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Talks With Father William: Senile or Sensible?

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The interviewer's desire for rapport with the respondent is both the greatest weakness and the greatest strength of semi-structured interviewing. As has been discussed at some length, structured interviews present difficulties with aged or mentally ill respondents who are unwilling or unable to play the game involved therein. Structured interviews also are impregnated with subjectivity in the form of working (and often unconscious) assumptions made by the researcher. For these reasons, they are likely to yield little understanding of the experiential world of the elderly. It has been suggested here that the major strength of the semi-structured interview is its flexibility, allowing the researcher to grasp more of the substance of the old person's world than is permitted in a more rigid methodological technique. This is not to say that the entire substance of the older person's world can ever be touched; one's understanding of anyone else (even with the best interviewer imaginable) will be imperfect. As Laing observed about the schizophrenic: What is required of us? Understand him? The kernel of a schizophrenic's experience of himself must remain incomprehensible to us.... But comprehension as an effort to reach and grasp him by our own categories whereby he inevitably falls short is not what the schizophrenic wants or requires. We have to recognize all the time his distinctiveness and differentness, his separateness and loneliness and despair.16 Semi-structured interviews such as those just described attempt to take into consideration both the nature of the experience of the interviewer and the respondent and their distinctiveness. Through this method, one can hope not only to describe particular experiences and perceptions of the respondent but also to "set them within the gestalt." With such information, perhaps one can not only move closer to a phenomenology of the interview but also possess more reliable tools in social science that will be of use with a variety of populations. Hopefully, one may also glean knowledge about the aging process, in both its normal and pathological aspects, that will provide a more complete understanding about this last stage of the life cycle and its relationship to all of life.


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