Orientation Observation In-depth interviews Document analysis and semiology Conversation and discourse analysis Secondary Data Surveys Experiments Ethics Research outcomes



Social Research Glossary

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© Lee Harvey 2012–2017

Page updated 13 January, 2017

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 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.

Apart from its use in sociology, life history-type interviews are also used in psychoanalysis and in rather more focused ways in medical consultations.

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) suggests 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.

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)

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)


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