I like data. I like the process of exploration, of discovery, of uncovering some of what is happening in the world around us, and trying to understand why it is happening. Furthermore, I believe that the underlying basis of any such understanding depends on gaining an appreciation of how individuals construct their social world, and interact with it. In this sense, I side with Altheide and Johnson (1994) and their supposition that the social world cannot be taken as a literal world but should instead be viewed as one that is individually constructed and interpreted. In other words, we make sense of the world around us based on our individual values and experiences, and thus we all interpret events in our lives, even shared events, differently. It is this interpretation that constitutes the basis and source of social reality (Burrell & Morgan, 1979), and thus frames our understanding of the social world within which we exist.
Researching within an interpretivist paradigm might perhaps predispose analysis of the social world to taking a qualitative form. Indeed C. Wright Mills (1959) has highlighted the danger of reducing our study of the social world to statistical aggregations, arguing that such a course of action brings with it an inherent danger that the accompanying results may fail to fit “reality.” The debate as to whether qualitative and quantitative approaches represent different epistemological stances or are merely different tools for data collection that can be used interchangeably has been ongoing throughout the social sciences (see, for example, Bryman, 1988). Within the interpretive paradigm, qualitative approaches have been dominant and have generally drawn on interviewing as a major method of data collection. That said, quantitative methods can, of course, be very useful and I have used them in my own work. Care is needed, however, to ensure that data are appropriately contextualized and interpreted, something that is often lacking in quantitative research. Bauer, Gaskell and Allum's (2000: 8) mantra of “no quantification without qualification, no statistical analysis without interpretation” exemplifies this point. Interviews that are used to collect quantitative data will likely be much more structured than those that are qualitatively oriented, an issue to which I return below. While both have utility given the focus of this book, my concentration in this chapter will be on using interviews to collect qualitative data.