The Sublime of the Everyday: Moments of Disruption as Connection in Remote Interviews During Sensitive Research
CW: this post discusses sexual violence and sexual violence support work.
‘ … let us then return to the murmuring of everyday practices’
Michel De Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life (University of California Press, 1984, p. 200)
In her book Complaint! (Duke University Press, 2021), Sara Ahmed describes sitting around a café table with some of her interviewees, listening to their experiences of making complaints against abuses of power. Whilst they are talking, she tells us, a ladybird lands on the table between them, the unexpected arrival of this small insect marking a moment of rupture, breakage, and change in their conversation.
The ladybird, and the affects and feelings it evokes, the women’s murmurs, laughter, and exclamations of affection as it falls onto its back, flies away, and then lands on the table again, is, Ahmed says, a ‘distraction’ (p.12). This distraction is ‘precious’ and ‘necessary’ within stories that are both heavy to voice and heavy to hear (p. 12). Importantly, this distraction, or disruption, does not mean subtraction: it does not take away from the women’s testimony giving and sharing of painful stories. Rather, the ladybird’s presence is a moment of possibility; an opening up and a making real ways of talking, relating, connecting, and being together that might not otherwise have taken place. As Ahmed recounts the experience of listening back to her recording of this interview, she highlights the necessity of such moments of rupture that bloom from the seemingly small, ordinary, and quotidian aspects of daily life. These moments are necessary because they provide room for lightness, laughter, affinity, and the creation of shared meaning when carrying out sensitive research into stories steeped in pain, trauma, and violence.
Whilst Ahmed describes an in-person encounter, during my research carrying out online interviews with English sexual violence support workers, I found that moments of disruption from everyday, mundane objects and events made deeper connection possible, even where being together in the same room was not. My doctoral project looks at how sexual violence is understood and talked about by people working within English sexual violence support services. Building connection, rapport, and trust was particularly important in the conversations we had, given the sensitive, confidential, and often deeply emotional nature of what people told me. Informed by feminist methodologies, my research seeks to foreground the voices of workers across the sector, long neglected in Socio-Legal and feminist legal scholarship, where a privileging of legal spaces, such as courtrooms, still persists. As part of this research, I carried out 67 qualitative, in-depth, and remote online interviews with sexual violence support workers. I began these in a place I had never anticipated carrying out my doctoral research: from my parents’ home. As restrictions eased, I moved, taking my laptop and Dictaphone with me, to houses and flats I shared with friends, to new rooms and desks, where I logged on and began conversations with those working within sexual violence support services, who spoke from houses, buildings, and rooms physically removed from me.
In these online interviews, moments of rupture mattered. A dog barking, getting up to let the cat out, a television coming on, a delivery person arriving, a laptop running out of battery, a smoke alarm sounding, the dinner burning, someone turning on a coffee machine in the kitchen. As I listened back to and transcribed my interviews, new layers of the everyday emerged too; doors banging, floors creaking, the sound of children playing in the street outside, cars passing, someone shouting, the wind blowing so heavily through my flat during one interview we laughed about it. These daily rituals and banal moments created space for humour, the exchanging of stories, and feelings of empathy, care, and understanding; such moments, the context they are situated within, and the complex feelings they evoke, often escape transcripts, final articles, and books. Yet, in my research, these moments were essential to building feelings and environments of trust and connection, shaping conversations and ultimately the knowledge generated.
These moments of rupture weren’t always comfortable; sometimes they brought into focus feelings of tension and nervousness, other times they were moments of relief, time to pause, time to reflect. They also brought into relief the personal, how sexual violence support work is so often ingrained and stitched into the lives of those who carry it out. Having undertaken some of her interviews online too, Ahmed (2021) asks what it means to both tell and listen to stories of complaint from home, these stories taking shape in places that are familiar and mundane to us. My appreciation of how entangled everyday life and sexual violence support work is, often happened in these moments of rupture, made possible because many interviewees spoke to me from their homes, their stories of work with sexual trauma voiced across kitchen tables, from sofas, or desks in bedrooms rather than offices. Some interviewees did speak to me from places I might have anticipated interviews taking place in before the pandemic, such as rooms at work. However, the everyday moments of rupture that emerged from people’s lives when we spoke from our respective homes often unearthed other contexts and meanings, colouring in our conversations in unanticipated ways and bringing parts of selves into view that may have otherwise remained hidden.
Silverman (2017) tells us of the methodological importance of attending to the mundane, of being sensitive to and locating ‘what is remarkable in everyday life’ (p. 17). For Ahmed, this attention to the fabric and backcloth of our interactions is part of practising what she calls the ‘feminist ear’, a purposeful tuning in to the otherwise unheard, elided, and unattended to (pp. 3-8; Living a Feminist Life, Duke University Press, 2017). In my interviews with sexual violence support workers, sitting with the ordinary, making room for everyday moments of disruption, was a vital way of creating feelings of connection, presence, and togetherness with interviewees who I was physically apart from. Noticing and leaning into these moments allowed me to challenge positivistic ideas that the personal is to be avoided rather than celebrated, that a strict division between researcher and participants should and can exist. Instead, these moments carved room for the sharing of feelings such as joy and humour as well as pain, anger, and grief with those involved in my research. For sensitive research undertaken remotely, the everyday, the mundane, the seemingly trivial become extraordinary, opportunities for shared meaning making and a sense of being there. This is important when listening to and trying to hold stories about work with sexual violence. The familiar and banal promise windows to the sublime, a richness and depth to connection in online interviews when listening to sensitive stories during Socio-Legal research.