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Social Research Glossary

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© Lee Harvey 2012–2017

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Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012–2017, Researching the Real World, available at
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A Guide to Methodology

4. In-depth interviews

4.1 Introduction to in-depth interviewing
4.2 Types of in-depth interview
4.3 Methodological approaches to in-depth interviews

4.3.1 Positivist approaches to in-depth interviews
4.3.2 Phenomenological approaches to in-depth interview Identifying subjects’ meanings or perception Phenomenography In-depth interviews as a basis for empathetic interpretation Deconstructing everyday life/rules of behaviour Life history interviewing as a means to establish how people come to develop specific ideas and consequent actions Autobiography Oral history

4.3.3 Critical approaches to in-depth interview

4.4 Doing in-depth interviews
4.5 Analysing in-depth interview data
4.6 Summary and conclusion

Activity Life history interviewing as a means to establish how people come to develop specific ideas and consequent actions
In-depth interviewing has also been used to develop retrospective historical accounts. It has been used to explore how people have established their self-identity and social role. One of the key means is the life-history interview, which explores how people came to adopt particular values, ideas, skills and abilities.

Life history is the account, by a single individual, of his or her life experiences. Life histories are usually accounts that are produced especially for sociological research. However, apart from its use in sociology, life history-type interviews are also used in psychoanalysis and in rather more focused ways in medical consultations.

Life history was an approach popular in the early development of sociology, particularly at the University of Chicago (Shaw, 1930, 1931; Sutherland, 1937) but it also experienced a mini-revival in the 1970s (Chambliss, 1972; Probyn, 1977). Thomas and Znaniecki (1918-20) included a very detailed life history in The Polish Peasant that provides a vivid picture of what it was like to migrate from Poland to the USA. Thomas and Znaniecki argued that:

personal life-records, as complete as possible, constitute the perfect type of sociological material, and that if social science has to use other material at all it is only because of the practical difficulty of obtaining at the moment a sufficient number of such records to cover the totality of sociological problems, and of the enormous amount of work demanded for an adequate analysis of all the personal materials necessary to characterize the life of a social group. (Thomas and Znaniecki, 1918, vol. 3, p. 1)

A sociological life history is usually intended to explore the significant events that affected the subject’s life. The intention is usually to assess the way in which social processes were interpreted by the subject and determined the course of their life. Thomas and Znaniecki, for example, set out to show how social values effect the attitudes of individuals. They thus focused on significant events identified by the subjects and investigated how these affected behaviour and perceptions.

Bertaux and Thompson (1997, p. 17) argued that life stories provide illustrations of the complex responses and decisions made by people. Decision making, such as choices, is not necessarily a rational selection process, on the contrary structural constraints, including economic needs and limitations, interact with moral obligations and the subjective perspectives of the actor and those to whom the actor most closely relates. These may pull in the opposite direction, especially in a crisis situation. Similarly, while some aspects are stable others may be unpredictable or random and thus responses and choices may also depend on chance and timing.

Julia Brannen (2013, para 2.3), citing Jane Elliott (2005) suggested that life stories are typically created vertically through time, which involves chronologies or sequences of events that are linked together, even if causality is not made explicit by the narrator. However, stories are 'more than chronicles of events, they involve evaluations in which the narrator conveys to the audience the meanings intended in the telling of events'. Furthermore, life story narratives are structured like stories, tend to be convnetionalised and involve performativity (Reissman 2008), that is, 'Narrators may employ dramatic techniques of metaphor and metonymy to convey meaning with attention paid to aesthetics and emotions' (Brannen, 2013, para 2.6).

Life stories are based on memory and, as Paul Antze (1966) observed, memories are monuments that we visit but they are also ruins that are subject to restoration. In short, life histories are retrospective accounts of decisions, actions and events, often relating to distant periods in the life being recounted. They are located in a particular time and context. In recounting, people's recall of the past falters, their evaluations of decisions and events are made with reference to present time frames and as such their moral position shifts. It is, Brannen maintains, in practice, impossible for the raconteur to stand outside the present when considering the past.

In addition, life stories are inevitably partial and those collected by researchers are shaped by the interests and concerns of the researcher.

Sometimes life history interviews involve very little interviewing in the conventional sense, instead, the respondent is invited to write down their life history. They are told the broad thrust of what the researcher is interested in and then asked to record, in written form, or maybe a recorded monologue, those events, influences and circumstances in their life that moulded or impacted on their perceptions, subsequent experiences or activities.

