The ethics of interpretation: (inaugural professorial lecture).
Abstract: This lecture was given on Wednesday 27th October 2010 at City University's Northampton Suite. It was given on the occasion of my promotion to Professor of Psychology at City University. The audience consisted of academic psychologists (lecturers and researchers from City University and a range of other institutions), research students, psychotherapists and friends.

Key Words

Interpretation, ethics, detective work, amplification of meaning, cancer, meaning-making, qualitative research, narrative
Article Type: Essay
Subject: Criminal investigation (Analysis)
Ethics (Analysis)
Hermeneutics (Analysis)
Qualitative research (Analysis)
Author: Willig, Carla
Pub Date: 07/01/2011
Publication: Name: Existential Analysis Publisher: Society for Existential Analysis Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Psychology and mental health Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2011 Society for Existential Analysis ISSN: 1752-5616
Issue: Date: July, 2011 Source Volume: 22 Source Issue: 2
Geographic: Geographic Scope: United Kingdom Geographic Code: 4EUUK United Kingdom
Accession Number: 288874219
Full Text: Interpretation as Detective Work

We will start with a 4-minute clip from a T V-version of one of the Sherlock Holmes tales, 'The Blue Carbuncle":

Show clip of the hat scene in 'The Blue Carbuncle'

(Summary of content of clip:

In 'The Blue Carbuncle', world-famous detective Sherlock Holmes demonstrates his skills of deduction by analysing the clues as to the identity of its owner provided by a hat which had been left behind at the scene of a c rime. The hat is described as an old, battered, black felt hat with red silk lining which had become rather discoloured. There is a piercing on the brim for a hat-securer (an elastic band used to keep the hat in place) but the elastic is now missing. The hat is cracked and dusty. Discoloured patches on it have been smeared with ink in order to disguise them. Whilst his assistant Dr Watson fails to deduce anything of interest from the evidence presented by the hat, Holmes concludes that the owner must be someone who had been well-off but who has now fallen upon hard times (the hat is of very good quality but had not been replaced when the fashion changed several years ago), someone who had foresight and good sense but is now less fastidious (the hat securer cannot be bought in shops so must have been specially ordered; however, it had not been replaced once it had broken), someone who although clearly having lost his former place in the world has not entirely lost self-respect (the discoloured patches on the hat have been covered up with ink) and someone whose wife has ceased to love him (the hat had not been brushed for weeks). In addition, grey hairs left inside the hat together with the smell of lime-cream and marks of moisture due to excessive perspiration lead Holmes to conclude that the hat's owner was middle-aged and not in good physical condition. Dr Watson is amazed at how much Holmes is able to deduce from what appears to be an ordinary old hat; however, he admits that Holmes' reasoning is entirely plausible and that the insights gained from it are valid.)

Here we have an example of the act of interpretation as a means to an end which is to find the answer to a question, to solve a problem, to 'crack it'. The assumption is that there is only one correct solution to the mystery. Finding it is in the general interest, it is a social 'good' because it is 'the truth'.

This version is straightforward, comforting and satisfying, generating a sense of security and order and the confirmation that, in the end, 'it all makes sense'.

In her account of the emergence of the profession of the police detective in the 1840s, Summerscale captures this dimension of the role of the interpreter of evidence:

A Victorian detective was a secular substitute for a prophet or a priest. In a new uncertain world, he offered science, conviction, stories that could organise chaos. He turned brutal crimes--the vestiges of the beast in man--into intellectual puzzles

(p. xii in 'The Suspicions of Mr Whicher' by Kate Summerscale, 2008)

Here, interpretation proceeds from the firm belief that it is possible to find an explanation for what presents itself--however, puzzling, mysterious, illogical or, indeed, trivial it may appear to be. Readers of the Sherlock Holmes tales are repeatedly entertained by scenes in which Holmes invites Dr Watson to interpret evidence which is so sparse, so apparently trivial or so incongruent as to appear to be incapable of yielding any clues whatsoever. The mark of the genius detective, however, is to extract meaning from the mundane, everyday details of life and to make sense of the apparently senseless.

