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 Identify and deconstruct respondents' understanding of power and control Analyse and deconstruct social processes and transitions Empowering or giving voice to the powerless

4.4 Doing in-depth interviews
4.5 Analysing in-depth interview data
4.6 Summary and conclusion Analyse and deconstruct social processes and transitions
The life story approach can also be used to develop a critical analysis. An example is the study of transition points in children's lives by Rachel Thomson et al. (2002). Although not a fully dialectical study, the research explores critical moments in children's lives and compares responses to different socio-economic and cultural circumstances.

Thompson et al. noted that 'within the sociology of youth there is an increased interest in the diversity of the experience of youth, the centrality of identity and the subtle interplay of individual agency, circumstance and social structure (Irwin, 1995; Wyn and White, 1998)'. Their 'inventing adulthoods' longitudinal study involved interviewing approximately 120 young people, aged between 16 and 19, at intervals of approximately nine months. Respondents lived in five contrasting social and economic environments in England and Northern Ireland. Other methods used in the study included focus groups, questionnaires and 'memory books' (an open diary in which young people record activities and feelings).

A principal aim of the study was 'to identify "critical moments" in young people's biographies and to explore how these moments are implicated in processes of social inclusion and exclusion' (Thomson et al. 2002, p, 335). By taking into account the social and geographical location in which they live and the kinds of events that they report, the authors 'suggested that the character of these "critical moments" is socially structured, as are young people's responses to them'. They noted that in the past, youth studies have tended to privilege events such as leaving home, starting a family, or the movement from education into employment (Humphrey, 1993).

There has also been a recognition of the fragmentation in transitions to adulthood, which has led to interest in a biographical perspective (Du Bois-Reymond, 1998; Jones and Wallace, 1992). Thompson et al. contrast an intractionist approach to pivotal moments in biographies with a structural approach. Denzin (1989), for example, identifies 'epiphanies': events that alter peoples' meaning structures, while Giddens (1991, p. 113) proposes that individuals embark on a 'project of self' within which they experience 'fateful moments'. These are potentially empowering experiences, a key characteristic of which is that they require individuals to consider the consequences of particular choices and actions and so engage in an assessment of risk. Thompson et al. (2002, p. 338) argue that although 'young people may respond to and seek solutions to these experiences at an individual levelů their life chances remain highly structured and highly predictable'.

People from different socio-economic backgrounds may experience disorientation as the result of such things as family breakdown or ill health. However, the impact of these experiences and the ability to respond to them are 'shaped by the social and cultural resources that they have to hand' (see CASE STUDY: transition to adulthood).

Thomson et al. (2002, p. 351) assert that '"Critical moments" provide a link between the theoretical understanding of "fateful moments" and empirical accounts'. In the context of change, they maintain that:

the development of methods that allow us to explore how individuals confront and negotiate risk becomes increasingly useful. Biographical and life history methods are particularly suited to these tasks and we suggest that the notion of the critical moment offers an important addition to this analytic repertoire, enabling comparison across narratives and raising new questions about whether, how and why people respond in a different way to similar events. The descriptive concept of the critical moment provides us with a way of seeing how social and economic environments frame individual narratives and the personal and cultural resources on which young people are able to draw. Its use demonstrates the centrality of identity and subjectivity to an understanding of transitions, without reducing the analysis to individual psychology.

Critical moment analysis is similar to critical case analysis but refers to more specific incidents or events.


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