For example, Clifford Shaw (1930), in his classic study The Jack Roller: A Delinquent Boy’s Own Story, asked his informant, Stanley, to construct and write his own life story, including all the crucial events in his life. In order to help Stanley with his life history Shaw read the account and pointed out the areas that required further detail.

Sometimes the life history may be told to the researcher and then reconstructed into a written account. For example, Rachel Barton (who did not set out to do social research) was doing voluntary work and met a young Indian woman called ‘Sita’. Barton was teaching English to ‘Sita’ and to encourage her to speak more fluently asked her about her childhood in India.

In the course of a year or more she gradually revealed the story of her brief life. I was deeply moved by her experiences and the way she expressed her thoughts and feelings, and started to write down what she told me. Through her touching and tragic story I entered to some extent that world which I thought closed to me. Eventually, with Sita’s agreement I pieced together the events of her life to make this book. It is true to her own viewpoint and I have tried as far as possible to keep it in her own words. (Barton, 1987, Introduction)

When a researcher sets out to collect a life history, it is more likely to be through a series of detailed ethnographic interviews (see page 196) in which the respondent is encouraged to relate the events and experiences that are most important to them (Parker and Allerton, 1962).

These written histories or spoken monologues may be the result of a single session but more often are the product of several sessions with the respondent. Often, questions that arise from one session are put to the interviewee in subsequent sessions (See CASE STUDY: Life history at the Chicago School).

Some researchers have used a variety of research techniques when compiling a life history, including archive research, participant observation and longitudinal study. Whatever method is employed it is essential that informants have the opportunity to express what they perceive as significant factors in their lives, using their classifications and their own interpretive framework.

Pamela Cotterill (1994) used a form of life history interviewing in her study of the relationship between wives and their mother-in-law. The research 'explores how people’s relationships are structured by their positions in the family network and how these relationships are supported and maintained within the context of private and public notions of family life' (Cotterill, 1994, p. 2).

The sample consisted of 35 women (10 mothers–in-law and 25 daughters-in-law) aged between 19 and 72, all were white and 23 were middle class. They were encouraged to 'tell the story' of their in-law relationships. This is in line with the general concern of phenomenology to 'tell it like it is'. The life-history approach was augmented by semi-structured interviews in which the women were encouraged to reflect upon specific themes and issues that emerged from the life stories. The women were also presented with descriptions of hypothetical events or situations so that information could be gained about commonly-held norms. Cotterill noted that these vignettes often led the participants to reveal more intimate details of their own relationships without there being any pressure on them to do so. In all she conducted 106 interviews.

The study points to the ambivalence of family within the social structure as a whole. Just as older women are marginalised from society, so mothers-in-law are marginalised in family relationships. For Cotterill, the mother-in-law has an ambivalent relationship within the family: being simultaneously both inside and outside the core family. The overall purpose of the study was to generate further debate by exploring the meanings that the participants gave to their experiences. It can be seen from this that there was no intention to make large, generalised statements. Rather the intention is to obtain, what the author regarded as authentic data, which can be used by others in further studies.

Vladimir Andrle (2000a, 2000b, 2001) used life-history interviews, which he called ‘life-story interviews’ to explore the background of the post-Communist managerial élite in the Czech Republic. The research explored the new business classes created by post-Communist privatisation policies, and in particular their family lineage. The sixty-seven life-story interviews conducted in 1994–95 confirmed that the new business élite is dominated by men who had already achieved high managerial positions in the Communist era. More surprisingly, however, they also reveal a marked overrepresentation within this group of descendants of the national bourgeoisie that was expropriated when the Communists came to power in 1948.

However, the study was not just to identify the roots of the new business élite but also to explore the ways they had negotiated the Communist and post-communist environments. For example Andrle cited part of the interview with one of his respondents (whom he calls Bárta):

As for my life, it changed fundamentally, because I am in fact the only one [long pause] out of my family, to have restored the discontinuity where my family which, prior to 1948, belonged, if not to the very top elite [long pause] to those who took part in managing the state, or its finances; to those who had an exceptional, prominent social position ...The next thing is, what our children who will take over from us will make of it. Our time is obviously running short. [940726a: lines 1317–45] (quoted in Andrle (2001, p. 827)

Andrle comments on this as follows:

In Bárta’s life story, upper-class family lineage going back to the formation of the first republic is the gestalt-defining main theme. Even though, like Ambroz and indeed the majority of respondents, he was concerned to show that he was qualified and competent in his work, and generally not lacking in virtue, Bárta tended to link his good qualities with his upbringing. (Andrle, 2001, p. 827)

Andrle referred to his subjects as the ‘buoyant class’ and the life stories show some of the ways in which children of bourgeois lineage were able to negotiate their way around the Communist régime’s ‘class politics’. They also show how bourgeois family lineage can now be used as a resource for averting the potential moral stigma of a Communist-era senior executive career. The ‘buoyant class’ appears to be a self-confident and significant component of the new Czech business élite (See also CASE STUDY Czech business élite)

Because of its subject matter, Andrle’s study might be construed as a critical dialectical analysis. However, his main concern was with how his respondents perceived their progression through the Communist and post-Communist periods, rather than an ideological deconstruction of the new bourgeoisie. As he states:

[All except one of the] self-accounts were steeped primarily in a discourse of professional competence, where the prime strategy was fourfold. Firstly, to describe pre-Communist career progression in terms emphasising their relevance to the expertise now needed by a capitalist manager. Secondly, to make a fast distinction between the regime’s silly-political and technical-economic spheres, and to place one’s own career squarely in the latter. Thirdly, to advance arguments that, contrary to Western preconceptions, the technical-economic sphere was well developed, at least in one’s own field. And finally, to characterise oneself as a hard worker, positive thinker, quick learner and an optimist. They all mentioned, however, their bourgeois family lineage and the class-political obstacles they had to overcome in their educational progress, in the strategically placed opening stages of their narrative. They wanted me to bear their social origin in mind as I listened to their account of Communist-time career progress, so that I could hear it as occurring despite the political regime (Andrle, 2001, p. 829)

Evidence supporting the use of life history material is well documented by Becker (1986), who suggested that it offers great potential in two respects. First, life history materials provide a vivid feeling for what it means to be a certain kind of person in particular contexts. This can provide an insight into the subject’s everyday life and work and an understanding of his or her subjective assessments of institutional processes and structures. Becker argued, further, that life history data can be used to test sociological concepts and in evaluating existing theories. The examination of general theories in the light of ethnographic accounts can highlight the limitations of the theories and generate new theoretical questions.

Nevertheless, the use of life history inevitably raises questions about the reliability, typicality and representativeness of data gathered. This has led some researchers to question the extent to which such materials can assist sociological understanding. Clearly, a life history only represents a culture to the degree that the individual it portrays has been involved in experiences common to other individuals who make up that culture. However, as Becker has argued, every story plays its part in building a picture of the social life of the time, place and group under investigation. Moreover, the significance of life-history data is, like any other data, dependent on the methodological and theoretical analysis undertaken.

David Mandelbaum (1982), while advocating the use of life history techniques, criticised what he sees as the lack of theoretical development in this area. He illustrates this point by reference to the extensive life history data recorded by Oscar Lewis in the 1960s, which he suggests is almost exclusively descriptive and includes little in the way of analysis. Mandelbaum argued that life history material is usually extensive and thus must be channelled in some way in order to aid analysis. Mandelbaum suggested that there are several ways that life history data can be organised other than as a chronological account.

First, note the key dimensions of a person’s life as a way of generating categories for understanding the main forces influencing that person. Key dimensions include the biological, cultural, social and psychological areas of a person’s life.

Second, identify the principal turning points in a person’s life, such as starting work, marriage, retirement and the conditions of life between them.

Third, note the person’s principal means of adaptation  to life’s inconsistencies. This directs attention to both the changes and continuities in the subject’s life.

Carry out an interview with someone over retirement age. Find out what you can about their changing perceptions and experiences of the family throughout their lives. Where applicable, compare your results with those obtained by others. Ensure you relate your results to a suitable theory of the family.
SUGGESTION:  You may want to read about how to do an ethnographic interview (Section 4.4) before setting out to do this activity. Or you may want to try this activity and then compare what you did with what is suggested in the discussion on ethnographic interviewing below.

Robert Burgess (1982) suggested that further work may be required in this area if we are fully to assess the usefulness of life histories. Nevertheless, they can give us an alternative view of the past, focusing as they do on the experiences of ‘ordinary’ people, rather than on those of the more frequently catalogued ‘rich and famous’.


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