Paradoxically, the very project of seeking to solve a mystery by interpreting the mundane details of everyday life removes the straightforwardness, the self-evidence, the innocence previously associated with the trivial and apparently insignificant and views it with suspicion as Summerscale (2008: xii) puts it, through the in(ter)vention of the detective "[T]he ordinary was made sinister".

So, ironically, the desire to clear things up, to bring the truth to light, to straighten things out, to 'unmuddle', leads to the creation of ambiguity, uncertainty and suspicion because now the mundane details of everyday life can mean more than they appear to mean- they carry hidden meanings and they can become "the mark of suspicion" (Summerscale, 2008: xii).

This process, of course, reminds us of another interpretative enterprise, emerging shortly afterwards towards the end of the century. Indeed, in 1906 Freud himself compared the work of the detective to psychoanalysis:

"In both we are concerned with a secret, with something hidden ... In the case of the criminal it is a secret which he knows and hides from you, whereas in the case of the hysteric it is a secret which he himself does not know either, which is hidden even from himself. In this one respect, therefore, the difference between the criminal and the hysteric is fundamental. The task of the therapist, however, is the same as that of the examining magistrate. We have to uncover the hidden psychic material; and in order to do this we have invented a number of detective devices." (in Summerscale, 2008: 103-4)

These devices assist the therapist detective in identifying the true meaning of puzzling manifestations such as dreams and neurotic symptoms. Psychological mechanisms such as distortion, substitutions, condensation and displacements of meanings were identified. Freud demonstrated how the psyche uses these in order to disguise the true significance of dreams and neurotic symptoms and how it was, therefore, necessary to translate this puzzling surface or 'manifest' content into its true, 'latent' meaning. Thus, through a process of expert interpretation, what appeared to be senseless epiphenomena of disturbed mental activity were made meaningful. In this way, it was suggested, it is possible to resolve a neurosis by extracting its suppressed meaning, in the same way that a crime is solved by identifying and exposing the culprit.

In The Interpretation of Dreams (pp. 361-2), Freud describes the following case which illustrates the neatness of solutions arrived at through classic psychoanalytic interpretation and which, incidentally and no doubt unintentionally, also again invokes the connection between psychoanalysis and crime detection :

This affinity between the detective and the psychoanalyst is captured by the portrayal of Sergeant Cuff, the detective in Wilkie Collins' detective story 'The Moonstone' published in the 1860s, who is described as working in "roundabout" and "underground" ways, encouraging his sources to disclose more than they intended, and whose eyes are described as practicing a " disconcerting trick, when they encountered your eyes, of looking as if they expected something more from you than you were aware of yourself" (cited in Summerscale, 2008: 268).

So, from this perspective, both the detective's and the psychoanalyst's job is to locate and retrieve hidden meanings from surface evidence and they both do this in the face of resistance (conscious resistance from the criminal, unconscious resistance from the patient). It is no surprise, therefore, that attempts to mislead them and to sabotage their quest are to be expected. The assumption in both cases, however, is that there is only one correct interpretation of the facts and that the skilled and gifted interpreter will rise to the challenge and 'crack' the mystery.

This version of interpretation has given rise to a multitude of stimulating, entertaining and intellectually satisfying tales presented in books, films and plays whose appeal continues to be strong: from the earliest detective fiction beginning with Edgar Allan Poe's 'The Murders in the Rue Morgue' published in 1841 through Freud's own case studies, Agatha Christie's Miss Marple and Poirot stories, Hitchcock movies such as 'Marnie' to today's 'Girl with the Dragon Tattoo'. It seems that interpretation-as-problem-solving is clearly very appealing and can be a lot of fun.

Interpretation in Everyday Life: Banal Interpretation

Of course, not all interpretation of human action is as self-consciously produced, as systematic and as goal-directed as crime detection and psychoanalysis.

