Human the way data is interpreted (Clark et al,


Human geographers employ a vast range of research
methods in to their enquiries; comprising of surveys and interviews,
ethnography and textual analysis, to name a few (Flowerdew and Martin 2005:6). From the researcher’s
perspective, the role of interpretation is crucial as it is the determination of
what you want the data from your research to say and why (Phipps, 2016). The
cultural turn, which began in the 1970s and became increasingly prominent in
the early 1990s, kick-started an adoption of qualitative research methods with
in the discipline of human geography (Flowerdew and Martin 2005:181). Because
of this interpretation became a progressively noticeable matter, as
interpretation is typically associated with qualitative data (Castree, Kitchin
and Rogers, 2016) and qualitative research is deeply linked with ‘meaning and
the process of meaning making’ (Willig, 2017).  Interpretation relies on the researcher and
the reader ‘to turn data in to meaning’ (Castree, Kitchin and Rogers, 2016).

Power and positionality are two key
themes, related to interpretation and they will be the focus through the essay
to establish the role of interpretation in Human geography. This will be
achieved through by looking in depth at the two following qualitative research
methods; interviews, and textual analysis, both of which are entangled with
interpretation in some shape or form.

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Interpretation can pose as a problem for
researchers as interpretation is not always in the researchers control. Research
can be a chaotic process, full of unexpected results and difficulties, the
positionality of the researcher can influence this and the way data is
interpreted (Clark et al, 2007). ‘Positionality is the notion that personal
values, views and location in time and space influence how one understands the
world,’ it is the adoption of a positon based on a person’s life experiences (Sánchez,
2010: 2). Textual analysis will be the qualitative research method used to explore
the relationship between positionality and interpretation. Textual analysis
enables researchers to gather information on how other human beings interpret
the world (McKee, 2002). A core skill of textual analysis is interpreting what
the writer is trying to convey. It is important for a researcher to be mindful of
their positionality, as their position could impact the way a piece of writing
is interpreted. Sources to analyse using this research technique range from;
films, clothes, advertisements, books and graffiti, implying that ‘text is
something that we make a meaning from’ (McKee, 2002: 5).

Positionality when interpreting texts can
be a hindrance to the findings of a textual analysis, this is because everyone
sees things differently due to variations in people’s experiences, life circumstances
and position in society and person’s ethics, assumptions and values (Sánchez,
2010). Different cultures have differing ways of making sense of something, for
example, in McKee’s (2002) book on textual analysis he uses the example of
optical illusions as a form of text. He focuses on the Müller-Lyer figure;
which involves two parallel lines of the same length, the top line has arrow
heads pointing outwards and the bottom has two lines arrow heads point inwards
at each end of the line. McKee explains that most Europeans fall for the
illusion, believing that the lines are different lengths, but  Non-European cultures, particularly the
indigenous Australians, weren’t affected by it as strongly. Therefore,
interpretation due to a person’s positionality can be affected. The way a
researcher writes or creates a text may not always be interpreted the way it
was intended to be, because of cultural differences.

 Dissimilarities in people’s
positionality during the research and the ambiguity and subjectivity of the
sources used in textual analysis, can cause the researchers interpretation to
be muddled and differ from what the author of the text intended the reader to
take from the findings. ‘The researcher is in the position of interpreting the
lives of others,’ often the writer or artist of the text that is being analysed
is no longer alive, so the role of interpretation becomes more vital as the
author of the text can’t agree or disagree with the interpretation (Sánchez,
2010: 3). Background about the author or artist such as beliefs, values and
ethics can help to reduce incorrect interpretations.

Researchers themselves could take in to
consideration their own positionality and try when carrying out textual analysis
not to let their position on the subject effect their research. For a researcher, it is almost impossible
to be fully detached from the circumstances of life (Sánchez, 2010), therefore research can never be
fully without positionality, and this implies that interpretations should take
in to account a researcher’s positionality. Strategies such as writing
in third person and acknowledging positionality as self-criticism are methods
employed by researchers to confront issues of positionality and demonstrate reasoning’s
for the way they have interpreted something (Sánchez, 2010). The role of interpretation is
important for the researcher to consider and be aware of throughout their
research and acknowledging positionality can help with interpretation.


