INTENSIVE RESEARCH APPROACHES
Some General Considerations
I had originally intended to call this Module „Qualitative Methods‟. But the term is not as informative as it might be and comes with a burden of meanings that can hamper research. Not the least of these is the way in which the term sets up an opposition with quantitative methods, whereas I see complementarities between the two; ones we will explore in the final Module. Likewise, we know that many qualitative methods have to do with individuals. But so does some quantitative work, as in the tabulation of survey data compiled from standardized questionnaires and subjected to various forms of multivariate analysis. On the other hand, and to complicate matters still further, not all qualitative methods rely on data for individuals. A good deal of archival research is about groups, for example, conditions in factories, in the countryside and the cities, and so on.
Instead of talking about qualitative methods, Sayer has referred to intensive research designs. These focus on individuals but with an eye, not to generalization, as in the analysis of survey data, but to causal explanation. According to Sayer, intensive methods would therefore include: in-depth, relatively unstructured interviews, in which there is a dialogue between interviewer and interviewee; ethnographies; participant observation of people in their contexts; and the compilation of life histories. This, however, would exclude archival research, which can be very important in causal explanation.
Individual-Focused Intensive Research
The relatively unstructured interview and the compilation of life histories have similarities in their objectives and in their practices. Both focus on exploring individual experiences in their contexts and are concerned with relations / processes / activities; i.e., with causal explanation.
1.The Relatively Unstructured Interview (RUI)
The RUI is in contrast to the questionnaire consisting of a set of closed-ended questions, always asked in the same way and in the same order, with a view to limiting the bias that
can enter in when there is interaction between respondent and interviewer outside
questioning and answering; i.e., the interviewee is not allowed to question meanings, and if she offers further clarification of her responses, this is of no interest to the interviewer. The end product is a set of Yeses, Noes, Don‟t Knows, degrees of Agreement or
Disagreement with various statements, choices of alternatives (e.g. „For which political
party do you intend to vote at the next election?‟) along with various „objective‟ social
indicators like age, gender, income, race. These results are then easily tabulated and can be analyzed quantitatively (e.g. means, variances, and correlations computed).
The RUI, on the other hand, and in contrast, is, as it says, „relatively unstructured.‟ The
interviewer has a set of headings she wishes to address in talking to the interviewee
(hence the „relative‟ part of the „relatively unstructured‟). But, and quite crucially, under those headings the conversation can be very wide ranging and the interviewer allows the
interviewee to take the initiative in the conversation, making claims / arguments that the interviewer may find relevant and want to pursue further. Instead of a question and
answer routine, as in questionnaire surveys, what takes place is a conversation in which
the interviewer tries to engage the interviewee intellectually, and address the broad issues that the interviewer took into the interview, as she sees fit, albeit prompted by the
interviewer (e.g. „Why do you say that?‟ „How does that affect such and such?‟ „And
what were the consequences of that?‟).
The overall goal is to place the respondent in her context, her substantive connections
with other people, with institutions, discourse, and so forth, in an attempt to identify the limits and possibilities confronting the respondent, and so to shed light on her actions: context, limits, possibilities, conditions for action, reasons for action, therefore. These particular contexts of social relations may include, for example:
? A division of labor, as in that which connects utilities, Chambers of Commerce and
local government in the process through which inward investment occurs. ? Family relations. How and why have family relations changed? How is it that the
close, face-to-face kinship networks of the classic working class community have
been replaced by more inward-looking nuclear families? How was it that married
daughters tended to live close to mothers? How did they manage to secure housing
? A social network comprising friends and relatives. These are important in job markets
for most people outside those with some sort of professional or technical qualification
and also in migration for the same relatively unqualified. The networks of relations
through which the technical and professional strata obtain work are different: more
distanciated, more mediated by the employer (paying for travel for the interview,
advertising in professional journals).
? The network of relations that firms find themselves in: Banks, suppliers, distribution
networks, key workers, the bond rating agencies, government research institutions,
? The rules, norms, common practices, government regulations structuring action. It is
common practice for elected officials to want to boast about plans for new industrial
investment in their community, which is why, given the aversion of inward investors
to premature publicity, the utilities and chambers don‟t bring them into the loop till
very late in the inward investment process.
