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Using interviews to research education

Interviews are one of the most commonly used qualitative research methods in the sociology of education. In this post I consider some of the strengths and limitations of using interviews to research education, focussing mainly on unstructured interviews.

This post is primarily designed to get students thinking about methods in context, or ‘applied research methods’. Before reading through this students might like to brush up on methods in context by reading this introductory post. Links to other methods in context advice posts can be found at the bottom of the research methods page (link above!)

Practical issues with interviews  

Gaining access may be a problem as schools are hierarchical institutions and the lower down the hierarchy an individual is, the more permissions the interviewer will require to gain access to interview them. For example, you might require the headmaster’s permission to interview a teacher, while to interview pupils you’ll require the headmasters and their parent’s permission.

However, if you can gain consent, and get the headmaster onside, the hierarchy may make doing interviews more efficient – the headmaster can instruct teachers to release pupils from lessons to do the interviews, for example.

Interviews tend to take more time than questionnaires, and so finding the time to do the interviews may be a problem – teachers are unlikely to want to give up lesson time for interviews, and pupils are unlikely to want spend their free time in breaks or after school taking part in interviews. Where teachers are concerned, they do tend to be quite busy, so they may be reluctant to give up time in their day to do interviews.

However, if the topic is especially relevant or interesting, this will be less of a problem, and the interviewer could use incentives (rewards) to encourage respondents to take part. Group interviews would also be more time efficient.

Younger respondents tend to have more difficulty in keeping to the point, and they often pick up on unexpected details in questions, which can make interviews take longer.

Younger respondents may have a shorter attention span than adults, which means that interviews need to be kept short.

Validity issues

Students may see the interviewer as the ‘teacher in disguise’ – they may see them as part of the hierarchical structure of the institution, which could distort their responses. This could make pupils give socially desirable responses. With questions about homework, for example, students may tell the interviewer they are doing the number of hours that the school tells them they should be doing, rather than the actual number of hours they spend doing homework.

To overcome this the teacher might consider conducting interviews away from school premises and ensure that confidentiality is guaranteed.

Young people’s intellectual and linguistic skills are less developed that adults and the interviewer needs to keep in mind that:

  • They may not understand longer words or more complex sentences.
  • They may lack the language to be able to express themselves clearly
  • They may have a shorter attention span than adults
  • They may read body language different to adults

Having said all of that, younger people are probably going to be more comfortable speaking rather than reading and writing if they have poor communication skills, which means interviews are nearly always going to be a better choice than questionnaires where younger pupils are concerned.

To ensure greater validity in interviews, researchers should try to do the following:

  • Avoid using leading questions as young people are more suggestible than adults.
  • Use open ended questions
  • Not interrupt students’ responses
  • Learn to tolerate pauses while students think.
  • Avoid repeating questions, which makes students change their first answer as they think it was wrong.

Unstructured interviews may thus be more suitable than structured interviews, because they make it easier for the researcher to rephrase questions if necessary.

The location may affect the validity of responses – if a student associates school with authority, and the interview takes place in a school, then they are probably more likely to give socially desirable answers.

If the researcher is conducting interviews over several days, later respondents may get wind of the topics/ questions which may influence the responses they give.

Ethical issues

Schools and parents may object to students being interviewed about sensitive topics such as drugs or sexuality, so they may not give consent.

To overcome this the researcher might consider doing interviews with the school alongside their PSHE programme.

Interviews may be unsettling for some students – they are, after all, artificial situations. This could be especially true of group interviews, depending on who is making up the groups.

Group interviews

Peer group interviews may well be a good a choice for researchers studying topics within the sociology of education.

Advantages 

  • Group interviews can create a safe environment for pupils
  • Peer-group discussion should be something pupils are familiar with from lessons
  • Peer-support can reduce the power imbalance between interviewer and students
  • The free-flowing nature of the group interview could allow for more information to come forth.
  • The group interview also allows the researcher to observe group dynamics.
  • They are more time efficient than one on one interviews.

