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
All rights belong to author.


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 Phenomenography
Phenomenography is an alternative technique, using in-depth interviewing, developed to try to discover the different meanings that people have of a concept or word (Marton, 1981). This approach was most developed, initially, in education research. It was a device to explore how students saw and understood aspects of the subject matter they were studying.

Keith Trigwell (2000) summed up the key aspect of phenomenology as a 'relational second order perspective' by which he means that phenomenography attempts to identify and map the different ways that, for example, a group of students understand a particular theoretical concept. The focus is on describing the 'key aspects of the variation of experience' rather than the 'richness of individual experiences'. The approach thus seeks out not to provide a consensus but to show differences in conception.

For example, Trigwell et al. (1999) explored the differences in conception of teaching of teachers and learning of learners. Their empirical study showed that qualitatively different approaches to teaching are associated with qualitatively different approaches to learning. In the classes where teachers focused on what they do in class to transmit knowledge to student, the students were more likely to report that they adopt a superficial (surface) approach to learning. Conversely, but less strongly, where teaching staff report adopting approaches to teaching that are more oriented towards students and to changing the students conceptions then students reported adopting significantly deeper approaches to learning.

Phenomenographic interviews are semi-structured in-depth interviews that set out to get respondents talking about what they do or know and that consistently probe key concepts used by respondents. For example, in Trigwell's research, the teachers were asked about their teaching style and what it intended to achieve and were asked to clarify what they meant by terms such as 'learning', 'understanding', 'discussion' and other key words used in describing the teaching and learning process.

The aim of phenomenographic interviews is to identify the range of different conceptualisations and to use that to help inform practice. Whereas many other research approaches try to identify what is common in the data, phenomenography wants to highlight difference and try and draw out what are the other relationships with different conceptualisations. In that case, while phenomenographic interviewing is about identifying subjects' meanings, a phenomenographic study will also tend to mix approaches and draw on other data, perhaps collected by surveys, to show relationships.


Next In-depth interviews as a basis for empathetic interpretation