Structured Interviews in Social Research

Structured interviews are a standardised way of collecting data typically using closed, pre-coded surveys.

A structured interview is where interviewers ask pre-written questions to candidates in a standardised way, following an interview schedule. As far as possible the interviewer asks the same questions in the same order and the same way to all candidates. 

(An exception to this is filter questions in which case the interviewer may skip sub-questions if a negative response is provided). 

Answers to structured interviews are usually closed, or pre-coded, and the interviewer ticks the appropriate box according to the respondents’ answers. However some structured interviews may be open ended in which case the interviewer writes in the answers for the respondent.

Social surveys are the main context in which researchers will conduct structured interviews.

This post covers:

  • the advantages of structured interviews
  • the different contexts in which they take place (phone and computer assisted).
  • the stages of conducting them: from knowing the schedule to leaving!
  • their limitations.

Advantages of Structured Interviews

The main advantage of structured interviews is that they promote standardisation in both the processes of asking questions and recording answers.

This reduces bias and error in the asking of questions and makes it easier to process respondents’ answers.

The two main advantages of structured interviews are thus:

  • Reducing error due to interviewer variability.
  • Increasing the accuracy and ease of data processing.

Reducing error due to interviewer variability

Structured interviews help to reduce the amount of error in data collection because they are standardised.

Variability and thus error can occur in two ways:

  • Intra-interviewer variability: occurs when an interviewer is not consistent with the way they ask the questions or record the answers.
  • Inter-interviewer variability: when there are more than two interviewers who are not consistent with each other in the way they ask questions or record answers.

These two sources of variability can occur together and compound the the problem of reduced validity.

The common sources of error in survey research include:

  1. A poorly worded question.
  2. The way the question is asked by the interviewer.
  3. Misunderstanding on the part of the respondent being interviewed.
  4. Memory problems on the part of the respondent.
  5. The way the information is recorded by the interviewer.
  6. The way the information is processed: coding of answers or data entry.

Because the asking of questions and recording of answers are standardised, this means any variation in answers from respondents should be due to true or real variation in the respondents answers, rather than variation arising because of differences in the interview context.

Accuracy and Ease of Data Processing

Structured interviews consist of mainly closed, pre-coded questions or fixed choice questions.

With closed-questions the respondent is given a limited choice of possible answers and is asked to select which response or responses apply to them.

The interviewer then simply ticks the appropriate box.

This limit box ticking procedure limits the scope for interviewer bias to introduce error. There is no scope for the interviewer to omit or modify anything the respondent says because they are not writing down their answer.

Another advantage with pre-coded data gained from the structured interview is that it allows for ‘automatic’ data processing.

If answers had been written down or transcribed from a recording, a researcher would have to examine this qualitative data, sort and assign the various answers to categories.

For example if a survey had produced qualitative data on what respondents thought about Brexit, the researcher might categories the range of answers into ‘for Brexit’, ‘neutral’, and ‘against Brexit’.

This process of reducing more complex and varied data into fewer and simpler ‘higher level’ categories is known as coding data, or establishing a coding frame and is necessary for quantitive analysis to take place.

Coding (whether done before or after a structured interview takes place) introduces another source or potential error. Answers may be categorised incorrectly by the researchers. The researchers may categorise answers differently to how the respondents themselves would have categorised their answers.

There are two sources of error in recording data:

  • Intra-rater-variability: where the person applying the coding is inconsistent in the way they apply the rules of assigning answers to categories.
  • Inter-rater-variability: where two different raters apply the rules of assigning answers to categories differently.

If either or both of the above occur then variability in responses will be due to error rather than true variability in the responses.

The closed question survey/ interview avoids the above problem because respondents assign themselves to categories, simply by picking an option and the interviewer ticking a box.

There is very little opportunity with pre-coded interviews for interviewers or analysers to misinterpret or miss-assign respondents’ answers to the wrong categories.

Structured Interview Contexts

Structured interviews tend to be done when there is only one respondent. Group interviews are usually more qualitative because they dynamics of having two ore more respondents present mean answers tend to be more complex, and so tick-box answers are not usually sufficient to get valid data.

Besides the face to face interview, there are two particular contexts which are common with structured interviewing: telephone interviewing and computer assisted interviewing. (These are not mutually exclusive).

Telephone interviewing

Telephone interviews are very common with market research companies, and opinion polling companies such as YouGov. They are used less often by academic researchers but an exception to this was during the Covid-19 Pandemic when many studies which would usually rely on in-person interviews had to be carried out over the phone.

The advantages of telephone interviews

The advantages of telephone interviews compared to face to face interviews the advantages of telephone interviews are:

  • Telephone interviews are cheaper and quicker to administer because there is no travel time or costs involved in accessing the respondents. The more dispersed the research sample is geographically the larger the advantage.
  • Telephone interviews are easier to supervise than face to face interviews. You can have one supervisor in a room with several phone interviewers. Interviewers can be recorded and monitored, although care has to be taken with GDPR.
  • Telephone interviews reduce bias due to the personal characteristics of the interviewers. It is much more difficult to tell what the class background or ethnicity or the interviewer is over the phone, for example.

