she will improve in performance.
The explanatory interview may be associate with a sort of life account enquiry.
Contact : Michel Vidal
Contact email : michel.vidal@supagro.fr
Address : 9 rue Célestin Freinet
Town : FLORAC
Author of the index card : Marie-Laure Girault
Author structure : Institut d'éducation à l'agro-environnement de Florac