Assess the strengths and weaknesses of interviews as a method of sociological enquiry.

ssay titles sociological strengths


ask you to assess the strengths are a favourite of a particular of examiners. approach

and weaknesses It means simply

of a particular looking for the thing to


and weaknesses

or issue. The most important

do is offer a balance, in this case, of interviews. on the strengths unstructured.

However, do be careful; if you concentrate and of

of interviews and just tag on the weaknesses, you will not be able to achieve and weaknesses

high marks. You should also be aware that there are two types of interview, structured This means that you have to write about the strengths both methods. There is a lot of information that you plan your answer carefully. your time. You must aim for balance.

to cover in this essay and it is therefore essential

You will not do yourself any favours by mismanaging

There"are two types of interview logical views. enquiry, Structured structured interviews

which tend to be used in socioand unstructured the researcher interworking of the involve


In this introductory paragraph, I have identified the two different types of interview and their specific characteristics. This is always a good start because it acts as a springboard into the main body of the essay. You know from the introduction that a section of the essay will be given over to structured interviews, while another section will be given over to unstructured interviews. The introduction itself

through a series of standardised

questions. The wording

question and the order in which the questions are given are predetermined, and are the same for all interviewees. By contrast, unstructured interviews involve the researcher having a list, schedule or aide memoire of topic areas which need to be discussed. The questions in this case are not predetermined. up to the researcher 'probe' pa~icular to phrase questions as responses. It is

slhe likes and to

Structured interviews are most commonly they take the form of questionnaires, produce quantitative

used in surveys, where and are often used to

can act as a mini-essay plan. The essay quickly moves on to the strengths of structured interviews.

data. The questions in structured interviews

are usually 'closed ended'. This means that a limited range of answers is provided for the interviewee to choose from. For

A-Level Sociology: Essays


example, did you vote in the last general election, yes or no? The major strength of using structured interviews as a method of sociological enquiry is that they are useful in providing a large amount of factual information in a short amount of time, at a relatively cheap cost. This method is most commonly used when the research involves large samples of respondents. A further strength is that the data collected are easily codified (translated into numerical form) and quantified (presented in numerical form, such as graphs). The data can be mathematically manipulated and this permits multivariate analysis which allows the sociologist to look for cause and effect relationships. An additional strength of using structured interviews is that the data obtained are considered reliable. This means that if the research were repeated at a later date, using the same methods and a similar research sample, then the results would be the same or similar to those of the first enquiry. This means that research which uses structured interviews is testable.

This paragraph introduces a critical analysis of structured interviews. Note how the essay is already showing balance. Again the criticisms are based on a memorised list of key words with ifs. ands. and buts between the words.

Various criticisms have been made of structured



a method of sociological enquiry. A serious weakness is that, while this method is useful when looking at straightforward factual information, it is less useful when trying to investigate more complex issues. The 'closed ended' nature of the questions means that the research cannot take up points of interest which may be uncovered throughout the research. The answer given by the interviewee is not open to further investigation. If the interviewee circles the response which indicates that s/he did not vote during the last election there is no way to find out why the individual acted in this way. Structured interviews therefore are weak in that they do not really provide the researcher with a means of achieving a true account of individuals' actions. There is no way to assess reasons and motives for behaviour and attitudes and no way to discover where such beliefs and attitudes come from. Thus, this method of sociological enquiry can be attacked for its lack of validity. A further weakness of using structured interviews as a method of sociological enquiry is that the predetermined answers which are provided for the respondents may not truly represent the real opinions, views or beliefs of some of the sample. This could lead to respondents circling an answer which does not totally represent what they think or do. This could invalidate the research, in that the research may not be portraying a true account of the social area under investigation.

This paragraph switches the answer to the strengths of

An alternative method of sociological enquiry is the use of unstructured interviews. Unstructured interviews are usually used


Exam Success


when more in-depth information is needed. They are usually used in research which involves a small sample of subjects, e.g. Oakley's study The Sociology of Housework, for which only 40 housewives were interviewed. Unstructured interviews are more likely to use 'open ended' questions which allow the interviewees to respond in any way they like. This method of enquiry also enables the researcher to follow up topics and issues of interest which may arise during the course of the interview. The major strength of unstructured interviews is that they can produce qualitative information which looks further than statistics. Unstructured interviews can be used to uncover beliefs and motives for actions and attitudes. Those who use them believe that unstructured interviews provide information which is rich in validity, that is, that they produce a true picture of the social activity under investigation. In addition, they are useful when studying areas which are not accessible to investigation by any other method. The research method of participant observation would have not been possible in Ann Oakley's investigation of housework.

unstructured interviews. Note the reference to Oakley. Try to use a relevant study to illustrate your point. You could get marks for application and evaluation if you do this.