The limitations of phone interviews

  • People without phones cannot be part of the sample.
  • Call screening with mobile phones has greatly reduced the response rate of phone surveys.
  • Respondents with hearing impediments will find phone interviews more difficult.
  • The length of a phone interview generally can’t be sustained over 20-25 minutes.
  • There is a general belief that telephone interviews achieve lower response rates than face to face interviews.
  • There is some evidence that phone interviews are less useful when dealing with sensitive topics but the data is not clear cut.
  • There may. be validity problems because telephone interviews do not allow for observation. For example an interviewer cannot observe if a respondent is confused by a question.
  • In cases where researchers need specific types of people, telephone interviews do not allow us to check if the correct types of people are actually those being interviewed.

Computer assisted Interviewing 

With computer assisted interviewing interviews questions are pre-written and appear on the computer screen. Interviewers follow the instructions and read out questions in order and key in the respondents’ answers, either as open or closed responses. 

There are two main types of Computer Assisted Interviewing:

  • CAPI – Computer Assisted Personal Interviewing. 
  • CATI – Computer Assisted Telephone Interviewing.

Most telephone interviews today are Computer Assisted. There are several survey software packages that allow for the construction of effective surveys with analytics tools for data analysis. 

They are less popular for personal interviews but have been growing in popularity. 

CATI and CAPI are more common among commercial survey organisations such as IPSOS but are used less in academic research conducted by universities. 

The advantages of computer assisted interviewing

CAPI are very useful for filter questions as the software can skip to the next question if the previous one isn’t relevant. This reduces the likelihood of the interviewer asking irrelevant questions or missing out questions. 

They are also useful for prompt-questions as flash cards can be generated on the screen and shown to the respondents as required. This should mean respondents are more likely to see the flash-cards in the same way as there is no possibility for the researcher to arrange them in a different order for different respondents, as might be the case with physical flashcards. 

Another advantage of computer assisted interviewing is automatic storage on the computer or cloud upload which means there is no need to scan paper interview sheets or enter the data manually at a later date. 

Thus Computer Assisted Interviews should increase the level of standardisation and reduce the amount of variability error introduced by the interviewer. 

The disadvantages of Computer Assisted Interviewing:

  • They may create a sense of distance and disconnect between the interviewer and respondents. 
  • Miskeying may result in the interviewer entering incorrect data, and they are less likely to realise this than with paper interviews. 
  • Interviewers need to be comfortable with the technology.

Conducting Structured Interviews 

The procedures involved with conducting an effective structure interview include:

  • Knowing the interview schedule
  • Gaining access 
  • Introducing the research 
  • Establishing rapport 
  • Asking questions and recording answers 
  • Leaving the interview.

The processes above are specifically in relation to structured interviews, but will also apply to semi-structure interviews.

The interview schedule 

An interview schedule is the list of questions in order, with relevant instructions about how the questions are to be asked. Before conducting an interview, the interviewer should know the interview schedule inside out. 

Interviews can be stressful and pressure can cause interviewers to not follow standardised procedures. For example, interviewers may ask questions in the wrong order or miss questions out. 

When several interviewers are involved in the research process it is especially important that all of them know the interview schedule to ensure questions are asked in a standardised way. 

Gaining access

Interviews are the interface between the research and the respondents and are thus a crucial link in ensuring a good response rate. In order to gain access interviews need to:

  • Be prepared to keep calling back with telephone interviews. Keep in mind the most likely times to get a response. 
  • Be self-assured and confident. 
  • Reassure people that you are not a salesperson, but doing research for a deeper purpose. 
  • Dress appropriately. 
  • Be prepared to be flexible with time: finding a time that fits the respondent if first contact isn’t convenient. 

Introducing the research 

Respondents need to be provided with a rationale explaining the purposes of the research and why they are giving up their time to take part. 

The introductory rationale may be written down or spoken. A written rationale may be sent out to prospective respondents in advance of the research taking place, as is the case with those selected to take part in the British Social Attitudes survey. A verbal rationale is employed with street-based market research, cold-calling telephone surveys and may also be reiterated during house to house surveys. 

An effective introductory statement can be crucial in getting respondents to take part. 

What should an introductory statement for social research include?

  • Make clear the identity of the interviewer.
  • Identify the agency which is conducting the research: for example a university or business. 
  • Include details of how the research is being funded. 
  • Indicate the broader purpose of the research in broad terms: what are the overall aims?
  • Give an indication of the kind of data that will be collected. 
  • Make it clear that participation is voluntary. 
  • Make it clear that data will be anonymised and that the respondent will not be identified in any way, by data being analysed at an aggregate level. 
  • Provide reassurance about the confidentiality of information. 
  • Provide a respondent with the opportunity to ask questions. 

Establishing rapport with structured interviews

Rapport is what makes the respondent feel as if they want to cooperate with the researcher and take part in the research. Without rapport being established respondents may either not agree to take part or terminate the interview half way through! 

Rapport can be established through visual cues of friendliness such as positive body language, listening and good eye contact. 

However with structured interviews, establishing rapport is a delicate balancing act as it is crucial for the interviewers be as objective as possible and not get too close to the respondents.

Rapport can be achieved by being friendly with the interviewee, although interviewers shouldn’t take this too far. Too much friendliness can result in the interview taking too long and the interviewee getting bored. 

Too much rapport can also result in the respondent providing socially desirable answers. 

Asking Questions and Recording Answers 

With structured interviews it is important that researchers strive to ask the same questions in the same way to all respondents. They should ask questions as written in order to minimise error. 

Experiments in question-wording suggest that even minor variations in wording can influence replies. 

Interviewers may be tempted to deviate from the schedule because they feel awkward asking some questions to particular people, but training can help with this and make it more likely that standardisation is kept in place. 