Disadvantages

  • Peer pressure may mean students are reluctant to be honest for fear of ridicule
  • Students may also encourage each other to exaggerate or lie for laffs.
  • Group interviews are unpredictable, and very difficult to standardise and repeat which mean they are low in validity.
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Depression leads to more social media usage, not the other way around!

Recent longitudinal research from Brock University in Canada suggests that depression leads to people spending more time on social media, rather than those who spend more time of social media being more likely to develop depression.

Facebook depression.png

This study contradicts many of the ‘moral panic’ type headlines which suggests a link between heavy social media use and depression. Such headlines tend to be based on studies which look at correlations between indicators of depression and indicators of social media use at the same point in time, which cannot tell us which comes first: the depression or the heavy social media use.

This Canadian study followed a sample of teenagers from 2015 (and university students for 6 years) and surveyed them at intervals using a set of questions designed to measure depression levels and another set designed to measure social media usage and other aspects of screen time.

What they found was that teenage girls who showed signs of depression early on in the study were more likely to have higher rates of social media usage later on, leading to the theory that teenage girls who are depressed may well turn to social media to make themselves feel better.

The study found no relationship between boys or adults of both sexes and depression and social media.

This is an interesting research study which really goes to show the advantages of the longitudinal method (researching the same sample at intervals over time) in possibly busting a few myths about the harmful effects of social media!

 

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The limitations of School Exclusion Statistics

The Department for Education publishes an annual report on exclusions, the latest edition published in August 2018 being ‘Permanent and fixed-period exclusions in England: 2016 to 2017.

The 2018 report shows that the overall rate of permanent exclusions was 0.1 per cent of pupil enrolments in 2016/17. The number of exclusions was 7,720.

exlusion statistics.png

The report also goes into more detail, for example….

  • The vast majority of exclusions were from secondary schools >85% of exclusions.
  • The three main reasons for permanent exclusions (not counting ‘other’) were
    • Persistent disruptive behaviour
    • Physical assault against a pupil
    • Physical assault against an adult.

Certain groups of students are far more likely to be permanently excluded:

  • Free School Meals (FSM) pupils had a permanent exclusion rate four times higher than non-FSM pupils
  • FSM pupils accounted for 40.0% of all permanent exclusions
  • The permanent exclusion rate for boys was over three times higher than that for girls
  • Over half of all permanent exclusions occur in national curriculum year 9 or above. A quarter of all permanent exclusions were for pupils aged 14
  • Black Caribbean pupils had a permanent exclusion rate nearly three times higher than the school population as a whole.
  • Pupils with identified special educational needs (SEN) accounted for around half of all permanent exclusions

The ‘reasons why’ and ‘types of pupil’ data probably hold no surprises, but NB there are quite a few limitations with the above data, and so these stats should be treated with caution!

Limitations of data on permanent exclusions

Validity problems…

According to this Guardian article, the figures do not take into account ‘informal exclusions’ or ‘off-rolling’ – where schools convince parents to withdraw their children without making a formal exclusion order – technically it’s then down to the parents to enrol their child at another institution or home-educate them, but in many cases this doesn’t happen.

According to research conducted by FFT Education Datalab up to 7, 700 students go missing from the school role between year 7 and year 11 when they are  supposed to sit their GCSEs…. Equivalent to a 1.4% drop out rate across from first enrolment at secondary school to GCSEs.

Datalabs took their figures from the annual school census and the DfE’s national pupil database. The cohort’s numbers were traced from year seven, the first year of secondary school, up until taking their GCSEs in 2017.

The entire cohort enrolled in year 7 in state schools in England in 2013 was 550,000 children

However, by time of sitting GCSEs:

  • 8,700 pupils were in alternative provision or pupil referral units,
  • nearly 2,500 had moved to special schools
  • 22,000 had left the state sector (an increase from 20,000 in 2014) Of the 22,000,
    • 3,000 had moved to mainstream private schools
    • Just under 4,000 were enrolled or sat their GCSEs at a variety of other education institutions.
    • 60% of the remaining 15,000 children were likely to have moved away from England, in some case to other parts of the UK such as Wales (used emigration data by age and internal migration data to estimate that around)
    • Leaves between 6,000 to 7,700 former pupils unaccounted for, who appear not to have sat any GCSE or equivalent qualifications or been counted in school data.

