August 31, 2020

What Makes an Interview Sociological?

author photoBy Karen Sternheimer

Many sociologists use interviews to collect data, and while journalists also conduct interviews, there are significant differences between how—and why—sociologists use the information that they gathered. Here are a few of the biggest differences:

  1. Sociologists almost always disguise the identity of the person being interviewed.

Unlike journalists, who are careful to identify those quoted in their articles (unless a source asks to be anonymous), in most cases sociologists will mask the identity of a research participant. Not only might the person be given a pseudonym, or fictitious name, the researcher usually withholds any specific identifying information. Researchers who interview people in schools or on the job will likely change the name of a school or company, and most likely hide the location too.

While a journalist with many anonymous sources might be viewed with suspicion—sources going “on the record” are important for support in a news story—the ethics of research require sociologists to protect the identities of participants in most cases. Because people might divulge extremely personal information, researchers take great care to make sure that no harm comes to someone as a result of participating in research.

In sociology, the interview of an individual is not enough to draw large conclusions, thus the identity of the person interviewed is not typically relevant to the bigger purpose of research. In contrast, the person who a journalist quotes may carry a lot of weight to substantiate a story. If the CEO of a corporation announces that the company is having financial difficulties that is a huge revelation that might affect the stock market. An anonymous source could be anyone, hypothetically, and might have an impact but probably not nearly as large.

  1. Sociologists systematically choose whom to interview.

While researchers conducting interviews may not find participants through random sampling methods, and instead often use snowball sampling (where one participant refers the researcher to someone they know), sociologists are typically looking for specific criteria in choosing their interview participants.

For example, in a study about single parents receiving public assistance, the researcher would have to find people who fit this description. Journalists also might have specific criteria they use to choose whom they interview, which might be affected by the topic of the story and the length of time they have to research and write it. I have had a number of requests for interviews from journalists to ask me about topics that I don’t study because they are on a tight deadline and just need a quote from somebody with an academic background.

  1. Sociologists will interview a large number of people and ask them the same questions.

While in some situations journalists might ask many people the same questions, in sociology asking the same questions to a many interviewees is necessary in order to find themes and patterns in people’s responses (more on this below). How many people is enough? That depends on the time and resources the researcher may have. Dissertations and theses might have a relatively small number, perhaps 20 or less, and bigger studies might include dozens or even hundreds of in-depth interviews.

For their book Paying for the Party, sociologists Elizabeth A. Armstrong and Laura T. Hamilton conducted 202 interviews, involving 48 original participants with follow-up interviews over several years (see their appendix, p. 270 for more details). Sometimes researchers will even ask the same participants the same or similar questions years later to compare their responses over time.

  1. Sociologists systematically analyze their responses.

This is one of the biggest distinctions between social science and journalism. While journalists will often critically think about the responses interviewees give them, interview transcripts are data for sociologists.

Data analysis might involve many months, during which sociologists look for themes and hidden patterns. Some sociologists use special qualitative data analysis software to assist in this process, called coding, to seek out categories of responses and find respondents’ quotes within each category. Rather than reporting only on the most dramatic or pithy comments of any individual participant, the researcher is looking to find quotes that represent the experiences of the group or subgroups within their sample.

  1. Sociologists link their responses to sociological theory.

Perhaps most importantly, sociologists look for connections between their findings and sociological theory. Do their findings help provide support for a particular theory, or suggestions for modifying a theory? As qualitative research, interview data helps sociologists learn how applicable a theory might be to a real-world situation.

Applying data to an existing theory is the way in which researchers add to the creation of knowledge within sociology. This is a very different task from journalism—which is vital as well—but different from sociological research.

Comments

Thanks for writing this blogs and more informative

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