As well
as researchers having too little control in their research, in some cases the
opposite can occur and researchers can hold too much power and control in their
research impacting how research may be interpreted in human geography. Power is a key concept studied in human
geography and is often expressed unknowingly and non-verbally. In this context power can be defined
as the ‘ability of one agent to affect the actions or attitudes of
another’ (DOHG  :575). Interviews are an example of a
predominantly qualitative research method, where the relationship between power
and interpretation is evident. Interviews
can be rigidly structured, semi-structured and unstructured; structured being
closely related to a questionnaire with the same questions being asked to all
participants but is unlike a questionnaire as it verbally presented. Semi-structured
and unstructured interviews are used more widely by qualitative researchers, characterised
by increasing levels of flexibility and less direction, they take on a more
conversational tone and vary according to the views and interests of the
interviewee (Flowerdew and Martin, 2005). How the interview is structured
depends partly on how much power the researcher wants to give to the
participants and keep for themselves.

Too much
control and exertion of power towards interviewees, from a researcher can
affect the participant’s emotions and create an uncomfortable environment
(Edward and Holland, 2013). This can lead to the participant not being
forthcoming with responses and cause them to withhold information due to lack
of trust between the researcher and the interviewees, consequently making it
harder for the researcher to interpret the data after the data has been collected.
Having a better rapport between a researcher and participants, where the right
amount of power is exerted by the researcher, enables more information to be
collected, leading to more data to analyse and therefore the researcher has a
larger collection of data to interpret (Edward and Holland, 2013). When too
much or too little power is exerted, the information collected might not be a
correct or the full picture to interpreted, a balance is needed.

The role
of interpretation needs to be considered at different stages of a project, not
just in the final stages when analysing the findings, which is what interpretation
is mostly linked with (Phipps, 2016). The role of interpretation is significant
to take into consideration when designing an interview (indeed other research
methods as it is important to consider which research method will allow for
better interpretation). It is the interviewer who defines the terms and who leads
the topic and the progress of the interview (Kvale, 1996). The interviewees
interpret the work of the interviewer (Edward and Holland, 2013), interview
questions are subjective and the interpretations by the interviewees can differ
(Kvale, 2007). When researchers are designing interview questions (for semi-structured
and unstructured interviews), it is important for the questions to be open
ended and simple enough to for the selected audience to interpret, this could yield
a developed answer and a better interpretation from the participants (Chadwick
et al, 2008). This is because during ‘qualitative
interviews, words are the main currency of the interviewing and subject to
analytic interpretation’ (Edwards and Holland, 2013:69). Leading questions however can affect the validity
of a piece of research, meaning that the interviewee could be led to interpret
the question the way the interviewer wants the question to be answered (Kvale, 2007). This can
have profound impact on a study and the role of interpretation, in this case the
researcher has exerted too much power over the interviewee and in most cases, leading
questions negatively impact a study.

conducting an interview body language can power the way an interviewee responds
to a question; tone of voice, posture, enunciation, and eye contact are just a
few examples of body language that can influence the interviewees
interpretation. The researcher should consider this when conducting the
interview as subtle differences in these factors, can influence how the
interviewee interprets the questions being asked (Chadwick et al, 2008), if a word is said with
more force for example, the participant might subconsciously be swayed to a
certain decision.  How the researcher is
dressed can affect how a participant responds to an interviewer for instance, McDowell (1992), suggests
dressing smartly might reassure an elderly respondent who is cautious about
letting strangers in to their house. Contrastingly, when talking to a group of
environmental protesters, dressing casually would be more appropriate and help
the interviewer to relate to this kind of audience, relating to an audience builds
a sense of trust and consequentially allow the researcher greater control.

when exerted in the right dosage can enable an improved interpretation; too
much or too little control from the researcher can cause participant to be less
forthcoming with information and perhaps less truthful, which can cause skewed
results when interpreting the findings. It is up to the researcher when
analysing the findings to interpret what failed and what has been successful.

conclusion, interpretation is important to take in to consideration in all
aspects of a piece of research, including; the design of the research,
gathering data and analysing the findings. Interpretation is an essential part of
qualitative methods in human geography as it is woven throughout out research.
It is essential to take notice of how interpretation is effecting a study, whether
positively or negatively, or to try and see how others will interpret the
research. Interpretation is subjective and it is a matter of opinion (Kvale,
2007), improvements can be made through self-reflection and taking notice of the
positionality of others and the researchers of their own. Power in research can
condition the emotional environment in a study, the mood and reactions of
participants, this can be taken in to consideration when making an interpretation,
as this can impact the results collected from the research. Interpretation is
mostly conducted subconsciously and little thought is given to it in many cases
and when it is considered its often not till after the study has been carried
out (Phipps, 2016). The role of interpretation however,
is significant throughout a research process in human geography, and because of
it prominence, more consideration needs to be turned interpretation not just as
an afterthought but throughout.








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