Semi-Structured Interviews to Research Education

Semi-Structured interviews are the most common primary qualitative research methods used in education. There are many studies which employ them. Here I focus on just one, which is adapted from ‘Sociology Since 2000’.

Class, gender, (hetero) sexuality, and schooling: working-class girls’ engagement with education and post-16 aspirations by Louise Archer, Anna Halsall and Sumi Hollingworth, 2007

Context

Working-class girls may not be doing as badly as working-class boys, but a significant number are leaving school at the age of 16 with few or no qualifications. In order to explain this, feminists have drawn attention to two processes. While at school, working-class girls may engage in subcultural forms of resistance to schooling by behaving in a hyper-heterosexual manner. This behaviour – which is focused on sexuality, dress and appearance – often results in teacher-pupil conflict as teachers interpret this behaviour as deviant. Second, a number of studies have suggested that the choices of working-class girls are structured by the expectation of leaving school at the age of 16 to work locally, settle down in a heterosexual relationship and have children.

Methods

The researchers used a multi-method, mainly qualitative, approach. First, data was collected from 89 pupils aged 14 to 16 using semi-structured interviews. Six London comprehensive schools were selected, chosen because they served working-class areas suffering from severe economic and social deprivation.

The sample of 89 pupils was made up of pupils who had been identified by their schools as being at risk of dropping out of schooling at 16. The sample included boys and girls from a variety of ethnic backgrounds, although over 50 per cent were White.

Discussion groups were set up with an additional 36 pupils. Third, eight female pupils were asked to complete photographic diaries, focusing on their everyday activities and interests. Finally, semi-structured interviews were conducted with 19 members of staff and a small sample of five parents.

Findings

The researchers found that most of the female pupils were keen to be seen as ‘desirable’ and ‘glamorous’. They spent a great deal of time and effort working on their hair, make-up and dress styles, in order to construct what the researchers called a ‘sexualised hyper-feminine identity’. This ‘work’ was regarded by the girls as far more important than the academic work demanded by the school. The primary importance placed on appearance was highlighted in the sample’s photo-diaries, which included pictures of their favourite glamour products.

The researchers observed that the girls constructed their appearance by combining a range of styles taken from diverse sources such as sport, Black culture and global brands. For example, girls often combined elements of Black, urban US styles (notably ‘bling-bling’ fashion) with various items of sportswear (e.g. Nike trainers and tracksuits) and hyper-feminine ‘sexy’ clothes, make-up and hairstyles. This construction of a hyper-feminine identity gave these young women a form of cultural power, which they used to resist school rules about uniform. This capital also led to the acquisition of status from their peer group and boyfriends.

However, this identity often led to conflict with the school. For example, girls were frequently reprimanded for their failure to conform to school-defined standards of appearance. Teachers often confronted them about the application of make-up or the maintenance of hairstyles during lesson time.

Interviews with staff suggested that they saw the girls’ construction of appearance as the opposite to what they interpreted as a ‘good pupil’. Working-class girls’ appearances were generally seen by teachers as inappropriately ‘sexual’ and a distraction from learning. On the other hand, staff saw middle-class pupils as ‘ideal pupils’. Middle-class girls were interpreted as high-achieving, hard-working, rule-following and respectable.

The researchers noted that peer-group pressure was mainly responsible for the construction of working-class femininity. Appearance was bound up with this because girls’ inclusion in, or exclusion from, their peer group was based on their conformity to particular performances of style and appearance. Most girls wanted to avoid being ridiculed, mocked and called a ‘tramp’ for wearing the ‘wrong’ brand of trainers or style of clothing. Many girls indicated their desire to leave school and to start work in order to earn the money required to continue performing fashionable identities. Boyfriends, too, had a profound and negative effect on girls’ engagement with schooling. Girls with boyfriends had low aspirations and attainment and many expressed the desire to leave and to live with or marry their boyfriend.

Evaluation

The strength of this study is its multi-strategy approach to gathering a range of qualitative data over a significant period of time. The longitudinal nature of the research allowed trends over time to be identified and the development of pupils to be regularly monitored in terms of their interaction with teachers and their peer group.

The sample appears to be representative of ‘at risk’ students in the London area. However, further research would be required to find out whether or not the findings are generalisable to other parts of the UK, as the cultures and types of deprivation found in London may be qualitatively different to those found in other places.

The qualitative nature of the data obtained from both the teachers and the pupils suggests that the researchers managed to obtain the trust of both parties. For the pupils, guarantees of anonymity and confidentiality contributed to this. However, although extensive qualitative data resulted from the group discussions, we need to be aware that the validity of the data can be affected by peer pressure and fears of ridicule and exclusion. If these discussions were not properly managed by the researchers, some pupils may have imposed their interpretations of schooling on the others.

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