Nevertheless, a number of criticisms have been put forward to show the weaknesses of unstructured interviews. Although they may be considered valid, they are not considered reliable. Each interview is individually tailored to each interviewee. This means that it is difficult to draw comparisons between different interviews. Consequently, it is difficult to generalise from the results of unstructured interviews to account for the actions, beliefs or attitudes of the population as a whole. Interviews are always interactive situations. It can be argued that the status difference that sometimes exists between the interviewer and the interviewee may affect the responses of the respondent. The tone of voice, the types of clothing worn by the interviewer, the interviewer's accent and so on, may determine how the interviewee defines the situation and may govern the extent to which the interviewee 'opens up' in the interview process. Labov demonstrated both the interviewer-effect and the effect of surroundings in his study. He found that young black children responded differently to interview situations according to how they defined the situation. This demonstrates a serious weakness in unstructured interviews as a research method. Labov's findings are supported in the work of Pierre who demonstrated that respondents sometimes give answers which they think the interviewer wants to hear, rather than their true opinions. In his 1930s study of racial discrimination in the United States, Pierre found discrepancies between what people said their attitudes were towards Chinese people and their behaviour.

You should note the words and phrases which are used to introduce each paragraph. Words such as: in addition, furthermore, moreover, are helpful because they enable you to add more examples without them reading Iike a garbled list. Similarly, words such as: however, nevertheless, despite this, are equally useful because they enable you to change direction in an essay from supporting to critical evidence. You might like to write a list of linking words or phrases which may prove useful for your general essay technique.

A-Level Sociology: Essays




-It can be argued that there are weaknesses in any type of inter view as a method of sociological enquiry. One weakness is tha the researcher has no way of knowing whether the interviewee i telling the truth or not. Interviewees may lie for a variety 0 reasons. If teenagers are given a 'self-report' survey to complete which asks them to list any crimes that they have committed, their answers may be determined by who is present at the time. If they complete the survey in front of a teacher or parent, they may 'forget' their criminal activities. On the other hand, if their friends are present, they may exaggerate their criminality in order to gain 'street credibility'. The researcher needs to be aware that what people say they do and what they actually do are not always the same thing. The idea that interviews can provide information which is rich in validity is open to criticism. Another weakness in using interviews as a sociological research method is that people may not always be aware of what they do, and thus be unable to answer interview questions in these areas. This is demonstrated in the participant observation study carried out by Cicourel, called 'The Social Organisation of Juvenile Justice'. Cicourel found that police officers displayed taken-for-granted assumptions about juvenile offenders from different social-class backgrounds and labelled the offenders accordingly. He found that this labelling was an unconsidered part of the officers' daily activities and consequently could not have been revealed through the use of interviews.

Now the essay has moved to criticising all types of interview. The example of self-report studies and youth crime is a good one to use as a critique because it covers two issues, the fact that people lie and the problem of basing a research method around memory. If you ever run out of things to criticise in any essay, try to introduce something about validity and reliability.This is likely to earn you marks, providing of course that what you've said is relevant.

The conclusion sums up the strengths and weaknesses of interviews as a method of sociological enquiry. You will note that I have ended the essay by suggesting an alternative approach to studying society. Don't be afraid to put your neck on the block, be brave and make a statement about which approach you believe to be best. However, don't forget to justify your choice.

In conclusion, although both structured and unstructured interviews have their weaknesses, they should not be discounted as methods of sociological enquiry. As a strength in one type of interview is often a weakness in the other, the two different types of interview can be used in one piece of research. This is known as methodological pluralism. This would give the researcher the opportunity to achieve both quantitative and qualitative data. Laud Humphreys demonstrates how interviews can be used in conjunction with participant observation in his study Tearoom ITade where he observed homosexual activity in public toilets. Humphreys attempted to interview some of the men he observed to clarify his observations. This, however, uncovered another problem with interviews: not everyone iSlJrepared to be interviewed.


You need a good knowledge and understanding of interviews to answer this question thoroughly. The advantages and disadvantages of different types of interview can be used in other essays, and may be particularly useful when analysing a particular piece of research. For example, if you were writing an essay about housework, you could criticise Oakley's use of interviews as a research method. Some students will write essays about interviews as if there is only one type. This is to be avoided at all costs as it will prevent you from achieving the higher grades.

Related questions
1. 2 3 Compare and contrast two methods of sociological enquiry. Discuss the use of interviews in sociological research. 'Interview situations always contain an element of interaction, therefore they lack validity.' Evaluate this statement.

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