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 2012–2020

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 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

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 4.3.1 Interpreting or deconstructing everyday life/rules of behaviour
In-depth interviews (like observation) are also used to interpret or deconstruct everyday life. In some cases this means exploring the 'rules' that mediate behaviour. As was noted in Section 3, interviews may complement observation studies. However, sometimes they are the primary means of empirical data collection to explore taken-for-granteds.

Irving Zola's (1966) study is an example of a traditional ethnographic study that explored how everyday life is constructed around illness. Zola explored illness within Italian and Irish communities in an American city using in-depth interviews. The study showed how the labelling and definition of a bodily state as asymptom of a disease is a social process as well as a medical one.

There are numerous studies using in-depth interviewing that looked at rules of behaviour in different, usually institutional, settings. For example, Lynda Measor and Peter Woods (1984) were interested in how 12-year-old children experienced the move to senior school. Similarly, the labelling theory approach of David Hargreaves et al. (1975) undertook a phenomenological ethnographic study, drawing on interactionism, ethnomethodology and the phenomenology of Alfred Schutz, that explored the nature of classroom rules and how they become a taken-for-granted feature of classrooms and thus the basis for judging deviant activity.

Michael Little (1990) also attempted to show how informal as well as formal rules of behaviour operate within prisons. His study focused on how rules of behaviour are central to the way young people interpret their lifestyle (see CASE STUDY: Distorting the truth).

Sanders' (2005) study of drug use in a nightclub provides another example of the use of in-depth interviews to reveal the normalization of rules of behaviour, even when such activity is not legal. Sanders' study is based on a London nightclub he calls 'Sam's Club'. The punters, he argues, were not a subculture but people enjoying mainstream recreation. He noted that an omnipresent and observable aspect of club culture is the drug culture. (See CASE STUDY Dance drugs.)

At Sam's Club, drugs of various legal classifications were used by punters' (Sanders, 2005, p. 244) but 'Ecstasy, however, was clearly the 'hard' drug of choice' (Sanders, 2005, p. 245). Indicators of normalisation of ecstacy at the club were: the easy availability; the widespread use of the drug; and the tacit acceptance by staff. As Sanders noted, people selling drugs outside the club were not club security's concern, only those attempting to sell inside the club. 'Our job was never to apprehend those selling drugs in the club, just report this behaviour to the head bouncer or someone else 'in charge'. As it turned out, these head bouncers were involved in selling ecstasy themselves (see CASE STUDY Dance drugs.) Drug use was tolerated: 'Bouncers, managers, promoters, staff and the owner all knew that ecstasy and other drugs were being used at the club. Punters never voiced anything along the lines of ecstasy being unacceptable' (Sanders, 2005, p. 247). Furthermore, Sanders noted that most drug use was not seen as problematic.

The club managers, the club promoters, the heads of security, and all but a couple of the bouncers interviewed, considered that the actual use of ecstasy was not a 'problem' or something that needed to be controlled. James, another bouncer, claimed that Martin, the club's general manager, actually told him to 'turn a blind eye' to ecstasy use: "Don't forget, I worked directly for Martin. His thing was: 'We know it goes on. Without it there wouldn't be a club. Just don't let it get too out of control and too obvious.'" (Sanders, 2005, p. 247)

The use of ecstasy and marijuana was generally accepted within the club although some security had more critical attitudes towards the use of other drugs. As one bouncer noted:

I think it's good that they use weed [cannabis] in the club. It keeps them peaceful and quiet. If you want a quiet night and you don't want aggro [violence], it's better that they're smoking a joint than boozing it up. Then you have to deal with arseholes, but if they're smoking a joint they're usually mellow. If they're doing ecstasy, they're usually mellow. We never really went along with cocaine or crack. If we saw someone with that, they were out. If you saw someone with weed, you'd give them a warning. If they were on Es, that's fair enough because everybody is....But coke users, crack, out. (Sanders, 2005, p. 249)

Sanders (citing Ruggiero (1993)) explored the relationship between drug culture and drug economy. He pointed out that a drug economy lacking a drug culture is hidden from the authorities, where money is being made by those selling drugs, but there is no visible or distinctive attitudes among suppliers and customers. Conversely, a drug culture without a drug economy is a well-known, highly visible, yet poorly regulated endeavour, where little money is generated and suppliers and users are stigmatised and targeted for intervention by the police. For example, crack and heroin street-level 'dealing' in poor, inner-city environments. Sam's Club, he maintained, contained a drug economy complete with a drug culture.

Sam's Club was an environment that authorized and even advocated both the use and supply of ecstasy and other dance drugs. In this setting club security controlled a considerable section of the market for these drugs and made money in the process. Sam's Club was self-contained, self-policed and self-sufficient. The image of the security guards supplying ecstasy and cocaine in the venue was not one of the 'pusher', not one of an individual tempting 'impressionable youth' into using 'hard' drugs, but rather of a valued commodity, an important element within club land's leisure landscape. (Sanders, 2005, p. 253)

A slightly different perspective on interpeting rules of behaviour can be found in the study by Erica Nelson et al. (2014), who set out, in an ethnography of a four-year, multi-disciplinary adolescent sexual and
reproductive health intervention in Bolivia, Nicaragua and Ecuador, to create more open parent-to-teen communication. Their work showed differences in how teens and adults interpreted 'confianza' (trust) and the implications of such differences. Their fieldwork involved in-depth, semi-structured and unstructured interviews with adults and teens as well as observation of intervention activities (school-based and clinic-based workshops, health fairs, movie forums, public outreach events). Most interviews and observations were transcribed in their original Spanish and transcripts were subjected to holistic content analysis where key themes were identified and triangulated with field notes and observations.

Activity 4.3.1
In small groups, discuss whether CASE STUDY Dance drugs is describing a necessary process by which to provide an illegal but desired service or is a description of exploitation and gangsterism.
Skills: critical deconstruction
(if a small group situation is not possible, list the pros and cons for each alternative interpretation.)


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