Interpretation as the act of assigning meaning to phenomena is something we do all the time. It is part of our lived experience of the world. It is also something we do to each other. In order to make sense of other people's actions, we give them meaning, often on the basis of little evidence and more often than not drawing on psychological discourse. Consider casual comments such as the following, all of which are taken from 'real life' conversations overheard by myself:

"Ooh, you want to be in charge!" to the student who has volunteered to write on the blackboard

"It looks like she is trying to hide something" about the girl who is wearing heavy make-up

"He's like a child with his dummy" about the alcoholic clutching a bottle of scotch

These are everyday examples of attributions of motives and intentions. It seems that even the weather cannot escape from anthropocentric interpretations. Consider the following phrases taken from recent TV weather forecasts:

"Temperatures struggling to reach the low 90s"

"Treacherous conditions on the roads" and the priceless:

"Showers still flirting with East Anglia"

Returning to the theme of interpreting hats, I will take this opportunity to share with you my own encounter with banal, everyday interpretation involving people's ready interpretations of my wearing a broad-brimmed hat in spring and summer. Seeing me in my hat and scarf (pic), both in fact requirements to protect my skin from exposure to UV-rays since having been treated for skin cancer in 2007, tends to provoke exclamations along the lines of "Oooh, look at you, off to Ascot, are you?!". Since for me, the hat and scarf are undesirable restrictions as well as reminders of my vulnerability to a recurrence of cancer, the attributions of a desire to be glamorous and to stand out from the crowd implied in these kinds of comments can be very trying.

Interpretations of Illness material

Death and illness are of course themselves phenomena that attract interpretation. In fact, it seems that faced with the anxiety generated by a confrontation with the vulnerability of our physical being and the reality of human mortality, we feel compelled to create protective meaning. Often this means interpreting other people's experiences of death and illness as the product of predispositions or behavioural practices which we ourselves do not share or take part in. In this way, they are turned into things that happen to other people but not ourselves.

The attribution of causes of death and illness, in the absence of any medical information about the particular case and, thus, made purely on the basis of cultural representations of them, is widespread and often highly distressing for those on the receiving end.

Consider Patrick Weir's account of what it is like to live with gout (The Guardian, tabloid section 'Health', 06.07.10, pp. 14-5). Having described the physical symptoms and discomfort associated with gout (including inflammation of joints and acute pain), he goes on to say that:

It seems that once diagnosed with a medical condition, we become the targets of other people's interpretative efforts- we become 'interpretative prey'. As Fleischman (1999: 21) puts it:

In Illness as Metaphor, Susan Sontag (1991) explored the various subject positions contained within widely used cancer metaphors and their implications for those who are described by them. She (1991:3) observed that

Stacey (1997) has presented a comprehensive account of how cancer is perceived, experienced and theorised in contemporary society. Stacey's analysis includes an examination of alternative/complementary therapy, self-help as well as biomedical discourses. She also draws on her own experience of being diagnosed with and treated for cancer. Stacey demonstrates how various constructions of cancer contained within these discourses positioned her and shaped her experiences including her sense of self, demonstrating, as she (1997: 28) puts it "(...) some of the ways in which a person with cancer is subject to, if not bombarded with, powerful and contradictory discourses about the nature of their illness" and the "confusion and panic" that can result from this. Stacey identifies the following meanings attributed to cancer by the various health and cancer cultures she encountered during her illness. These include:

i. the idea that cancer symbolises something (such as the cancer patient's inner weakness and self-destructiveness),

ii. the assumption that cancer is unspeakable and monstrous,

iii. the belief that a positive attitude makes recovery more likely and that a healthy body requires a 'healthy mind',

iv. the belief that the patient can contribute to the success of their treatment by visualising the destruction of the disease,

v. the expectation that the patient ought to be(come) an expert on themselves and the new imperatives of the care of the self that result from this,

vi. the idea that ultimate responsibility for one's health lies with oneself, and finally,

vii. the construction of death as unacceptable and a failure which ought to be avoided (see Stacey, 1997: 25-28 for a summary).