1 Not the least of these is the clarification of meaning. Just what, for example, In terms of explanation the RUI offers very considerable advantages over questionnaire
does the interviewer mean by a particular question or the respondent by a particular surveys.
response? What exactly does it mean when an LED professional talks about the
importance of „honoring the source‟? Schoenberger provides some interesting examples
of this issue in her article on interviewing corporate executives. In talking about a
„successful‟ investment, for example, there may be very considerable differences in
understanding of the term across different national business cultures. For the Japanese it is more likely to mean an investment that increases market share, while for an American CEO it is more likely to refer to an increasing rate of return within a specified period. She also makes mention of questions to do with „wage rates‟. For the interviewer the
significance of wage rates will more likely lie in their implications for competition in
1 For an excellent example of what can be gleaned from RUIs, and which would be impossible to capture any other way, see Schoenberger (1990).
product markets. But that is not necessarily the meaning imputed to them by corporate executives. A question about wage rates in this locality, for example, may just as likely be answered not in terms of their implications for competition in product markets but in terms of their implications for hiring in the local labor market: i.e., are wage rates set high enough in order to attract the required number of workers?
In my own research on migrant workers in South Africa, we have identified them by asking shack dwellers in Durban, whether or not they have „another home elsewhere.‟ But quite what „home‟ means is not self-evident. They may say „yes‟ to the question, but
in the subsequent interview all manner of relations with the „home elsewhere‟ are
revealed. In some cases they own land and their wife is back cultivating it while the migrant workers sons look after the cattle. In other cases, the migrant worker is in the city with her family and visits occasionally, but may evince a desire to retire to the „home
elsewhere‟ on retirement. In still other cases, where the whole family is living in Durban, they have contingency plans for going back to the „home elsewhere‟ if narrowing economic constraints require it and they need to share the resource base of parents back in the rural areas.
A second advantage is that of intellectual engagement with the research question that interests the interviewer. When filling out a postal survey, for example, the respondent has absolutely no idea what is motivating the researcher to ask those questions, no inkling of how they might be of interest to him or her since their implications (for them) are, of necessity, not explained to them. In an RUI, on the other hand, the interviewer can be much more expansive, explain the context of the research and why the views of the interviewee are being solicited. So in talking to LED professionals in South Africa, I would typically start out by outlining how it was done in the US, and how I was interested in similarities and differences. This would get their interest, at the same time as convincing them that I had some knowledge of the topic (more on the importance of this below). And to the extent that I could come back at their responses with challenging questions, their attention would be further enhanced. Likewise, and as far as engaging the intellectual attention of the interviewee is concerned, unlike the standardized
questionnaire, the questions can be geared to the her own experience and irrelevant questions omitted.
Obviously the degree to which you can engage the attention of the interviewee depends very considerably on the amount of background knowledge you bring to the interview process. If you are interviewing the representatives of NGOs, then you need to be well versed in the debates about the dilemmas they find themselves in, including the need to keep their donors happy. If you are talking to a businessperson it helps if you know something about the business ahead of time, the sector of the economy it operates in, problems confronting that sector. This also helps you spot contradictions and ambiguities in what is said in the course of the interview, opening up new opportunities for identifying the crucial causal conditions for that particular firm.
Once the interviews have been completed and one moves to the stage of interpretation, the knowledge of the interviewer again comes into play. This is not just knowledge of the concrete conditions confronted by the interviewees the more abstract understandings that perhaps apply more broadly than just to businesses or migrant workers, or whatever. Here what one needs to call upon can be quite unanticipated. Once Andy Wood had completed the interviews on the local economic development network, for example, there were things in some of the quotations that attracted attention. In particular statements about interactions with other members of the network were frequently spiced with references to trust, building up a reputation with other agents, „honoring the source.‟ It was this that got
us interested in theories of trust and governance that had been applied more widely than just to corporate bodies and sent us off to look at the work of people like the sociologist Mark Granovetter and the economist Oliver Williamson. But it helped that we were already aware of their work.
