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The only way to get a context free interview

The only way to get a context free interview

I’ve been working as a qualitative interviewer for over a year now. Throughout my training and into my ongoing development I am continually meant to be striving for the perfect, methodologically pure interview, but what is a pure interview?  The textbook view, as May (1997) summarises, is that:

The theory behind this method is that each person is asked the same question in the same way so that any differences between answers are held to be real ones and not the result of the interview situation itself

I have however, come to the conclusion that the perfect interview is in fact an impossibility. All interviews are affected by context.

Take the following example, which is something which comes up surprisingly often:

Interviewer: “On which days did you work on the week ending the 19th on April?”

Respondent: “Oh you know everyday”

Interviewer: “You mean Monday to Friday?”

Respondent: “Yes”

This small example highlights an important part in the dynamic between interviewer and respondent, the idea that beyond what is said there are taken-for-granted shared understandings. The respondent is assuming here that the interviewer shares the understanding that by saying they worked everyday they do not mean mean literally everyday, but mean Monday to Friday – what is a typical working pattern in the UK. So what is said and what is meant are in fact two different things.

The interviewer however, cannot assume this as they know that in some instances a person may well work everyday over a seven day period so they are right to intervene and clarify, but this clarification is based on the interviewer actually having an understanding that in this area what is said is not necessarily what is meant. Had the interviewer not understood this – and it may well have been possible that they didn’t – they may well have taken the literal meaning and recorded the respondent as working from Monday to Sunday. The questions which arise here are: what if, for example, the interviewer had had a perfect command of the English language, but had arrived that same morning from outer-space, or what if the conversation had occurred in a place, or time where a six, or even seven day working week was common?

What you have is a situation where it is impossible for the interview to be free of context and for the interviewer to be passive recording instrument. Wherever an interviewer is based on an interaction between an interviewer and respondent the interviewer is required to interpret the meaning to answers and to decode these. Context is everything and therefore methodological purity can only ever be a fallacy – an ideal which much the same as the notion of a ‘pure’ free market can never practically exist in reality.


Working in a low-paid dead-end job in a call centre, living with the parents and approaching 30 an old friend of mine made a decision – to pack their bags and head for New Zealand on a 12 month work visa. This was a few years back and they haven’t looked back, moving after their first year to Australia.

And they’re not the only one. Recently I’ve noticed more and more people have been following in this intrepid friends footsteps, in fact rarely a day goes by without hearing about some other person moving to Australia. But what do the stats have to say?

My first stop is the official statistics produced by the Australian Department of Immigration and Citizenship. What I’m interested in particularly is the numbers of working holiday visas – these are the ones granted to young people aged 18-30 and which last 12 months.


And here it is:

Though the figure has fallen slightly for 2009/10 the trend over the period shows a gradual increase suggesting that in the past few years an increasing number of young people are taking the opportunity to leave the UK for Australia using a Working Holiday visa.

Rather interestingly the graph shows the peak period for the number of Working Holiday visas granted was in 2008/09 coinciding with the recession. During this period some 40 182 Working Holiday visas were granted to UK citizens.

Part of the explanation may be the rising popularity of a ‘gap-year’, but as the visas are open to all people aged for 18-30 there may be another group taking increasing advantage of the Working Holiday visa programme;  Twentysomethings who lack ties such as a family or mortgage (due to their unaffordability) and who find career aspirations unfulfilled, either through unemployment or the growth of the dead-end job and who therefore find both possible and attractive the prospect of leaving the UK.

changing habits; more food and clothing being sold online

changing habits; more food and clothing being sold online

I’ve always had a bit of an interest in retail, which led to my not-so-long-ago unscientific walk-round of the West Quay shopping centre, so couldn’t resist looking at the latest stats on the retail sales.  Probably the biggest trend of the last decade has to be the growth in internet shopping This graph, based on ONS data, shows the year on year growth in total retail sales for January 2013.

A couple of changes here are interesting. The first is the growth internet sales among predominantly food retailers. According to the ONS in January 2013 £96.2 million, some 3.7% of sales for food stores, was online which was a record proportion for the segment.

This is undoubtedly down to the rise in supermarket online shopping. I know it’s a service I’ve been using more often in the past 12 months, and will do more of in the future and now there’s click-and-collect. It all adds up to a major change in habits, although in many ways it’s a throwback to the not-so-distant past where we all used to get our milk and papers delivered to our door, a world destroyed by the supermarkets with their impressive product ranges and all-in-one-place convenience. The internet has succeeded by delivering our cake and letting us eat it.