Working out the percentages this means that by GCSEs, the following percentages of the original year 7 cohort had been ‘moved on’ to other schools. 

  • 6% or 32, 000 students in all, 10, 00 of which were moved to ‘state funded alternative provision, e.g. Pupil Referral Units.
  • 4%, or 22K left the mainstream state sector altogether (presumably due to exclusion or ‘coerced withdrawal’ (i.e. off rolling), of which
  • 4%, or 7, 700 cannot be found in any educational records!

This Guardian article provides a decent summary of the research.

Further limitations of data on school exclusions

  • There is very little detail on why pupils were excluded, other than the ‘main reason’ formally recorded by the head teacher in all school. There is no information at all about the specific act or the broader context. Labelling theorists might have something to say about this!
  • There is a significant time gap between recording and publication of the data. This data was published in summer 2018 and covers exclusions in the academic year 2016-2017. Given that you might be looking at this in 2019 (data is published annually) and that there is probably a ‘long history’ behind many exclusions (i.e. pupils probably get more than one second chance), this data refers to events that happened 2 or more years ago.

Relevance of this to A-level sociology

This is of obvious relevance to the education module… it might be something of a wake up call that 4% of students leave mainstream secondary education before making it to GCSEs, and than 1.4% seem to end up out of education and not sitting GCSEs!

It’s also a good example of why independent longitudinal studies provide a more valid figure of exclusions (and ‘informal’ exclusions) than the official government statistics on this.

 

I’ll be producing more posts on why students get excluded, and on what happens to them when they do and the consequences for society in coming weeks.

 

This is a topic that interests me, shame it’s not a direct part of the A level sociology education spec!

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Do 25% of children really have their own mobiles? Invalid Research Example #01

This is a ‘new thread’ idea… posting up examples of naff research. I figure there are two advantages to this…

  1. It’s useful for students to have good examples of naff research, to show them the meaning of ‘invalid data’ or ‘unrepresentative samples’, or in this case, just plain unreferenced material which may as well be ‘Fake News’.
  2. At least I get some kind of pay back (in the form of the odd daily post) for having wasted my time wading through this drivel.

My first example is from The Independent, the ex-newspaper turned click-bait website.

I’ve been doing a bit of research on smart phone usage statistics this week and I came across this 2018 article in the Independent: Quarter of Children under 6 have a smartphone, study finds.

invalid research.png

The article provides the following statistics

  • 25% of children under 6 now have their own mobile
  • 12% of children under 6 spend more than 24 hours a week on their mobile
  • 80% parents admit to not limiting the amount of time their children spend on games

Eventually it references a company called MusicMagpie (which is an online store) but fails to provide a link to the research,  and provides no information at all about the sampling methods used or other details of the survey (i.e. the actual questions, or how it’s administered.). I dug around for a few minutes, but couldn’t find the original survey either.

The above figures just didn’t sound believable to me, and they don’t tie in with OFCOM’s 2017 findings which say that only 5% of 5-7 year olds and 1% of 3-4 year olds have their own mobiles.

As it stands, because of the simple fact that I can’t find details of the survey, these research findings from musicMagpie are totally invalid.

I’m actually quite suspicious that the two companies have colluded to generate some misleading click-bait statistics to drive people to their websites to increase advertising and sales revenue.

If you cannot validate your sources, then do not use the data!

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Have one in five Britons really considered going vegan?

According to a recent poll (1) of 1000 people, one in five Britons have considered going vegan, which is 20% of the population.

But how many of these people have a genuine intention of going vegan? Possibly not that many…..

Firstly, if someone’s asking you questions about veganism, there is going to be a degree of social pressure to state that ‘you have thought about going vegan’…. so social desirability is going to come into play here!

Secondly, vague questioning doesn’t help… the ‘I’ve considered going vegan’ response covers everything from ‘I’m definitely going Vegan in January’ to ‘I thought about it once, but really I’ve got no serious intention of giving up meat’.