The procedures that one follows in a research design that puts RUIs at the center is also different. Instead of some random selection of respondents so as to maximize representativeness, respondents may be selected as one goes along, and of necessity. You will have only limited knowledge ahead of time of what the important social relations are
for your interviewees, what the divisions of labor are that they are embedded in, who is
important to their actions and who isn‟t. If you are doing research on local land
development processes, you will probably start with developers. But you will want to
follow up by talking to those who do business with your developers, like the zoning
lawyers, the land speculators, the people who sit on zoning boards, the township trustees
who struggle against the annexation requests of the developers, for example; all part of
the context for what developers are able, or unable, to do. They will help fill in the
picture and they will also help corroborate the responses you have obtained from earlier
respondents. This is a fairly obvious example; you‟ll know most of the important
connections ahead of time. But it won‟t always happen like that. In a study of family and
community in East London, carried out in the „fifties (Young and Willmott 1957), it was
found that married daughters tended to live close to their mothers: on the same street or
one or two streets away. So how was this managed? Apparently, as the interviews with 2 mothers proceeded, it became clear that relations with rent collectors (who went door to
door) were of prime significance. So rent collectors had to be interviewed.
The list of people to be interviewed, therefore, gets put together on the basis of what you
learn from earlier interviews. The question then becomes: How do you know when to
stop? Daniel Bertaux, in his discussion of interviewing people for their life histories, has
the answer in a process he calls „the saturation of knowledge‟: You continue doing life
histories or RUIs until the results get repetitive. As a result the 'sample is representative,
not at the morphological level (at the level of superficial description), but at the
sociological level, at the level of sociostructural relations' (p.37). The same applies to the
headings one uses, the questions one asks in the interview itself: they get revised
according to what you have learnt so far. Research should be learning by doing, which is
something that gets short-circuited by the standardized questionnaire, even when it has
been subjected to the so-called „pre-test.‟ Again, as Bertaux remarks, when going into an
interview, one needs to have a guide based on what one knows so far but 'it should be
modified from one interview to the next, according to the progress made in the
understanding of underlying sociostructural relations‟ (p.39).
2 Or should have been. I‟m not sure they were in that instance.
A final issue that should be referred to is that of control. A danger is that, justified or not, the interviewee will impute a sense of authority to the interviewer. In some cases this is obvious. In South Africa there are problems when whites interview blacks. This is not just that they think you might be a source of jobs and so they want to please you in the answers they provide, the history of aggravated race relations may inhibit them from a candid response. In Britain, and likewise, you would not want an interviewer of working class people to be smartly dressed, with a posh, upper-crust accent, introducing herself patronizingly since this will immediately incite antagonism on the part of the interviewee. In other instances, it is the authority that comes from the image of the interviewer as a person of knowledge, someone who knows more about the subject than the interviewee,
that can get in the way and inhibit spontaneity. When interviewing businesspeople,
however, the problem may in a sense be reversed since the interviewee is used to taking control and can lead the interviewer in all manner of irrelevant directions. This is where the knowledge of the interviewer can work to her advantage since the businessperson
quickly becomes aware that she is not dealing with an ignoramus.
2. Life Histories
Life histories can be a very important source of information about the contexts significant to people in their activities, their connections with others, the framing of their lives by particular experiences of the world around them, how they understand those contexts and experiences, and hence of insight into why things happen. For geographers the use of the term „history‟ might seem a little discouraging. But it shouldn‟t be, since life histories are trajectories through space as well as through time. Not surprisingly one of the more common uses to which life histories have been put by geographers have involved the
study of migration. There are numerous other substantive areas of application, however, waiting to be exploited. Just to consider the interests of some of the people taking this seminar:
? The life histories of the homeless could not fail to shed light on the reasons for
homelessness. One of the reasons people end up homeless is that they lack a strong
social support network, particularly in the form of kin. But how did that happen? How
did they lose contact with / get rejected by their families? Where did all this happen
and why did they end up in Columbus? And what is the meaning of „home‟ for them?
Is it something with wholly positive associations?
? The life histories of land reform activists in South Africa: Former labor tenants and
evictees from white farms are one important source of activists. But what is it in their
backgrounds, their experiences, that results in some becoming active and others just
waiting to be organized, or perhaps resistant to organization? In the same way, life
histories could shed light on the formation of grassroots organizations in the slums of
? To these we can add other substantive areas like residential mobility histories, the
histories of land developers, the life histories of technical and professional workers
here in Columbus (by what routes did they land up here and stay?), or in Bangalore,
for that matter. Again, the focus should be on identifying crucial contexts of social
relations and the meanings that the subject assigns to her experiences of them, how
she constructs them – as facilitating or limiting, for example.
? Finally, there is the use of life histories in shedding light on the history of geography.