Where recording answers is concerned, bias is far less likely with pre-coded answers. 

PROVIDING Clear instructions 

Interviews need to follow clear instructions through the progress of the interview. This is important if an interview schedule includes filter questions. 

Filter questions require the interviewer to ask questions of some respondents but not to others. Filler questions are usually indented on an interview schedule. 

For example: 

  1. Did you vote in the last general election…?  YES / NO 

1a (to be asked if respondent answered yes to Q1)

Which of the following political parties did you vote for? Conservatives/ Labour/ Lib Dems/ The Green Party/ Other. 

The risk of not following instructions is that the respondent may be asked questions that are irrelevant to them, which may be irritating. 

Question order

Researchers should stick to the question order on the survey. 

Leapfrogging questions may result in questions skipped not being asked because the researcher could forget to go back to them. 

Changing the question order may also lead to variability in replies because questions previously asked may affect how respondents answer questions later on in the survey. 

Three specific examples demonstrate why question order matters:

People are less likely to respond that taxes should be lowered if they are asked questions about government spending beforehand. 

In victim surveys if people are asked about their attitudes to crime first they are more likely to report that they have been a victim of crime in later questions. 

One question in the 1988 British Crime Survey asked the following question:

‘Taking everything into account, would you say the police in this area do a good job or a poor job? 

For all respondents this question appeared early on, but due to an admin error the question appeared twice in some surveys, and for those who answered the question twice:

  • 66% gave the same response
  • 22% gave a more positive response
  • 12% gave a less positive response. 

The fact that only two thirds of respondents gave the same response twice clearly indicates that the effect of question order can be huge. 

One theory for the change is that the survey was about crime and as respondents thought more in-depth about crime as the interview progressed, 22% felt more favourable to the police and 13% less favourable, this would have varied with their own experiences. 

Rules for ordering questions in social surveys

  • Early questions should be clearly related to the topic of the research about which the respondent has already been informed. This is so the respondent immediately feels like the questions are relevant. 
  • Questions about age/ ethnicity/ gender etc. should not be asked at the beginning of the interview 
  • Sensitive questions should be left for later.
  • With a longer questionnaire, questions should be grouped into sections to break up the interview. 
  • Within each subgroup general questions should precede specific ones. 
  • Opinions and attitudes questions should precede questions about behaviour and knowledge. Questions about the later are less likely to be influenced by question order. 
  • If a respondent has already answered a later question in the course of answering a previous one, that later question should still be asked. 

Probing questions in structured interviews 

Probing may be required in structured interviews when 

  • respondents do not understand the question and either ask for or it is clear that they need more information to provide an answer. 
  • The respondent does not provide a sufficient answer and needs to be probed for more information. 

The problem with the interviewer asking additional probing questions is that they introduce researcher-led variability into the interview context. 

Tactics for effective probing in structured interviews:
  • Employ standardised probes. These work well when open ended answers are required. Examples of standardised probes include: ‘Could you say a little more about that?’ or ‘are there any other reasons why you think that?’. 
  • If a response does not allow for a pre-existing box to be ticked In a closed ended survey the interviewer could repeat the available options
  • If the response requires a number rather than something like ‘often’ the researcher should just persist with asking the question.  They shouldn’t try and second guess a number!


Prompting occurs when the interviewer suggests a possible answer to a question to the respondent. This is effectively what happens with a closed question survey or interview: the options are the prompts. The important thing is that the prompts are the same for all the respondents and asked in the same way. 

During face to face interviews there may be times when it is better for researchers to use show cards (or flash cards) to display the answers rather than say them. 

Three contexts in which flashcards are better:

  • When there is a long list of possible answers. For example if asking respondents about which newspapers they read, it would be easier to show them a list rather than reading them out!
  • With Likert Scales, ranked for 1-5 for example, it would be easier to have a showcard with 1-5 and the respondent can point to it, rather than reading out ‘1,2,3,4,5’. 
  • With some sensitive details such as income, respondents might feel more comfortable if they are shown income bands with letters attached, then they can say the letter. This allows the respondent to not state what their income is out loud. 

Leaving the Interview 

On leaving the interview thank the respondent for taking part. 

Researchers should not engage in further communication about the purpose of the research at this point beyond the standard introductory statement. To do so means this respondent may divulge further information to other respondents yet to take part, possibly biassing their responses.

Problems with structured interviews 

Four problems with structured interviews include:

  • the characteristics of the interviewer interfering with the results.
  • Response sets resulting in reduced validity (acquiescence and social desirability).
  • The problem of lack of shared meaning.
  • The feminist critique of the unequal power relationship between interviewer and respondent.

Interviewer characteristics

The characteristics of the interviewer such as their gender or ethnicity may affect the responses a respondent gives. For example, a respondent may be less likely to open up on sensitive issues with someone who is a different gender to them.  

Response Sets 

This is where respondents reply to a series of questions in a consistent way but one that is irrelevant to the concept being measured. 

This is a particular problem when respondents are answering several Likert Scale questions in a row. 

Two of the most prominent types of response set are ‘acquiescence’ and ‘social desirability bias’ 


Acquiescence refers to a tendency of some respondents to consistently agree or disagree with a set of questions. They may do this because it is quicker for them to get through the interview. This is known as satisficing. 

Satisficing is where respondents reduce the amount of effort required to answer a question. They settle for an answer that is satisfactory rather than making the effort to generate the most accurate answer. 