Obituaries and other references to cancer-related deaths in the media almost inevitably construct the death as a casualty of a 'battle with cancer'. It seems as though it is not acceptable to simply die of cancer- one must first 'do battle' with it. Within this context it is interesting to observe that in the opening paragraph of a newspaper article about the death of the actor Lynn Redgrave (The Guardian, Tuesday 4th May 2010, p. 3) the actor is described as having "died aged 67 after a lengthy battle with cancer" which is followed, in paragraph three, by a citation of the family's own official statement which read "Our beloved mother Lynn Rachel passed away peacefully after a s even-year journey with breast cancer". It seems that the construction of 'cancer as war' is so ubiquitous that even the family's own alternative construction of 'cancer as a journey' has not deterred the author of the article from invoking the compulsory "battle".

Both Sontag (1991) and Stacey (1997), and more recently Ehrenreich in the provocatively entitled 'Smile or Die' (2009), powerfully evoke the sense of vulnerability and mortification that accompanies the experience of being constructed by and positioned within dominant cancer discourses. These authors communicate a sense of loss of control over the story that they can tell about themselves and a struggle to regain control over the narrative which will, eventually, make sense of their experience of being diagnosed with cancer. Similarly, in my own account of the struggle for meaning during the process of cancer diagnosis (Willig, 2009: 182) I observed that,

Likewise, in her reflections on her experience of being diagnosed with a rare and life-threatening blood disorder, Fleischman (1999: 7) observes,

It seems that at a time when narrative wreckage threatens, when an existing storyline ceases to make sense of our current experience, we are particularly vulnerable to what Arthur Frank (1995: 6) has described as 'narrative surrender'. Finding bearable meaning in a diagnosis and coming to terms with its implications for one's sense of self is not easy, particularly whilst powerful messages from loved ones and the wider society about what it means to be ill are received at the same time.

In an interview study of 19 female breast cancer patients' experiences of the impact of an altered appearance during chemotherapy treatment, Harcourt and Frith (2008) identified two key themes within the data: i) anxiety that chemotherapy would render them identifiable as a 'person-with-cancer', and ii) problematic interactions with others. In particular, the loss of hair (including any attempts to disguise this, for example, by wearing a headscarf or a wig) was feared as it was seen to impart information about their disease status to others and, therefore, to lead to them being identifiable as a ' person-with-cancer'. Such an identification, in turn, led to a loss of control over how to define oneself and over how one was treated by others (e.g. with unwanted attention, with sympathy or pity when they just wanted to 'blend in', or worse, with unwanted advice or unsolicited opinions about the causes of their cancer). In other words, the women experienced a loss of control over who they were and who they could be within a social context. For some participants, their attempts to regain control over their sense of self led them to avoid social interactions altogether.

However, it is not only when we are afflicted by illness that our freedom to determine who we can be is compromised by other people's freedom to interpret us. Jean-Paul Sartre (2003) has interesting things to say about what it means to exist for others.

He identifies the moment when we experience being seen by another person as the moment when we become aware of ourselves as an object within the other's world. This moment is characterised by "the shock which seizes me when I apprehend the Other's look" and the realisation that "(...) the Other is the hidden death of my possibilities" (Sartre, 2003: 288). This is because the other's look expresses the fact that it is him/her, not me, who gives meaning to the object which I constitute in his/her world. In this situation, I am reminded of the fact that the being which I am for the other is not my creation. I do not have control over it. It is the other's interpretation of me that makes me 'real' for him/her. According to Sartre (2003: 291), "... being seen constitutes me as a defenceless being for a freedom which is not my freedom". In other words, I am at the mercy of the other's interpretation of my being, and "I (...) wish that others should confer upon me a being which I can recognise" (Sartre, 2003: 286) because ultimately, in the social world, I need to accept responsibility for "(...) this stranger who is presented to me (...)" (Sartre, 2003: 298).

So the other's look can bring mortification and feels something like this: show image.

Interpretation as an Act of Violence

To interpret another's experience means to claim privileged access to its underlying meaning. Interpreting another's experience also means claiming the right to transform, to convert, to translate it into something different and to relate to this meaning as its 'real' meaning.