Another interesting point, not in terms of size, but perhaps significance, is the growth of internet sales in the textile, clothing and footwear stores sector. In January 2013 a not insignificant 10.6% of sales in this group were made via the internet. This is significant as this is a segment where the internet would seem to have some distinct disadvantages over in-person shopping; Whilst items like books, CDs and DVDs are all standardised products clothing is much less standardised with sizes varying between stores  hence the fitting-room, which, at least for the time-being, is not something which can be replicated easily on the internet.

Despite this however, online sales have grown and businesses such as ASOS (part of the non-store retailing group) have thrived. A change in our habits perhaps, are we more willing to buy without trying on, or to buy, try at home and return?  If so then we’ve only seen the beginning of the transformation the internet will bring to the high-street.

It’s easy to knock the project of to measure the nations well-being – indeed it’s been variously dubbed pointless, a waste of money or an exercise in stating-the-bleeding-obvious whilst there have also been questions about how reliable a measure of well-being asking a person to gave a rating between 0 – 10 is.

This graph however, puts the whole project into context:

Source: ONS

Source: ONS

The graph shows what appears to be a strong correlation (R = -0.88) between the suicide rate and reported levels of life-satisfaction when these are organised in age categories.

Source ONS:Life Satisfaction ratings 0-10 where 0 in not at all satisfied and 10 is completely satisfied. Suicide rate = suicides per 100 000 population

Source ONS:
Life Satisfaction ratings 0-10 where 0 in not at all satisfied and 10 is completely satisfied. Suicide rate = suicides per 100 000 population

What this suggests is a spectrum of well-being; In terms of age for groups where the overall average level of life satisfaction is lower rates of extreme emotional distress, as indicated by suicide, are correspondingly higher.

The importance of well-being therefore cannot be overstated.

In a slight departure form my usual type of article here I write about a trip, earlier today, around my local high-street. I’ve always had an interest in retail and think one of my dream jobs is as a retail analyst. This is my unconsidered opinion…. 

Some of my earliest memories are of being reluctantly dragged up and down the high street on a Saturday afternoon; Principles, Richards, Dorothy Perkins, Etam, Chelsea Girl, Fosters, Woolies and if I was lucky a toy shop at the end, or even as a special treat a Wimpy, Burger King or McDonalds at the end.

Gaining my independence later-on I became a mall-rat. Getting the bus into town and hanging out all day with the rest of the ‘cool’ kids outside HMV trying to get the attention of the Queen-of-the-scene who worked there. I watched as new shopping centres were built (I even helped build the biggest West Quay) and new brands came to town Tower Records, H & M, Karen Millen, Office, Schu and a whole host of others. It was a boom time.

But times change and the high-street boom has turned to a bust. The brands which for years seemed all-conquering are struggling and the weakest have been wiped from the retail map. For me too; A wife, kids and better things to do as well as an aversion to gridlock and sky-high parking charges mean I’m a a less frequent visitor to the town-centre than I used to be.

So it was unusual unusual that earlier this afternoon I found myself with just over an hour to spare on the high-street, and what better way of spending my time than carrying out some observation. My research question for the day is to find what retailers are on the danger list.

My first port of call is HMV. In the Old days music took centre stage, but these days it’s relegated to the basement. I’m here looking for an old Dr Dre album, but they don’t have it. In anycase it would probably be more expensive than online. Only three other, rather elderly, people are browsing the isles at the moment and I leave wondering when was the last time I bought anything here.

In the old days food on the high-street meant a burger, but these days there’s a whole world of choice. Places like Nandos, Wagamama and Yo Sushi quietly all expanding amidst the downturn. There’s also nibbles like donuts and cookies available in most shopping malls. Krispy Kreme donuts however never looks that busy and today is no exception. Two members of staff behind the counter and one customer sat own. It’s not looking good.

Waterstone’s is next. I love Waterstone’s, and by the look of the number of people in here I’m not alone.  But the question is does anyone buy in here anymore? Or do, like me, they simply use Waterstone’s to browse and then buy online. You can’t blame Waterstone’s for feeling hard-done by. Maybe they should charge an entry fee of, say 50p and let you walk around with pencil and paper making notes. The truth is that online might be cheaper, but for browsing it’s rubbish – I’ve lost count of the times I’ve been disappointed with an Amazon purchase which has turned out to be not quite what I’m looking for.