Examples of satisficing include:

  • Agreeing with yes statements or ‘yeasaying’.
  • Opting for middle point answers on scales.
  • Not considering the full-range of answers in a range of closed questions, for example picking the first or last answers. 

The opposite of satisficing is optimising. Optimising is where respondents expend effort to arrive at the best and most appropriate answer to a question. 

It is possible to weed out respondents who do this by ensuring there is a mix of positive and negative sentiment in a batch of Likert questions. 

For example you may have a batch of three questions designed to measure attitudes towards Rishi Sunak’s performance as Primeminister.

If you have two scales where ‘5’ is positive and one where 5 is Negative, for example:

  • Rishi Sunak is an effective leader
  • Rishi Sunak has managed the economy well 
  • Rishi Sunak is NOT to be trusted  

If someone is acquiescing without thinking about their answers, they are likely to circle all 5s, which wouldn’t make sense. Hence we could disregard this response and maybe even the entire survey from this individual. 

Social desirability bias 

Socially desirable behaviours and attitudes tend to be over-reported. This can especially be the case for sensitive questions.

Strategies for reducing social interviews bias
  • Use self-completion forms rather than interviewers. 
  • Soften the question for example ‘even the calmest of car drivers sometimes lose their temper when driving, has this ever happened to you?

The problem of meaning 

Structured surveys and interviews assume that respondents share the same meanings for terms as the interviewers. 

However, from an interpretivist perspective interviewer and respondent may not share the same meanings. Respondents may be ticking boxes but mean different things to what the interviewer thinks they mean. 

The issue of meaning is side-stepped in structured interviews. 

The feminist critique of structured interviews 

The structure of the interview epitomises the asymmetrical relationship between researcher and respondent. This is a critique made of all quantitative research. 

The researcher extracts information from the respondent and gives little or nothing in return. 

Interviewers are even advised not to get too familiar with respondents as giving away too much information may bias the results. 

Interviewers should refrain from expressing their opinions, presenting any personal information and engaging in off-topic chatter. All of this is very impersonal. 

This means that structured interviews are probably not appropriate for very sensitive topics that involve a more personal touch. For example with domestic violence, unstructured interviews which aim to explore the nature of violence have revealed higher levels of violence than structured interviews such as the Crime Survey of England and Wales.

Sources and signposting

Structured interviews are relevant to the social research methods module within A-level sociology.

This post was adapted from Bryman, A (2016) Social Research Methods.

Why do so many more Americans die compared to Europeans?

500 000 more Americans die every year compared to equivalent economies. The death rate in America is higher for several causes of death than in Europe.

US life expectancy fell from 78.8 to 76.1 between 2019 to 2021. In all other developed countries it continued to increase.

graph showing life expectancy trends, America's going down!

According to a recent large-scale study by mortality researchers:

  • In 2020 the EU reported 5800 overdose deaths in a population of 330 million. America reported 68 000 overdose deaths in a similar population of 440 million.
  • In 2021 there were 26 000 murders in America compared to just a few hundred in most European countries with larger populations.
  • The US car crash death rate is four times that of Germany.
  • Americans are nearly twice as likely to die in fires compared to in Western Europe.
Relevance to A-level sociology

This material is relevant to global development, an option within A-level sociology.

These statistics suggest that social development does not automatically follow on from economic development. America is one of the richest countries on earth, but its social development is relatively retarded. The money made in America isn’t being used to benefit ordinary people by making the country a safer place to live!

The exploitation of young people in the UK

Millions of young people are exploited at work through unpaid trial shifts, lower minimum wages for example.

Millions of young people in the UK are being treated unfairly at work. Around half of young workers are exploited in some way, for example through being underpaid. Young people lose up to £1.65 billion each year through wage theft, and over 100,000 are never paid for overtime at all.

This is according to some recent research from the Equality Trust published in 2023: Your Time, Your Pay. The primary purpose of this research was to assess young people’s knowledge, awareness and application of their employment rights. The research was based on a sample of 1018 16-24 years olds.

Examples of how young people are exploited at work include…

  • Unpaid trial shifts
  • Working without a contract 
  • Zero hours contracts
  • Lower minimum wages 
  • Not being auto-enrolled onto Pensions 
  • Lack of education about employment rights. 

The rest of this post outlines the economic challenges young people face, statistics and cased studies about young people being exploited at work and recommendations about how to improve things.

Economic challenges young people face

Young people are exploited in work despite facing huge economic challenges:

  • Young people suffered more from the Pandemic with school closures and higher rates of job losses.  Under 25s accounted for 60% of job losses during lockdowns between February 2020 – March 2021.
  • Young people face wage discrimination as employers are legally allowed to pay them less. The minimum wage for under 18s is a dismal £5.28 an hour. 
  • Relative scarcity of housing means rents have increased, and buying is simply out of reach for most under 25 year olds. For those who want to buy they have to save tens of thousands of pounds for a deposit. 
  • For those who choose to go to university, they are saddled with tens of thousands of pounds of debt. 
  • Recent high rates of inflation mean the cost of living is relatively higher for young people today compared to their parents when they were younger. 

As a result, it is the norm for young people to face ‘financial precarity’. A 2022 report found that 47% of young people (aged 16-25) are experiencing financial precarity. This number grew as young people got older, with 57% of 22-24-year-olds in a precarious financial situation. 