Much has been written about the power issues raised by psychoanalytic practice and the ways in which the analyst's expert status together with the patient's distressed and, therefore, arguably vulnerable condition can lead to the imposition of interpretations upon the patient's experience which are unhelpful, inaccurate or even damaging. Sometimes, the patient's own understanding of their experience is dismissed by interpreting it as a manifestation of resistance to the therapeutic process. For example, a patient's assertion that she is feeling better and would like to think about ending therapy can be interpreted as a 'flight into health'. Interpretation can constitute an act of violence when the imposition of meaning by an external and powerful force serves to silence alternative meanings. Through interpretation, socially undesirable behaviours can be converted into symptoms of mental ill health. Powerful and disturbing historical examples spring to mind such as pathologising interpretations of female sexuality (leading to interventions such as clitoridectomy still practiced in the US at the beginning of the 20th century), of homosexual desire (leading to electroshock treatment or re-conditioning schedules still widely used in the second half of the 20th century) and of political protest (leading to the incarceration of political dissidents in asylums which is still happening today in some parts of the world).

And even in the world of artistic expression, which in many ways really is all about the freedom to create new meaning, the ethics of interpretation cannot be sidestepped. Consider the following poem, published by Craig Raine following the death of his mother:

Extract from 'I Remember My Mother Dying' by Craig Raine

Here the poet interprets his mother's experience by comparing the satisfaction of having her hairs pulled out to sexual pleasure. In an article for the Guardian newspaper, he himself acknowledges that "she wouldn't have liked it because it violates her privacy". He still went ahead and published it, against the advice of his wife and friends, because he believes that "the morality of art is its accuracy". Note how the poet justifies his decision to publish by suggesting that his interpretation is 'accurate', thus implying that he is merely telling the truth about his mother's experience. However, another take on t his poem is that it constitutes an act of interpretative violence, perhaps all the more ethically problematic because its target, the poet's mother, has died and cannot challenge it. My own advice to the poet would have been to not publish the poem and indeed I have mixed feelings about publicising the poem further by including a reference to it in my talk, albeit as an example of an ethically dubious interpretation.

Styles of Interpretation

So does all this mean that we should do a way with interpretation? Is interpretation always violent? Is interpretation simply too dangerous to be used purposefully, responsibly and productively?

I do not think that we need to abandon interpretation altogether. And this is not only because I believe that, as MerleauPonty (1962: xix) put it, as human beings we are "condemned to meaning". I believe that it would be a mistake because constructing meaning can be extremely helpful; indeed, it is sometimes required in order to enable a person to tolerate an experience, to make it bearable.

Narrative psychology has demonstrated that particularly at times of major change in a person's life circumstances, at times when a person's sense of identity and of their place in the world are disrupted, people seek to create new stories about themselves and their lives. They try to make sense of what is happening to them by making the unexpected, disruptive events meaningful, by making them part of a new narrative which turns chaos into something which can be understood, thought about and shared with others. The new story may be sad, it may be frightening, but it is coherent and it allows the person to find his or her place within it and to develop a sense of where they may be heading. In other words, it provides them with a compass and it helps them to identify possibilities for action. I myself was reminded very powerfully of the importance of meaning-making when I was confronted with my cancer diagnosis. I was struck by just how actively, how desperately, I was searching for meaning, trying to find what I came to call my 'serviceable narrative' which would enable me to settle within a framework of meaning and which would allow me to establish a relationship with what was happening to me. In my case, the 'serviceable narrative' drew on existential themes and involved the attempt to "make peace with [the idea of] death" (van Deurzen, 1998: 18); however, I believe that it is not the nature or content of the narrative itself but the fact of its existence and availability together with the personal commitment to it which really mattered. A 'serviceable narrative' is a narrative that one can believe in; it is one that can function as "one's own truth" in the face of the numerous alternative stories that could be told, and often are being told by well-meaning others, about one's experience.

Conversely, it seems that the inability, or refusal, to commit to a 'serviceable narrative' can lead a person to feel stuck, unable to move on and engage with their situation. Within the context of psychotherapy this can mean that a client is waiting for the therapist to formulate a 'serviceable narrative' for them but is finding that each one that is offered fails to 'hit the spot', fails to do what it is meant to do, leaving the client with a sense of emptiness and futility. In this situation, the most helpful thing that a therapist can do is to provide and maintain an environment within which the client can construct a ' serviceable narrative' for themselves. Part of creating such an environment may be the sustained refusal to step in and rescue the client by offering storylines and interpretations of the client's experience. This can be very hard indeed.

