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



Social Research Glossary

About Researching the Real World



© Lee Harvey 2012–2020

Page updated 29 April, 2020

Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012–2020, 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
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

4.3 Methodological approaches to in-depth interviews
In-depth interviews are used for a range of purposes, not least to delve into the details of respondents' activities and perceptions.

In-depth interviews are not only used for research purposes (collecting data about individuals' actions, motives and concepts) they are also used in other settings, such as counselling and psycho-therapy, police enquiries and, in a peculiar form, in court-room cross examinations.

The current concern is with how they are used to collect empirical data for a range of research purposes. However, it is worth noting that the use of in-depth interviewing in psychoanalysis informed some approaches to in-depth interview-based research in the last century (Lee, 2004).

In-depth interviews are also used to evaluate policy. In most cases this involves an assessment of impact of policy: how successful has it been in achieving its intended goals and what have been the unintended consequences. This approach is basically positivistic (see Section 4.3.1) as it posits a causal relationship between policy and outcomes. For example, Elene Jibladze (2013) used in-depth interviews to investigate the implementation of a quality assurance system in Georgia. Examining outcomes the research showed that new concepts, institutions and models framed as 'European' that should have been institutionalised in Georgia have in fact only been adopted on the surface. The research included 45 in-depth interviews with government, higher education and other experts and illustrated how the implementation is a façade and, in reality, the process has not gone beyond the initial implementation phase.

An alternative phenomenolgical approach (see Section 4.3.2) does not focus on intended outcomes so much as the way policy is interpreted and implemented. In some cases, the analysis of implementation is iterative, in exploring how implementation itself forces a reinterpretation of the intention of the policy.

This becomes critical-dialectical analysis (see Section 4.3.3) when the iterative is framed within a broader evaluation of the policy as part of an array of historically-situated policies and social structures. For example, Morag MacDonald (1997b) used in-depth interviews as part of her evaluation of the mandatory drug-testing régime in British prisons. Her analysis not only showed the unintended consequences but also argued that the overarching control approach adopted by the prison service was flawed.

Most clients, especially if they are commissioning research into the impact of policies with which they are associated, do not want such critical-dialectical evaluations because they are likely to question the initial premises upon which the policy was based. Often, the researh question is framed along the lines of 'how do we improve implementation of the policy' disallowing any research that says the policy does not work. The Higher Education Funding Council for England, for example, commissioned research on possible improvements to the quality assurance process in universities but did not allow for the research to suggest that the whole idea was flawed and should be replaced.


Next 4.3.1 Positivist approaches to in-depth interviews