And yet despite these challenging times, many young people who have to work out of necessity or choose to work to get ahead suffer massive exploitation at the hands of their employers…

Young people being exploited at work: statistics 

The Equality Trust report found that…

  • 42% of young workers have been asked to work for no pay.
  • 51% of young people work overtime, over half have not always been paid for it. 
  • 38% of young people either do not have or do not know whether they have a written employment contract.
  • 16-17 year olds were the least likely age cohort to have a written employment contract with only 34% having a written contract. This compares to 59% of 18-21 year olds and 67% 22-24 year olds.
  • 40% of young people have been employed on a zero hour contract.
  • Almost two thirds of young people did not receive, or don’t know if they received, information about employment rights at school.
  • 73% of young people are not members of a trade union.
  • Only 37% of young people think their standard of living is better than their parent(s) or guardian(s).
Bar chart showing percentage of young people exploited at work.

Young people being exploited at work: case studies

The focus group revealed the following examples:

  • Unpaid trial shifts: One worker who did a 4 hour trial shift in an expensive homeware store who made a £50 sale despite receiving no training during that 4 hours and being reprimanded for using the till incorrectly.
  • Working without a contract: On person worked as an age verification checker where she went into off-licences and betting shops to see if they asked her proof of her age. She had to write detailed reports but had no formal contract. She saw the job advertised specifically to students on TikTok.
  • Working as bar staff at a music festival – One respondent reported that they had to spend £40 on their train ticket to event despite being told travel costs would be paid at their interview. The agency oversubscribed workers assuming some wouldn’t turn up so when she arrived for a shift at 7.00 a.m. she was told she wouldn’t be starting until 18.00.
  • One respondent reported a positive experience on working a zero hours contract for an administrative body where the flexibility was mutually beneficial.

Research Methods used in this report 

The polling was conducted by Survation in November 2022 and they surveyed 1,018 young people from across the UK. 

They also ran two focus groups with a total of nine young people; one to co-produce the questions for the survey and the second to analyse the results.

They ensured they sampled  a diverse group of young people from a range of socio-economic backgrounds. 


Based on the above findings the Equality Trust recommends that…

  • The government should abolish the National Minimum Wage rates based on a person’s age.
  • Unpaid trial shifts should be made illegal.
  • Expand automatic pension enrolment to qualifying over-16s. 
  • Schools and colleges need to do more employment rights based education.
  • Trades Unions could do more to attract younger people.
Signposting and relevance to A-level sociology

This is a fantastic example of how to use focus group interviews in social research. Focus groups really work here because they give respondents a chance to share their experiences of being exploited with their peers. By being able to listen and respond in a supportive environment this should help encourage respondents to open up. The topic isn’t so sensitive as to require one on one interviews.

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Sources/ Find out More

For more research from the Equality Trust.

Citizens Advice: Check your Rights if you’re under 18.

Increasing Billionaire wealth in Britain, and increasing inequality in society 

The wealth of billionaires in Britain has increased by 1100% in the 32 years between 1990 and 2022. 

  • In 1990 there were 15 billionaires who controlled £53.9 billion in wealth.  
  • By 2022 there were 177 billionaires who controlled £653.1 in wealth. 

These increases reflect a wider increase in inequality in the UK more generally. However the increase in wealth at the very top, such as billionaires, has been the most extreme. 

bar chart showing increase in billionaires in the UK from 1990 to 2022.

Most of the increase has been driven by an increase in the number of billionaires, but there has also been a concentration at the very top. The top two billionaire households in 2022 controlled as much wealth as the bottom half of billionaire households in 1990. 

Billionaire wealth has increased due to the structure of the UK economy. It has continued to increase post-Covid despite the wider population facing economic crises. 

Billionaires are not uniquely hard working, or intelligent, or creative. Instead, billionaires are better seen as the primary beneficiaries of an economic system which produces huge levels of poverty and inequality, and has left the UK particularly vulnerable to the multiple, overlapping crises we have faced over the past few years.

This blog post is a summary of ‘Billionaire Britain’, a report from the Equality Trust.

Measuring Billionaire Wealth 

There is no quality data source on wealth in the UK at the national level. This is because there is no systematic recording of wealth when it is taxed. The Wealth and Assets survey suffers under-reporting from the very wealthiest households. 
The Times Richlist is the most comprehensive source, but this could miss out on various assets and under-report wealth. 

Billionaire Britain uses data from the Times Rich List. 

From a research methods perspective this is an interesting example of how power shapes data collection. The very richest are the most powerful and the UK government doesn’t systematically track data on their wealth. In fact, tracking is poor that Billionaire Britain estimates at least £4.4 billion of property investment in the UK has been bought by corrupt individuals. 

Why are there more billionaires in Britain?

Two underlying structural changes have enabled massive accumulation by those at the top: 

  • Firstly, the financialisation of the UK means that those with wealth now have greater returns on their investments. This is due to corporations focusing on profits over wages and the inflation of asset prices. 
  • Secondly, deregulation has resulted in less restrictions and fewer taxes on wealth. This has attracted more wealth to the UK. 

Of the 177 on the 2022 billionaire rich list 42 gained their wealth through investing and 39 through real estate. 

Financialisation is where the financial industry becomes more important to the economy as a whole. 

The finance sector consists of a range of different industries from investment companies (including real estate investments), stocks and shares funds, hedge funds, and insurance and pensions. 

In a primarily finance based economy, the production of tangible products is less important, and many of the financial services seek to make returns trading financial instruments without creating anything of any value. 