The shops which seem most quiet on my walk-round are the high-priced clothing stores; Karen Millen, French Connection, Monsoon, All Saints and the Levi’s shop barely muster a handful of customers between them. Goldsmith’s the jewellers is also empty, though jewellers always tend to be so it’s hard to read anything into this.

The Apple store is, as ever, heaving. Its probably the coolest shop on the block right now. It has no window which invites people to just walk in and the design is unorthodox which exudes this maverick silicon-valley charm – the place where CEO’s show up to work in Nike trainers. Young, fresh, cool it says. HMV take note.

I duck into Paperchase to look at the Valentines cards. The shop assistant smiles at me and two young women giggle over the cards which are all quite hip, and for the time being a step ahead of the supermarkets whose competition swallowed Clinton’s like a tidal wave – though the gap seems to be closing. I leave sensing they’ll be ok for the moment, they’re still cool. Clintons weren’t. Tatty Teddy and Me to You were just too 1980s. They’ll be all the rage in Paperchase in 5 years time.

Curry’s opposite looks dead. A huge store and I can’t see any customers, just lots of bored looking sales staff twiddling their lanyards.

My grandparents always had shares in BHS. Steady and dependable. I never go in there and within a second of setting foot I know why, I’m not a 60 year old woman, but plenty of people are and BHS seems to be ticking-over nicely. Strangely theres a Dorothy Perkins in there too. This sort of shop-within-a-shop seems to have become more widespread as retailers seek to share costs, like some 20-something young professionals in a shared house, but Dorothy Perkins and BHS seem too different to be comfortable flatmates.

Primark, or Primani as some would call it is seems busy with queues at the tills. The men’s section looks bang on trend with some sonic the hedgehog and Donald Duck sweaters. They’re clever, and they must do good research knowing their market and their customers – all important in a downturn.

Last of all WhSmith’s. A few years ago this was reportedly struggling, trying to find a place in the world after someone had moved its cheese. I bought one of my first records in WhSmith I like it by DJ H Featuring Steffi along with a Cathy Dennis record. The record section is roughly where the post office is now. A girl passes me on her way to the check-out clutching some binders. I browse the magazines, still the most impressive collection on the high-street – regaining their crown after the demise of Borders. The store is cluttered, but it’s busy so I suspect there is life in the old girl yet.

This brings to an end my un-scientific sojourn along the high-street. I’ve learned a lot in this short time. The high-end stores seem to be struggling, as do the stores which have lost their cool like HMV, or were never cool like Curry’s. Others though seem to be if not thriving then doing reasonably well. As bad as news of job losses are  the recession is performing the function of clearing out struggling retailers, providing opportunities for new businesses whilst forcing others to up their game. The high street isn’t in decline, its just changing.

Just over a month ago I went for a job at a market research agency. Talking over my CV the interviewer noted that I’d been working as a telephone interviewer and asked if the job simply involved reading the words which appeared on screen. If only….

A common conception, even among some interviewers, is that in a CATI system the role of the interviewer is no more than to run, machine like, through a series of questions exactly as they appear on screen. Indeed as May (1997) neatly summarises:

The theory behind this method is that each person is asked the same question in the same way so that any differences between answers are held to be real ones and not the result of the interview situation itself

But this does this necessarily mean that the interviewer is a wholly passive actor? Carrying out my first interview, just over a year ago, I quickly learnt that the role of the interviewer is far more complex than I’d ever imagined, in fact it’s not too much of a stretch to say that it’s really an art form…

1.) The interviewer must persuade:

The first job of the telephone interviewer is to persuade a member of the sample to take-part in the survey. This is something which is becoming more challenging for a whole multitude of factors including household composition and the use of mobile phones with a caller display, but two key factors are survey fatigue – there are now simply far too many surveys competing for peoples attention and secondly a suspicion of telephone surveys resulting from unsolicited sales calls purporting to be a survey.

This is made especially challenging when there is no incentive on offer for participation and the interviewer here must use all their powers of persuasion, assuaging any concerns over details such as confidentiality whilst emphasising the benefits of the survey. The interviewer must strike up an instant connection with whoever it is who happens to have picked up the phone and Listening to experienced interviewers I am often in awe of their skill in this area.