So whilst I believe that meaning-making and interpretation are essential to our well-being and our ability to navigate the existential challenges of life, I also believe that it is important to monitor very carefully how we use interpretation, especially in relation to other people's experiences, and to be mindful of what the effects of our interpretations might be. It may be helpful to think of interpretative activity as falling along a continuum ranging from 'closed and certain' to 'open and tentative'. These are not the same as but resonate with Ricoeur's (1970) distinction between a 'hermeneutics of suspicion' and a ' hermeneutics of empathy or meaning re-collection'.

The extreme end of the 'closed and certain' type of interpretation is akin to a process of translation where the interpreter has access to a code which allows him or her to disclose the true meaning of what presents itself is. In effect, the interpretation by digging underneath the presenting phenomenon destroys what is there (by claiming that it is not what it seems) and replaces it with something else which is (supposed to be) its 'true meaning'. This type of interpretation, then, involves a reduction, a taking away of (manifest) meaning in return for offering new meaning. 'Closed and certain' types of interpretations are also restrictive in that they are based on the assumption that there is only one correct reading of the material and that this is informed by one particular theoretical framework. Because of this, 'closed and certain' types of interpretation can only be arrived at by those who are familiar with the relevant theoretical framework, in other words, those who are experts. This means that the expert's understanding of the meaning of an experience is privileged over that of the person who has the experience.

'Open and tentative' interpretations, by contrast, aim to amplify meaning by illuminating further that which presents itself by paying special attention to its features and qualities, by making connections between them and by noticing patterns and relationships.

It means widening the angle from which one looks at what presents itself, zooming in and out, foregrounding different parts of the whole as well as moving between a focus on the parts and a focus on the whole. 'Open and tentative' interpretation is not reductionist in nature:

We need (...) to remember that the process of revealing the unknown part of a phenomenon does not replace a deceptive manifest utterance or symptom with the reality of a true meaning which invalidates what we have seen so far. On the contrary, the perceived phenomenon gains clarity, richness and meaningfulness whenever a new aspect of its totality is discovered

(Cohn, 2005: 221).

Implications for Counselling/Psychotherapy

So what are the implications of these reflections for the practice of psychotherapy and counselling?

Let me give you an example of a subtle form of closed and certain interpretation, drawn from my own practice. It is an example of an interpretation which subtly imposed meaning on the client's actions, meaning which was not grounded in the client's own experience and reflections but in my suspicions about the 'true' meaning of the client's behaviour. The interpretation was made right at the end of a counselling session and left no room for the client to question, challenge or reflect on it; its status as an interpretation was also not explicitly acknowledged by me. As such, it was the type of interpretation which I do not consider to be helpful, facilitative or even ethical- although it is one I myself made:

The client had introduced the practice of lighting a candle at the beginning of every session and extinguishing it at the end. The question of the meaning of the candle had been raised by me in previous sessions but the client had chosen not to explore it in any detail. One day, the client did not light the candle at the beginning of the session. At the end of the session, she realised with some surprise that she had not lit the candle this time whereupon I said "You have not needed it today".

And here is an example of an interpretation which emerged collaboratively with a client after a period of time during which the client had been talking about the disappointment and hurt caused by her husband's reluctance to offer to do household chores. It emerged from the client's memories and reflections regarding interactions within her family of origin that within that family doing chores for one another was the way in which love was expressed. It emerged that the client and her family of origin were communicating their emotions non-verbally through doing jobs for one another. For example, surprising one's wife by cleaning the windows unprompted meant 'I love you'. The fact that the client's husband did not volunteer to carry out household tasks was interpreted by the client as a sign of a lack of love for her. My own reaction to realising this was surprise and a sense that something that had been puzzling up to now (why was it so very important to my client that her husband cleaned the windows unprompted?) was now making sense. It also made sense to the client who began to consider the possibility of using alternative, perhaps more direct expressions of feelings with her husband.