One consequence of a financialized economy is asset price inflation. Financial companies invest in assets such as houses and land for a return (rather than seeking to develop land or improve houses themselves) which pushes the prices up. 

A second and related consequence is more households taking on debt. This is increasingly required to buy more expensive assets, such as housing. 

A third consequence is more companies seeking profit over wages and quality services. They become more concerned with providing dividends to shareholders over paying decent wages. 

In terms of service provision, energy and water companies have extracted billions in profits over the last years. Shareholders have got richer as a result. However the infrastructure is now crumbling in many cases, as evidenced with things such as leaky water pipes. 

All of the above has resulted in a more unequal society as a few benefit from financialisation. Meanwhile at the bottom end people have relatively less money AND worse services. 

What are the solutions to increased wealth and the inequality this causes? 

The Equality Trust suggests five courses of action…

  1. Introduce a progressive wealth tax. That means the wealthier you are the more tax you pay! 
  2. Make corporate ownership more democratic, so more people have a say in what happens to profits. 
  3. Regulate the financial sector more. 
  4. Return essential services to public ownership. 
  5. Improve tax transparency and end tax havens. 
  6. Create more community wealth funds to invest in areas that need it most.

Relevance to A-level sociology

This material is an important update for anyone interested in wealth and income inequalities in the UK.

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Neo-tribes based on chosen lifestyles and reflect the shift to postmodern society,

Neo-tribes are associations of consumer groups (such as consumers of dance music) who come together in particular settings where they express similar tastes. They do not form coherent groups outside those settings, but when they are together they are influenced by one another.

For example, at a rave, a person will assume the identity of a ‘raver’ for the night, and then resume an ordinary, mundane identity as a ‘worker’ Monday to Friday.

From subcultures to neo-tribes

Andy Bennett (1996) argued the term subculture is not useful for describing groups of young people who share similar tastes in style and music. Clearly defined youth subcultures do not exist among contemporary youth. Instead, young people assume identities in particular settings.

“There is very little evidence that even the most committed groups of youth stylists are in any way as ‘coherent’ or ‘fixed’ as the term ‘subculture’ implies. On the contrary, it seems to me that so-called youth ‘subcultures’ are prime examples of the shifting cultural affiliations which characterize late modern consumer societies”. (1)

There is more cross-filtration of styles these days, so that styles overlap with many different so-called ‘subcultures’. For example, dance music might sample aspects of reggae or even heavy metal, which leads to a breakdown in style-boundaries and more people identifying with each other from different style groups, which challenges the idea that there are distinct ‘subcultures’.

Dance music especially breaks down these barriers and encourages consumers to pick and mix from a range of styles and so youth identities are more multi-faceted than they once might have been.

The concept of ‘clubbing’ also challenges the idea of fixed, style based identities. Most ‘clubbers’ go to several different types of club night, and so ‘clubbing’ is a series of fragmented temporal experiences in which clubbers move through different crowds on different nights and assume different identities depending on the venue and theme of the night.

Postmodernism and Neo-tribes

The concept of neo-tribes reflects the move from modern to postmodern society, as people move from having a ‘way of life’ to choosing ‘lifestyles’.

During modernity, identities tended to be based on ‘ways of life’ which were handed down through the generations based on locality, class and gender.

Bennet (1999) believes that contemporary identities in postmodern societies are based on ‘lifestyles’ rather than ‘ways of life’. Lifestyles and the identities expressed through them are chosen based on consumer preferences.

Neo-tribes are an example of such lifestyle choices, and people to move between different neo-tribes, expressing different identities.

People might choose a neo-tribe that reflects their social class background but this isn’t something shaped by society, it is a choice.

For example, Bennet argued that fans of the band Oasis adopt an image consisting of training shoes, football shirts and duffle coats, which is designed to illustrate their collective sense of a working class identity, however these individuals are not working class, this is a purely chosen, constructed and temporary identity.


This material is mainly relevant to the culture and identity module, normally taught in the first year of A-level sociology.

The concept of neo-tribe is derived from the work of Michael Maffesoli (1996) who coined the term ‘tribus’ (or tribes) to describe contemporary youth.


Bennett, A (1999) Subcultures or Neo-Tribes? Rethinking the Relationship between Youth, Style and Musical Taste.

Are Tory funding cuts to blame for school closures?

Yes. The data clearly suggests a very strong correlation between Tory underfunding of schools closing because of unsafe crumbling concrete.

The Tories have had the money to spend on making school building safe. Instead they have chosen to spend the money of new free schools. This appears to have been a political decision to please mainly middle class parents.

Of course the Tories, and especially Rishi Sunak say they are not to blame. However in this case they appear to be just plain lying. The data suggest the opposite: that Tory education policy has failed leading to mass school closures. This was totally preventable.

Unsafe schools closing due to crumbling concrete

More than 100 schools are fully or partially closed this September 2023 due to crumbling concrete. The problem is that some of the buildings in these schools were built in the 1950s using reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete (RAAC). This concrete is now passed its use by date and is crumbling.

Back in 2018 a ceiling collapsed in a staffroom made from this concrete. Had people been in the room at the time it could have killed someone. This prompted a review of the safety of school buildings. In 2020 a senior education civil servant at the time advised improving 200 schools a year. However the now Prime Minister, then chancellor Rishi Sunak made the decision to only improve 50 schools a year.