2.) The interviewer must be engaging

Once on the hook it is up the the interviewer to keep the respondent engaged, not necessarily an easy task over 20, 30, or even 40 minutes of interviewing, which may at times be repetitive and tough-going.  An interviewer must interpret and use various cues to judge the mood of the respondent; are they sighing, glazing-over, becoming agitated, or distressed? The interviewer can then make minor adjustments to the tempo of the interview, or to try to re-engage the respondent. Satisficing is a real danger in the telephone interview and whilst online surveys have turned to graphics and more recently ‘gamification’ to keep respondents engaged the telephone interviewer must rely solely on their charisma and mastery of communication.

My experience has also shown me that I get more from a respondent if I offer a little bit of myself. For example a respondent may have a crying baby and apologise for the noise and I’ll respond that it’s not a problem at all and mention that I have a baby too. This must be kept professional of course, and it’s important not to get over-familiar as this can then affect the data, as McNeill (1990) states

Interviewers have to strike a careful balance between establishing the kind of relationship with respondents that will encourage them to be frank and truthful, and avoiding becoming too friendly so that respondents try hard to please.

The skill of the interviewer is to manage the relationship with each respondent to maintain this balance, though I can say that I have turned-round some very difficult interviewers by displaying that I am a human, rather than a robot.

3.) Knowledge of the interview

The telephone interviewer must have a good knowledge of the survey and the various rules governing it for example how to record a , or respondents may ask for clarification and the interviewer needs to provide this without biasing the data. Respondents may also ask about aspects of the survey such as technical questions about sampling, or most commonly the question ‘so what is this all for?’  Giving a good explanation of the purpose of the survey, and emphasising the importance of their contributions  makes respondents feel more valued and more likely to take part in subsequent waves, or even other research. For me this is a basic ethical requirement and one in which interviewers make an essential contribution as the ambassadors of social research.

4.) The interviewer as Louis Theroux

Finally, in many surveys there will be open questions which can call on the interviewer to probe, being careful not to lead the respondent  When probing I often feel like Louis Theroux as, when needed, I use the tactic of pretending to know less than I do in order to elicit a more detailed response.  When probing a persons occupation  for example I’ll say “oh, I’m terrible at finance, my brother works in that field and I still can’t understand what he does after 10 years.” I will then find that even a previously cagey respondent will go out of their way to explain their job in simple terms.

Interviewers – More important than you think

When it comes to data, interviewers are the unsung heroes. They are to statistics what swashbuckling fossil hunters were to the science of natural history – getting out there and collecting the raw material for the scientists to test and interpret. It is primarily the skills of the interviewer determine the quality of data gathered, or indeed if any data are gathered at all! I hope that I have shown through this discussion that there is more to the art of interviewing than simply following a script.


May, T. (1997) Social Research; Issues, Methods and Process (2nd edition); Buckingham; OU Press

McNeill, P. (1990) Research Methods 2nd edition London; Routledge

It’s an age old question; can you buy happiness, or is happiness, or more generally well-being, something which no amount of money can bring. In fact can we even say that money is bad for well-being? The debate infusing years of popular culture, art and literature – whilst Abba Sang that it was “Always sunny/ In the Rich man’s world” F. Scott Fitzgerald’s (1934) novel Tender is the Night  highlighted the corrosive effect of money upon individuals well-being through it’s description of the fates which befall it’s super-rich characters.

More recently Oliver James, the Psychologist behind the 2007 hit-book Affluenza points out that

If money engendered well-being, millionaires would be the most contented folk on the planet as well as the richest. The only studies to have specifically investigated this question, both American, suggest this is not so. In the first, over one-third of a sample of super-rich people (those with a net wealth of £70 million or more) were less happy than the national average

As is the case with James’s super-rich well-being in general has until recently been a rather under-researched area, however the increased recognition that GDP alone is not a sufficient marker of progress has led to a number of statistical organisations to attempt to gauge individuals satisfaction with their lives, in the process making available a range of data for the first time which has been collected using robust methodologies and often, relatively large sample sizes. So can we now answer the question – does money bring happiness, or misery, and not just for the super-rich, but for us all?

Are richer countries happier?

The first place to look is at the national level. There are vast discrepancies between the wealth of nations, so do people in richer countries on average report higher levels of well-being? Using data from UN Human Development Reports it is possible to plot the relationship between a measure of wealth (in this case GNI per Capita) and reported levels of life satisfaction.

GNI and life-satis

As we can see there appears to be a positive relationship between GNI and life satisfaction levels. Countries with a higher GNI tend to have a higher life-satisfaction rating; Canada for instance with a 2010 GNI of 34 729 has an overall level of life-satisfaction of 7.7, whereas Togo with a GNI of only  789 has a correspondingly lower level of overall life-satisfaction at 2.8. The graph shows however, that at a point very roughly around $35 000 GNI per capita the relatonship breaks-down and that higher levels of GNI are not associated with higher life-satisfaction scores.

