Elite Interviewing – What’s in a name?

Blog Post by Michelle Oldale, Post Graduate Researcher (Open University)

I came to the CHASE Elite Interviewing Workshop with a particular mind-set.  My research is about the impact of Weight Stigma from a psychological and psychotherapeutic perspective. As such I am prioritising exploration of research methods which offer the best opportunity to equalise the power base between researcher and participant (I prefer the term co-researcher employed in more collaborative methods) to avoid perpetuating processes of marginalisation.  As a person-centred psychotherapist I am also interested in how we can be informed about the phenomenon we are investigating through the relational dynamic in the interview itself.

It’s not surprising, then, that I left this hugely useful workshop pondering on the impact of the notion ‘Elite’ itself.  The pre workshop information defines Elites as, ‘participants who may have a very particular status, which may relate to an extraordinary level of influence, or by virtue of their position in a community, occupy a particularly sensitive position, and may be easily identifiable.’  The important issue of maintaining anonymity aside, I wonder what power dynamics are set up by defining an informant as Elite.  I might argue that both interviewer and interviewee are influenced by shifting dynamics of power by virtue of their respective roles, personal histories/herstories, factors of culture, ethnicity, accessibility, impact of the material being discussed as well as a multiplicity of other personal and systemic factors.  The nuances of definitions and impacts of power are discussed by authors such as Natiello, (1987, 2001), French (1985), Starhawk (1987) Proctor (2002), and Patel (2005).

We might wonder then, about the fact that a co-researcher may be defined as ‘Elite’ or high profile by virtue of having been marginalised, or having experienced trauma (as will often be the case in activist communities).  Indeed, this may be known, or hidden in any research relationship even when a sensitive topic is not the focus of discussion.  Take for example online abuse faced by politicians such as Diane Abbott (see Mason 2017) or current or historical abuse or bullying of which we may not be aware.

My fear is that the power dynamics at play may lead us as researchers to see the ‘Elite’ interviewee as somehow less potential to vulnerability and harm. I might suggest that the ethical imperative to support the wellbeing of informants and avoid harm should be carefully considered in relation to each individual research relationship, taking the potential dynamics of power (or the illusion of power) into account.


French, M. (1985) Beyond Power: On women, men and morals. London: Jonathan Cape.

Mason, R. (2017) Diane Abbott on abuse of MPs: 'My staff try not to let me go out alone' [Online]. Available at https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2017/feb/19/diane-abbott-on-abuse-of-mps-staff-try-not-to-let-me-walk-around-alone (Accessed 13 September 2017).

Natiello, P. (1987) ‘The Person-Centred Approach: from theory to practice’.  Person-Centred Review 2; 203-216.

Natiello, P. (2001) The Person-Centred Approach: A passionate presence. Ross-on-Wye: PCCS Books.

Patel, N (2005) ‘Speaking with the silent: addressing issues of disempowerment when working with refugee people.’  In R. Tribe and H. Raval. Working with Interpreters in Mental Health.  London: Routledge pp219-237.

Proctor.  G. (2002) The Dynamics of Power in Counselling & Psychotherapy.  Ross-on-Wye: PCCS Books.

Starhawk (1987) Truth or Dare: Encounters with Power, Authority and Mystery.  San Francisco: Harper & Row.

Michelle Oldale is a Psychotherapist, Trainer, Supervisor and Author.  Her approach is based in Person-Centred, Experiential and Systemic ways of working. She has a passion for qualitative research and is part-time Post Graduate Researcher with the Open University.  For more information see www.michelleoldale.com