Finally, there’s the problem that 1/3rd of the general population seem confused as to what veganism entails…. 27% think vegans can’t eat fruit (God knows what they think a vegan diet consists of!), while 6% think it’s OK to eat fish if you’re a vegan.

Fish: those vegetables what swim in the sea? 

 

However, apparently 3.5 million people in the UK are now Vegan, which suggests enough of a ‘base-line’ figure to make 20% of the population ‘thinking’ about going vegan not seem completly unrealistic.

Then there’s the fact that 100K people signed up for Veganuary 2018, and probably more this year, meaning that veganism is in the news a lot more than it used to be, even a couple of years ago.

Having said that, veganism may be on the increase, but apparently 15% of them think it’s OK to eat Dairy and eggs.

Sources 

(1) Poll of 1000 people

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Research Methods Practice Questions for A-level sociology

AQA A-level sociology Papers 1 and 3 will both contain an ‘outline and explain’ 10 mark (no item) question on sociological theories, and/ or methods.

One possible format for this question is what I like to think of as the ‘pure research methods’ format (‘classic’ might be a better word than ‘pure’) in which students are asked to outline and explain two theoretical, practical or ethical advantages or problems of using one of the main research methods.

For example (taken from the AQA’s June 2017 Education with Theory and Methods paper): ‘Outline and explain two problems of using documents in social research’

There are actually 36 possible variations of such ‘pure’ or ‘classic’ research methods questions, as outlined in the flow chart below.

Outline and Explain 10 mark research methods questions

Students may be asked to give two advantages or problems of any of the above methods, or more specific methods (field experiments for example), or they may be asked to give two advantages of using overt compared to covert participant observation, or asked to simply give two ethical problems which you may encounter when doing research more generally.

Then of course, students may be asked to relate methods to theories, or just asked about a pure ‘theoretical’/ perspectives question.

While there is no guarantee that this particular format of question will actually come up on either paper 1 or 3, it’s still good practice for students to work through a number of such questions as revision practice.

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Outline and explain two practical problems of using documents in social research (10)

There are a lot of documents available and it can be time consuming to analyse them qualitatively

Taking news for example, there are thousands of news items published every day.

You also need to distinguish between ‘real and ‘fake news’.

Also, in the postmodern age where fewer people get their news from mainstream news it is necessary to analyse a wide range of media content to get representatives, which makes this more difficult.

Because there are so many documents available today, it is necessary to use computer assisted qualitative analysis, which effectively quantifies the qualitative data, meaning that some of depth and insight are lost in the process.

With personal documents, gaining access might be a problem

Personal diaries are one of the most authentic sources of information because people write them with no intention of them being seen.

However, they may not be willing to show researchers the content because they say negative feelings about people close to them, which could harm them.

Blogs would be easier to access but  the problem is people will edit out much of what they feel because these are published.

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Outline and explain two practical advantages of using official statistics

practical advantages official statistics

Official Statistics are a quick and cheap means of accessing data relevant to an entire population in a country.

They are cheap for researchers to use because they are collected by governments, who often make them available online for free—for example, the UK Census.

Marxists might point out that the fact they are free enables marginalised groups to ‘keep a check on government’.

More generally, they are useful for making quick evaluations of government policy, to see if tax payers’ money is being spent effectively–

Official statistics are a very convenient way of making cross national comparisons without visiting other countries.

Most governments in the developed world today collect official statistics which are made available for free.

More and more governments collect data around the world, so there is more and more data available every year.

The United Nations Development Programme collects the same data in the same way, so it’s easy to assess the relationship between economic and social development in a global age.

Theory and Methods A Level Sociology Revision Bundle 

If you like this sort of thing, then you might like my Theory and Methods Revision Bundle – specifically designed to get students through the theory and methods sections of  A level sociology papers 1 and 3.

Contents include:

  • 74 pages of revision notes
  • 15 mind maps on various topics within theory and methods
  • Five theory and methods essays
  • ‘How to write methods in context essays’.

 

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Outline and explain two practical problems which may affect social research (10)

practical problems social research

 

One practical problem may be gaining access

Analysis/ development – Deviant and criminal groups may be unwilling to allow researchers to gain access because they may fear prosecution if the authorities find out about them.