How was it, at what period of their lives, did people get interested in the field? What
were the important influences on them? What were the crucial breakpoints in careers,
the role of serendipity, perhaps?
Several general points about life history research. The first is that people love telling
stories about themselves. That means that there need be little problem in motivating them:
a major issue in intensive research.
Second, note how life histories can assume a variety of forms. They can be general in
character, asking people to relate, literally, their life history, without any attempt to
impose a particular selectivity on their narration. Alternatively and more likely they will
be thematic in nature focusing on particular aspects of the life history: professional
formation / work histories / residential histories / family relations, for example. Another
distinction would be between those projects which focus on the experiences of just one
person and use it to shed light on a particular period of history or on a particular place at
a particular time. Examples here that I am familiar with include: Nina Joubert‟s Poppie
Nongena: The Story of an African Woman, which relates, supposedly through the words of her subject, a poor African woman‟s shifting experiences of apartheid policies and of
resistance to them in South Africa; and Charles Van Onselen‟s The Seed is Mine: The
Life of Kas Maine, a South African Sharecropper 1894-1985. In each case there is an
attempt to relate what the subject is relating to wider contexts of events and to her or his
social relations. More commonly life histories are collected from a number of subjects
with a view to achieving some sense of generality; generality of the subjects‟ experiences
and social circumstances, their interpretation of them, and the variety of ways and
resources that they drew upon in responding to those challenges. This approach is
apparent in Isabelle Bertaux‟s work on migrants in inter-war France and the work she has done with her husband on French bakers. Another example is Belinda Bozzoli‟s study of
women migrant worker / domestics in Johannesburg, their relations with their home area,
and their understandings of their experiences: Women of Phokeng: Consciousness, Life Strategy, and Migrancy in South Africa, 1900-1983..
There are also some important issues that need to be considered when doing life history
research. One is that of the positionality of the subject which will affect narrative style
and the interpretation that is placed on his or her life history. The best known of these is
the gender difference that has been frequently noted. Bertaux-Wiame discusses this in her
(1982) paper on French migrants. As she notes, for men it is a very active, self-oriented
story and about their work. They rarely talk spontaneously about their family life. Rather
they present their lives as a series of self-conscious acts, a rational pursuit of well-defined
goals. They are actors, in control of their lives. This is much less common among women,
unless they have been single for much of their lives and so had to depend crucially on
their own efforts in the labor market. Instead they tend to talk more about their
relationships to other persons: husbands, children, women friends. Their own life stories
include bits of the life stories of others. They see their lives less through a lens of
autonomy and more through one of interdependence with others.
This raises more general issues of how one is to interpret the materials coming out of life
histories. It bears emphasis that life histories are constructions: selections of experiences,
a filtering of events in one‟s life, as well as a particular interpretation of them. Among
other things, life histories are interpretations of the past from a standpoint in the present.
If one regards oneself as a „success‟ or a „failure‟, then that will color the sorts of events
selected into the life history, for instance. As Bertaux-Wiame remarks, stories give
meaning to the past in order to give meaning to the present, the present social life of the
If the life history is an interpretation, then the problem for the investigator is interpreting
that interpretation. A danger here is that one will impose one‟s own understandings of a
social situation on the subject‟s story, understandings coming from particular social
theories or ones that pertain to more concrete contexts, or places and periods. Bertaux-
Wiame draws on the distinction between push and pull factors in understanding migration
and comes to a conclusion that the push factors are the critical ones. But is this an
acceptable understanding of migration; isn‟t it the case that in the instance she discusses, the unmarried woman from a small village in the Auvergne who left because of an
engagement broken off, that if her history had followed her she would have had nowhere
to go, that migration requires both push and pull „factors‟?
Consider also the rather glib way in which she deals with the problem that what one gets
in life histories is an interpretation: “The facts of the story will allow us to see social
relations in action. The forms, on the other hand, reveal the shape of the mind, the
cultural and ideological structures, for it is through ideology and culture that interpretations are given to the real conditions of existence” (p.195). This suggests an
assumption that facts can speak for themselves, that they are unmediated by concepts,
and that the investigator can have a direct access to the world which is denied to the
subjects of the study. This is a more general error. Bozzoli discusses the difficulties of
those studies of life histories where there is what she calls “a neat weaving together of the words of informants and social context … where the experiences of the poor are validated
by their accordance with other sources of information and interpretation” (Women of