Interpretation conceived as widening the angle of vision (as opposed to an act of translation) can help to draw on the context within which experiences and actions take place in order to make them more meaningful. The aim is to 'complete the picture', to perceive more of what presents itself, by adding layers of meaning rather than to 'boil things down' to their underlying meaning.

For example, someone's outward and visible behaviour (for example, self-sufficient and independent) can acquire additional meaning when understood as a response to early experiences of abandonment and as an expression of a lack of trust in others' availability. However, this does not mean that the self-sufficiency and independence are merely a pretence, a front, and that the apparently independent person is 'really' a lost child.... The independence and self-sufficiency are real but at the same time they are part of a bigger picture in which they constitute a response to a world which is perceived to be lacking in supportive and reliable others.

Sometimes a client's distress shows itself only indirectly through their disclaimers and assurances that 'every cloud has a silver lining' and through the coping strategies which they are putting in place to cope with their distress. For example, consider the client who starts a session by describing how he has put in place a range of measures designed to 'stay positive'--without ever mentioning, explicitly, the reason why he feels the need to make an effort to 'stay positive'; that is to say, the fact that he is feeling low. Here, interpretation as amplification of meaning requires that attention is paid to the absent term (the low mood) to which the coping strategies are a response. As such, it does require that we move beyond that which is foregrounded by the client, the manifest content if you like, in this case, the positivity, and that meaning is added. However, interpretation as amplification of meaning does not replace the manifest content with another, 'real, meaning but rather it sheds further light on that which is foregrounded by illuminating the background against which it is set. This means that none of what is brought to light is inaccessible to the client. It is a question of pointing to parts of the picture (perhaps less obvious, somewhat obscured ones) as opposed to introducing entirely new ideas or concepts into it.

Implications for Qualitative Research

I want to end by considering the implications of these reflections for qualitative research practice.

The other day I was approached by a postgraduate student who was conducting research into pluralism in qualitative research. As part of her study, she was inviting me to analyse an extract from an interview transcript. Without giving it much thought (the extract was only 3 pages long) I agreed and I received the extract in due course. The interview extract was from an interview with an undergraduate student about her experience of converting from Catholicism to Islam. The extract focused on the responses of the student's family and friends to her decision to convert. I read the extract through and quickly realised that it would be impossible for me to analyse it without a research question in mind. In order to analyse the data, I felt that I needed to know what it was that we wanted to find out. What did we want the data to tell us about? Did we want to know what it was like for the student to tell her friends and family about her conversion? What it felt like? Did we want to know how others reacted to her news? What it was like for them? Did we want to know how the student talked about her experience? What kind of language she used? What kind of effect her account had on the interviewer? I realised that I would not be able to simply 'analyse the data' because to do this would mean to claim to be able to find out what the extract 'meant' as such, rather than to see it as a potential source of information about specific dimensions of the phenomenon of 'converting to Islam'.

The application of an 'open and tentative' approach to interpretation in qualitative research means being modest about what we can come to know.

It is important to remember that any research project is motivated and driven by a research question which specifies which aspect or dimension of social/psychological reality the study aims to shed light on. No study ever seeks to simply study 'life' as such or to understand 'the world' in general. Even realist research only ever seeks to establish the truth about something in particular rather than simply 'the truth'. In addition, every study will have to work within a s et of practical constraints (such as available time and finances) which set limits to what it can aspire to find out.

All this means that even the most carefully designed study can never achieve more than to shed light on one small part of a much bigger whole. Different research methods such as grounded theory, discourse analysis or phenomenological methods can shed light on different aspects of human experience; none of them can capture all of it. From this point of view, qualitative research is about attempting to discover new aspects of a totality which can never be accessed directly or captured in its entirety.

Finally, what about those whom we call the 'research participants'? Those whose words and actions we interpret, or 'analyse' as we tend to prefer to call it? What is their role in the interpretative process? And what is the relationship between the data (that is to say, the original texts that participants produce) and the analysis (that is to say, the stories that we, the researchers, tell about these texts)? What are the ethical challenges associated with this relationship?

