Method in the Spotlight: Object-orientated interviews

27th October 2020

Funded Project:
Methods for Change

Methods for Change highlights the value of social sciences methodologies to non-academic sectors. Our spotlight series aims to showcase a broad range of innovative social science research methods in practice and how they can bring benefits across a range of sectors.

In this first Q&A, we learn about the methods used by Dr Jen Owen, who deploys a combination of object-orientated interviews and go-alongs in her research.

What’s your background and what was your motivation for getting involved in the Methods for Change project?  

I’m a cultural and social geographer interested in understanding what our possessions can tell us about our homes, identities, and changes over the life course. My PhD research examined people’s motivations and experiences of using self-storage units, including moving home or abroadparent’s storing children’s things, following a divorce or bereavement, and to hide identities and activities not possible at home. Studying something seemingly so mundane as storing things provided important insights into events and transitions in people’s lives.  

I am currently an ESRC Postdoctoral Fellow at Cardiff University studying the experiences of older people using decluttering services. This research is concerned with the impact of things on safety, comfort and enjoyment of the home, and fits into policy agendas around ageing in place, loneliness and housing provision for an ageing population. 

From my experience, qualitative research allows us to better understand our everyday lives. Through the Methods for Change project I hope to help show there is more to research than questionnaires and interviews, and promote how different methods have the potential to meaningfully influence policy and improve service provision. 

What types of research methods do you use in your own work? 

In my research, I use a combination of go-alongs, where I visit a place (i.e. a self-storage unit) or undertake an activity (i.e. decluttering) with a participant, with object-orientated interviews. 

Object oriented interviews involve talking about and around objects to learn about the everyday lives of different people. The interview might happen around object/s which have been deliberately selected by the participant or interviewer, or it might unfold in a more ad hoc way, talking around a loose collection of objects encountered whilst in a participant’s home or in their self-storage unit.   

While interacting with different objects – viewing, handling, or sorting through them – participants might be encouraged to reflect on their relationship with the objects and how this has changed over time, or the object may be used to access and understand an individual’s personal or family biography. Rather than being determined by a list of questions, object-oriented interviews are led by the participants’ feelings or memories that are attached to things.   

Which partner organisations have you worked with using these methods? 

For my PhD research I worked with self-storage companies across the UK to gain access to their customers, these varied from well-known brands like Big Yellow to smaller local companies.  

In my current research I have been working with the Attic Project, part of Care & Repair Cymru, as both a volunteer and researcher. Volunteers help older people to declutter (for 2 hours a week for up to 10 weeks) so that they can make their homes more liveable or allow for necessary repairs or adaptations to be undertake by Care & Repair contractors. Working as a volunteer gives me an insight into the process of decluttering from that perspective which I write up in fieldnotes, and then I follow up with interviews with clients and other volunteers. Working with and allowing objects to lead conversations and interviews is a productive way to understand their changing importance over the life course and the challenges of materially managing a home as an older person, which relate more broadly to issues of family, care, and physical and mental well-being.  

In which other contexts would this approach be useful? 

This method could be usefully applied to other contexts where domestic possessions are foregrounded, either temporarily or permanently, in people’s lives. For example, homeless or refugee charities may want to understand how to cater for the things people bring with them from previous home environments. Housing Associations may come across residents who need help with dealing with accumulations of things. Better understanding of why things have been held on to or are meaningful means personalised recommendations can be made. 

How will being part of the Aspect network/Methods for Change project support your future work?  

In my research, using object-orientated interviews provides insight into the motivations, experiences, and desires of participants, thereby providing a depth of understanding of societal issues that isn’t possible with other methods. I hope that my work with the Attic Project will demonstrate the importance of services which focus upon possessions, and that sit between housing, social care, welfare and health provision. Methods for Change provides me with the platform that will help me push this agenda, as well as bringing to light the importance of qualitative research outside of academia to a wider range of stakeholders.   

Find out more about Methods for Change.

Photo credit: Valdas Miskinis via Pixabay

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