Aqa a2 Sociology Unit 4 Crime and Deviance with Theory and Methods

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Exam-style question

An unstructured interview involves the interviewer and interviewee engaging in a conversation. It may begin with some predetermined questions to put the interviewee at ease and help to build up a rapport, but the nature of the conversation is fluid. Respondents are encouraged to ‘open up’ and volunteer their answers, with the role of interviewer as listener. As such it offers an opportunity to research violence in the nocturnal economy, but as the item shows, people out ‘pubbing and clubbing’ will not necessarily want to engage in a sociological conversation with a stranger.

This is quite a long introduction but it does explain in some detail what unstructured interviews are. It ends on an evaluative note, which would earn AO2 marks.

An advantage of using unstructured interviews, compared with participant observation, is that often researchers can use larger samples. However, even larger samples can’t compare with the size of samples using questionnaires, which can undermine their representativeness and thus make generalisations difficult.

This paragraph explores and evaluates the implication of sample sizes and makes comparisons with both participant observation and questionnaires.

Unstructured interviews are an example of a method used to obtain qualitative data that is normally high in validity. They can explore the meanings of the responses that are given. This is not the case with structured interviews or questionnaires. These would be inappropriate methods to use in the nocturnal economy as people would not be inclined to write or give responses to formal or written questions. However, the success of unstructured interviews depends on the skills of the interviewer to build up a rapport and encourage people to volunteer information.

A useful connection is made between unstructured interviews and qualitative data. This method is discussed in relation to the nocturnal economy. The paragraph ends with an evaluation of how this method stands or falls on the skills of the interviewer.

Because unstructured interviews take the form of conversations, these could be perceived as less threatening to respondents, thus encouraging them to open up and volunteer their feelings. It therefore provides an opportunity for those engaged in criminal and deviant activities associated with the nocturnal economy to speak for themselves. In this way the researcher gets close to the experiences of those working or enjoying the nocturnal economy. However, unstructured interviews are time-consuming, expensive to undertake and require skilled interviewers to build up a rapport with respondents.

This paragraph follows naturally on from the last one and explores how unstructured interviews offer the strength of getting people to speak for themselves. This is followed by an AO2 point that considers potential problems with this method.

While unstructured interviews are seen as often developing a strong rapport between interviewer and interviewee, enabling detailed honest information to be obtained, the nature of the nocturnal economy may inhibit this. While Winlow could build up a rapport with his bouncer colleagues over time, the clubbing public would probably be more focused on having a good time than wanting to chat — although this could be done retrospectively during the day. However, on balance, observation may be a better method of researching violence.

Again this content flows from the previous paragraph, which adds to the structure and coherence of the overall answer. It makes the useful point that researching violence does not necessarily have to take place at night and in situ with interviews. Note how it is quite acceptable in answers like this to suggest that a different method altogether might be more appropriate.

In conclusion, because the data are not pre-defined by the questions set, unstructured interviews may be a useful method here whereby the interviewer can follow up leads and gain detailed and valid information. However, there is always a risk of interviewer bias with this method: for example, from non-verbal communication. Finally, unstructured interviews tend to be low in reliability because they are hard to replicate.

This conclusion sums up the pros and cons of using unstructured interviews for researching violence in the nocturnal economy. Key concepts of validity and reliability are discussed along with interviewer bias.


1 Observation

2 Undercover research whereby those being studied are unaware that a researcher is present. It is the opposite of overt research.

3 Choose three advantages from the following:

  • Because the researcher is not visible and those being studied are unaware of it, the observer effect can be conveniently avoided.

  • Because covert research is characteristically naturalistic in its approach, the derived data should be high in validity. This is because people are being observed in their natural setting so their behaviour should be natural.

  • Covert research enables researchers to penetrate and study groups that normally would not want to be researched, such as deviant groups, gangs etc.

  • Because covert research is small-scale, it enables in-depth and detailed research to take the place of groups.

4 The main criticism that positivists make of observation is that it is difficult to replicate. They argue that this means that observational research is not scientific and runs the risk of simply being a subjective interpretation of the events and behaviour observed.

5 The term ‘going native’ means getting so close to the group you are observing that there is a danger of becoming emotionally involved to the point that the researcher is no longer professionally detached and objectivity is lost.

6 Recording the activities of the group being observed is problematic, especially in covert research. To avoid arousing suspicion, the researcher must be discreet in making notes in their field diaries. Many researchers rely on memory and write up their observations at the earliest moment of privacy. This enables them to concentrate on their observations. However, important events can be forgotten or distorted in the researcher’s mind in the time that elapses between observing them and writing them up. Covert research has ethical implications, which become compounded if people are recorded (audio or video), but recordings give a more accurate record of events.

7 Possible problems include the following:

  • In overt observation there may be an ‘observer effect’ whereby the researcher’s presence influences the group’s behaviour to the point that they do not behave naturally. The group may be afraid to engage in criminal activity for fear of being shopped or identified when the research is published.

  • Because it is difficult to replicate observations, there could be a trade-off between higher validity from the qualitative data derived from the overt observation on the one hand, and lower reliability on the other.

  • Any group, but particularly groups of offenders, will be uncomfortable about being overtly observed. As a consequence, in order to get valid data the research may have to be covert.
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