It is interesting, I think, and noteworthy, that these questions receive relatively little attention in the literature. Ethical clearance procedures tend to be concerned with the effects on participants of taking part in the research. For example, researchers are expected to have considered the psychological effects of talking about sensitive issues within research interviews and they are expected to provide appropriate referral options for those participants who become distressed as a result. However, the ethical dimensions of the process of analysis are often neglected. And yet, in qualitative analysis, much more so than in counselling and psychotherapy, it is often one person alone, namely the researcher, who gives meaning to the data. The research participant, having provided an account of their experience, disappears from the scene. Occasionally, he or she may be consulted again, once or twice, in a process sometimes referred to as member checking or participant validation, to check the analysis for accuracy. There are, of course, exceptions to this patterns, most notably within the context of participatory action research projects.

So what does 'open and tentative' interpretation mean within the context of qualitative analysis? My feeling is that, in the absence of ongoing collaboration with the research participants, ethical interpretation must acknowledge the considerable distance between the account and any claims about its meaning. This means that the interpretation belongs to the researcher alone and that it is understood that it may tell us just as much about the researcher as it does about the participant. It also means that the aim of analysis is the amplification of meaning, that is to say, the presentation of layers of meaning associated with the account without claiming that the account can be reduced to any of them. Most importantly, it means respecting the integrity of the original account and to acknowledge its value in its own right. In other words, it means not claiming that we, the researchers, know what it 'really' means.


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Carla Willig is Professor of Psychology at City University London. She is also a counselling psychologist in private practice.

Contact Information: Department of Psychology, City University London, Northampton Square, London EC1V OHB. Email:
On another occasion I had an opportunity of obtaining a deep
   insight into the unconscious mind of a young man whose life was
   made almost impossible by an obsessional neurosis. He was unable to
   go out into the street because he was tortured by the fear that he
   would kill everyone he met. He spent his days in preparing his
   alibi in case he might be charged with one of the murders committed
   in the town. It is unnecessary to add that he was a man of equally
   high morals and education. The analysis (which, incidentally, led
   to his recovery) showed that the basis of his distressing obsession
   was an impulse to murder his somewhat over-severe father. The
   impulse, to his astonishment, had been consciously expressed when
   he was seven years old, but it had, of course, originated much
   earlier in his childhood. After his father's painful illness and
   death, the patient's obsessional self-reproaches appeared--he was
   in his thirty-first year at the time- taking the shape of a phobia
   transferred onto strangers. A person, he felt, who was capable of
   wanting to push his own father over the precipice from the top of a
   mountain was not to be trusted to respect the lives of those less
   closely related to him; he was quite right to shut himself up in
   his room.

[O]ne of the difficult aspects of the illness for me is the
   assumption that it is brought on by rich living. Mention gout and
   people automatically assume that you gorge on rich food and down
   the booze in equal measure. Having limped in agony to the local
   shop, I mention the g-word and am greeted by a smile and words
   along the lines of 'Too much of the good life, eh? You like your
   food and drink, eh?' And I have to put up with this whenever I
   explain my laboured gait.

When you contract a disease, you contract with it the world of that
   disease, including all its affective and culture-specific meanings,
   which are frequently symbolic or metaphorical.

(...) it is hardly possible to take up one's residence in the
   kingdom of the ill unprejudiced by the lurid metaphors with which
   it has been landscaped.

(...) I also realised that, in this situation of uncertainty, when
   feeling anxious and vulnerable, other people's comments and
   observations (and the discourses of health and illness which they
   evoked) had a great impact on me. At times, it felt like I had to
   actively 'defend myself' against proffered meanings, which, to me,
   seemed unhelpful or even destructive.

When the body is seriously out of kilter, particularly if the
   condition is likely to endure, your sensitivity to the nuances of
   words used to describe it is inevitably heightened. You become
   critically aware of the subtle ways in which lexical choices define
   you as a person.

I remember
   Two days before she died, a

   Would I pluck the hairs out of
   her chin?

   There were none on the ward,
   So I bought some tweezers down
   the road.

   Every time a hair was plucked,
   She sighed, almost like someone
   Being slowly fucked.

   Yes, she said yes. Yes.
   The last pleasures of the flesh.
   It was sensual and very intimate.
   And she let me share it.
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