The DFE’s own data shows the Torys have been chronically underfunding schools. It was estimated in 2021 that £5 billion would be needed for capital investment in schools. However only £3 billion was allocated.

Compared to the previous New Labour government the Tories have spent one third less on education investment during their time in power.

The data above is taken from this BBC News Article which is worth a watch to summarise this issue!

The Tories: putting the middle classes first?

Instead of choosing to make existing schools safe the Tories have instead chosen to spend almost £1 billion buying land for new Free Schools. Almost half of these have created spare capacity in already existing schools in local areas.

One interpretation of the above is as follows:

Tory education policy and funding has prioritised pleasing middle class parents. (These are typically the people who benefit from free schools). This has been at the expense of pupils attending schools with crumbling concrete.

So the Torys are prepared to put (probably poorer) pupils at risk of injury and death. All so middle class pupils can have a slightly better quality of education in free schools.

Relevance to A-level sociology

This material is relevant to the education topic within A-level sociology.

This seems to be another failure of Tory education policy in recent years.

It is also a failure of neoliberalism. Funding cuts are a big part of neoliberal policy. In this case they have resulted in school closures. This is backward social development.

Fun and Creative Ideas for Studying Sociology:

Creative ideas for learning sociology include making mind maps and using images and metaphors.

Getting creative not only makes learning more fun, it also helps you to better understand complex sociological theories and concepts and remember them more efficiently.

I have selected below some creative strategies which should help you with learning A-level sociology.

Combining Concepts…

Select two concepts, theories, sociologists, research studies, news events, and try to make the links between them!

A chart or two containing such concepts with numbers up and down the sides may help with this!


A metaphor is where you make one thing represent another in order to draw comparisons. Try to come up with metaphors for sociological perspectives, theories and even research studies.

For example, in terms of shapes Marxism can be represented by a triangle, which reflects the class structure. Functionalism is more of a square, which reflects its concern with social order and regulation.

Keep an ideas notebook or videolog

Walk around town and observe people, interactions, adverts, shops, or watch the news or any programme.

Keep a notebook of what you observe and apply sociological theories and concepts to your daily observations.

If writing is too long winded, do a photo diary or video log instead, making it visual may actually help.

Model things

If you have some lego then you might like to spend some time making models to represent different sociological theories and concepts.

This may be a little time consuming, so maybe treat this a break activity which keeps the brain ticking over!

Mind Maps!

It may be obvious from this blog that I am a huge fan of mind maps. They really are a great way of summarising complex ideas which mirror the way the brain works: one central point for each map, and then a few main points coming off the central hub and then further sub branches…

Mind map example:

NB maps can be even more effective if you make them more visual by using pictures where possible rather than just words!

Play the expert sociologist

Think of any social problem, such as a high crime rate or a failing school and either plan a research project to figure out why.

Alternatively, imagine you are a government advisor and think up social policies which may solve the problem. Or make the case for a revolution!

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Ethnicity in the 2021 UK National Census

The government added 2 additional options for ethnicity in the 2021 Census: ‘Roma’ and ‘Black British Other’. However, they rejected 53 out of 55 requests for more categories!

Following the 2011 Census the government engaged in a consultation in 2015 with several organisations and individuals over whether they needed to increase the number of ethnic categories. Based on feedback from 46 organisations and 86 individuals, most of them found the existing categories acceptable, but they received 55 requests for more categories. 

Some of the examples of requests for new categories included Somali, Jewish and Kashmiri. 

Of these 55 requests, only two changes were judged to be worth including in the 2021 Census:

  • Including a separate ‘ROMA’ tick box under the ‘White’ category, rather than putting this together with GYPSY. 
  • Including an ‘other’ BLACK category besides AFRICAN and CARIBBEAN, and allowing respondents to write in details.  

The board of Census experts made their decisions to accept the above two changes for new ethnic categories. They used a standard evaluation procedure in which each category was scored the basis of:

  • User need: was there a need to gather more specific information (easily) on the specific new categories of ethnic group?
  • Lack of alternative information: was there no where else information could be found out about the suggested new group? (This was the case with the Roma category).
  • Clarity of data collection: some categories were rejected because of too much overlap. For example, offering a ‘Kashmiri’ option would probably reduce the number of people ticking ‘Indian’ or ‘Pakistan’. Some of the people who ticked ‘Kashmiri’ would identify as BOTH Pakistani and Kashmiri, or both Indian and Kashmiri. 
  • Consistency with the 2011 Census: taking reliability and comparison with previous data into account. 

In many cases the Census team decided ethnicity information was already covered already in the ‘religion’ section or by simply allowing respondents to write in their responses would yield sufficient information compared to a fresh tick box.  

Current list of ethnicity options in the 2021 UK Census…

list of ethnicity options in the 2021 UK census

Analysis of changes to ethnicity options: disrespecting Diversity?

It feels a little like The Census paid lip service to this process rather than seriously considering increasing the number of available categories.

They sampled less than 100 individuals outside of formal organisations. Of these, 40% of respondents requested a change, which is significant, and then rejected most of these. 

I imagine the reason for this was practical: once you start increasing the number of ethnicity options the form rapidly becomes impractically long. For example, if you included ‘Somali’, it seems a bit unfair to not include every African subcategory, which would mean dozens more boxes, and so on for every other suggestion. 

Having an ethnicity section with possibly 200 options would simply be off putting. Allowing respondents to write in their responses means they’ve already covered the ‘inclusion’ aspect. 