Analysis/ development – some groups may be unwilling to take part in research because of social stigma.

Analysis/ development – the characteristics of the researcher may exacerbate all of this.

Analysis/ development – A further problem, is that if all of the above are problems, the research is very unlikely to get funding!

A second practical problem is that some studies can be very time consuming

Analysis/ development – gaining access can take a long time, especially with covert research.

Analysis/ development – even with overt research, gaining trust, getting respondents to feel comfortable with you can take months.

Analysis/ development  – unexpected findings in PO may further lengthen the research process

Analysis/ development – Some Participant Observation studies have taken so long that the findings may no longer be relevant—e.g. Gang Leader for a Day.

Theory and Methods A Level Sociology Revision Bundle 

If you like this sort of thing, then you might like my Theory and Methods Revision Bundle – specifically designed to get students through the theory and methods sections of  A level sociology papers 1 and 3.

Contents include:

  • 74 pages of revision notes
  • 15 mind maps on various topics within theory and methods
  • Five theory and methods essays
  • ‘How to write methods in context essays’.
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Outline and Explain Two Reasons Why Interpretivists Prefer to Use Qualitative Research Methods (10)

A model answer to a possible 10 mark question which could appear on the AQA’s A-level papers 1 or 3.

If you’re a bit ‘all at sea’ with Intrepretivism, you might like to review your understanding of it first of all by reading this post: social action theory: a summary.

Interpretivism research methods.png

A developed model answer…

NB Warning – this is total overkill and probably completely unrepresentative of what 95% of actual A-level students are capable of producing.

The first reason is that Interpretivists believe that social realities are complex, and that individual’s identities are the results of 1000s of unique micro-interactions.

For example, labelling theory believes that students fail because of low teacher expectations, and these expectations are communicated to students in subtle ways over many months or years, until a student ends up with a self-concept of themselves as ‘thick’.

There is simply no way that quantitative methods such as structured questionnaires can capture these complex (‘inter-subjective’) micro interactions. In order to assess whether labelling has taken place, and whether it’s had an effect, you would need to go into a school and ideally observe it happening over a long period, and talk to students about how their self-perceptions have changed, which would require qualitative methods such as unstructured interviews. Alternatively you could use diaries in which students document their changing self concept.

A further reason why qualitative methods would be good in the above example is that you could, as a researcher, check whether teachers do actually have negative perceptions of certain students (rather than it being all in the student’s minds) – again qualitative methods are vital here – you would have to probe them, ask them testing questions, and look for body-language clues and observe them interacting to really assess whether labelling is taking place.

It would be all too easy for a teacher to lie about ‘not labelling’ if they were just filling out a self-completion questionnaire.

A second reason Interpretivists prefer qualitative methods stems from Goffman’s Dramaturgical Theory – People are actors on a ‘social stage’ who actively create an impression of themselves.

Goffman distinguished between ‘front stage’ performances of social roles and the ‘back stage’ aspects of life (at home) where we are more ‘true to ourselves’.

Goffman argued that some people put on ‘genuine performances’ – e.g. one teacher might really believe in teaching, and genuinely care about their students – their professional role is who they ‘really are’. Others, however, put on what he calls ‘cynical performances’ – another teacher, for example, might act like they care, because their school tells them to, but behind the scenes they hate the job and want to do something else.

A Qualitative method such as participant observation would be pretty much the only way to uncover whether someone is genuinely or cynically acting our their social roles – because the flexibility of following the respondent from front stage to back stage would allow the researcher to see ‘the mask coming off’.

If you just used a questionnaire, even a cynical teacher would know what boxes to tick to ‘carry on the performance’, and thus would not give you valid results.

Related Posts 

A brief overview of the difference between Positivism and Interpretivsm

Theory and Methods A Level Sociology Revision Bundle 

If you like this sort of thing, then you might like my Theory and Methods Revision Bundle – specifically designed to get students through the theory and methods sections of  A level sociology papers 1 and 3.

Contents include:

  • 74 pages of revision notes
  • 15 mind maps on various topics within theory and methods
  • Five theory and methods essays
  • ‘How to write methods in context essays’.