In terms of data analysis, when the Census is online, it’s easy enough to filter by written-in responses.

Having said that it is worth noting that the Census probably tells us very little about identity. It doesn’t tell us what ethnicity means to the respondents.

Signposting and sources

This material is mainly relevant to the Culture and Identity option, usually taught in the first year of A-level sociology.

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Why is there an increase in non-UK university students?

mainly it is all about the money!

The number of university places taken up by non-UK students is increasing much faster than for UK students.

If we go back to the university year ending 2019 and compare this to 2022 we find the following:

  • The number of non-UK student enrolments increased by 37% between 2019 to 2022.
  • The number of UK student enrolments increased by only 11% over the same period.

Overall there were approximately 400 000 more enrolments in 2022 compared to 2019. Around 40% of these went to non-UK students.

Domicile20192022Raw increasePercent increase
Total UK1,960,3202,182,560222,24011.34
Total Non-UK496,110679,970183,86037.06
Non-UK enrolments increasing much faster than UK enrolments.

(Source: HESA stats)

If we put this in a graph we see the increase is faster for non-UK students:

graph showing increase in non UK HE students

If we do a dual axis scale (Non-UK on the right) the faster increase of non-UK students is clearer:

increase in non-UK students dual axis grapht

One quarter of Russel Group University places now go to foreign students. HALF of UCL and LSE places go to foreign students.

The top two countries where non-UK students come from are China, followed by India. Together these account for around 30% of non-UK student enrolments

Around 80% of non-UK students are now from outside the EU, with EU applications and enrolments having fallen since Brexit.

More pain for UK university applicants

If this trend towards universities taking proportionally more non-UK continues it means relatively fewer places for UK students.

It means even more competition in a year when A-level results have gone back down to 2019 levels.

Why are there more foreign students…?

Mainly it is all about the money. UK universities charge higher fees for foreign students. While UK students typically pay around £10 000 per year, the fees for foreign students can be four times that amount for some courses!

This is also a global success story. There is a growing middle class in China and India hence increasing demand for UK university places.

From a neoliberal perspective this is how a global market should work. British universities are some of the best in the world, and in a global free market they are free to sell those services to anyone.

There’s also the fact that universities need the extra income from foreign students to provide a better service. British students will also benefit from this.

And there is nothing stopping British students from applying to universities abroad, either. (Well, other than the fact that most of them can only speak English).

So maybe our default reaction shouldn’t be to whinge about this!?! It is just globalisation as usual, after all!

Having said that, one potential downside to this is that it’s poorer students who are going to lose out the most. As Britain’s best universities become increasingly dominated by a global middle class. It is likely that the poor working class British students are those who wil struggle to secure places!

Sources/ Find out more

The Daily Mail: Middle Class Students Face Losing Out on Places

This material is relevant to the education module within A-level sociology.

Income and Wealth Differences by Age in the U.K.

Adults aged 60-64 are nine times wealthier than adults aged 30-34. (ONS wealth survey, 2018-202.

Older generations enjoyed higher incomes in their peak earning years compared to today’s workers. Older people are much wealthier than younger people today.

Income Differences by Age

The Baby Boomers enjoyed high incomes for most of their working lives because they were part of a relatively small birth cohort and their peak earning years were before globalisastion really kicked into gear.

When China opened up to world trade in the 1990s this meant British workers had to compete with cheaper labour from abroad. By this time most of the Boomers had most of their working years behind them and were well set up financially to cope with this.

The 2008 financial crisis changed things dramatically for the worse, and wages for younger generations have been going down in relative terms. 30 year old Millennials today have 4% less disposable income than Gen X had when they were a similar age.

Moreover, younger generations feel as if they are more hard done by, meaning they are more likely to question the social contract. 40% of Millennials think they have a low income compared to only 30% of Generation X.

The Stereotype of spend-happy youth

Younger generations are often criticised for being materialistic and more likely to report they think it is important to be rich, with some commentators suggesting the young can learn lessons in frugality from their elders.

However, the stats suggest younger people in fact spend less, and thinking it’s important to be rich is a function of them having lower and less secure incomes!

The over 50s account for one third of the population but 47% of consumer spending. 55-64 year olds spend around 20% on consumer items than 24-35 year olds.

Wealth distribution by age

Wealth is mainly concentrated among older people.

Since 2007 nearly all the extra wealth created has gone to the over 45s, with over two thirds going to the over 65s. Mostly driven by the increase in property prices.

This wealth hasn’t come because of frugality, but because of government policies creating windfalls: low interest rates, printing money keeping property rates high.

Bar chart showing median wealth distribution by age, UK 2018-2020.

And the ability to save for the younger generations has been harmed by stagnating wages and student loans.

Younger people increasingly rely on their parents helping them out financially, most obviously when they purchase their first house. In 2017 34% of first time buyers received help from their parents to buy, and the Bank of Mum and Dad was in the top ten of mortgage lenders!

However this only serves to increase inequality: those at the top are better able to help out their kids, who get richer faster while those at the bottom have nothing.

And it’s a long wait for inheritance, even for those lucky enough to be in receipt of one: age 61 is the average age.

Despite all of the above, there is no mass resentment against the old, and no real desire for wealth to be passed down en masse. The main problem is the inequality of wealth within the top generation and the economic inequality this increases across generations.

Sources and Signposting

ONS: Wealth distribution by age and other characteristics dataset.

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