In following this pattern life-satisfaction seems to conform with a range of other indicators such as life expectancy in which increases in a nations wealth results in improvements in outcomes, however this effect comes to an end when a certain point of development is reached, up until this point increased wealth, enables a greater range of basic needs to be met such as housing and healthcare, but once these are met then there is little role for money in increasing well-being, we must search for other factors.

The Better-Life Index

The OECD Better life index is one such attempt at bringing together data on income, life satisfaction, work-life balance, community and the environment. One way of exploring the relationship between money and happiness is to look at the relationship between the measures of life-satisfaction and household income:

Source: OECD Better Life Index

As we can see ,when making a cross-country comparison of OECD countries it appears there is a moderate correlation between household income and life-satisfaction. R = 0.56 which puts the relationship at the moderate level – by comparison the correlation between life satisfaction and percentage of employees working long hours is -0.11 and the correlation with time spent on leisure, or personal care is 0.19. It also seems to matter little how wealth is distriuted within a country; using data from the UN Human Development Report it seems that income inequality has no correlation with the average levels of life satisfaction R = -0.06

The OECD data on average life satisfaction do however vary within many countries according to social status. The OECD Better Life Index website reports that in the UK for instance the bottom 20% of the British population have an average life satisfaction level of 6.8 whilst the top 20% have a score of 7.2 , and in Estonia the figures are 4.3 and 6.8 respectively.

Well-being and personal incomes

Some recent work carried out by the Office for National Statistics also found that those with the lowest personal incomes reported, on average, the lowest levels of life-satisfaction and lowest scores in response to questions about the extent to which the things they do in life are worthwhile and happiness yesterday as well as recording the highest levels of anxiety compared to other income groups. Generally speaking the scores improve as the income scale rises, with the biggest gains coming between the groups £4160 – £11439 and £11440 – £15 599 though interestingly (especially with regards to Oliver James’s theories in Affluenza) those in the highest income category £49 400 + scored worse in life satisfaction and worthwhile than the category below £39 000 – 49 399, whilst having the same happiness score and anxiety score. It is necessary to mention however, that the ONS point out the data is experimental and comes from a low sample size.

Average (mean) Life Satisfaction, Worthwhile, Happy Yesterday and Anxious Yesterday Rating: by Income Group. Source: Opinions Survey, Office for National Statistics

Average (mean) Life Satisfaction, Worthwhile, Happy Yesterday and Anxious Yesterday Rating: by Income Group. Source: Opinions Survey, Office for National Statistics

Statistics from the 2010 New Zealand General Social Survey also appear to show a pattern where persons with higher personal and household income also report higher levels of well-being. Using a 5 point Likert Scale to measure life-satisfaction the Statistics New Zealand website reports that

Satisfaction with life increased with household income level. However, the largest increase in life satisfaction occurred between the two lowest household income groups (‘$30,000 or less’ and ‘$30,001– $70,000’), with progressively smaller increases in life satisfaction at higher income groups.

This is interesting, as like the ONS data it also suggests that the biggest step in terms of life-satisfaction takes place toward the bottom end of the income scale and that at the upper end of the income scale life-satisfaction appears to be closer to, or even lower than income groups below. There is of course a good reason for this. As everyone knows professional football players are some of the best-paid individuals in the UK. As a player at the height of his powers Matt Le Tissier could command an astronomical salary, however chose to stay with one club, Southampton, despite the fact that other clubs could, and would pay much more. In his autobiography Le Tissier reasons:

You can’t blame players for taking that sort of money if it’s offered, but there comes a time when you have to wonder how much money someone can actually spend? If you are already on £30 000 a week, what else could you buy if you get £40 000?

For Le Tissier it was more important to stay at a club where he was happy rather than take the extra money, it was very much a case of putting well-being above money, not that as Le Tissier concedes he was badly paid, but the point he makes applies equally to less spectacular amounts, how much can one person spend? Certainly moving from a low to a moderate income can bring about major changes; you can afford maybe a better car, a holiday, trips to restaurants and the cinema, most importantly you are relived the stress associated with struggling to pay bills and essentials. Moving from a high to a very high income, on the other hand doesn’t entail that much change wheras you may need to make more sacrifices, or trade-offs to earn more; longer hours, moving away from family and friends, a commute, or

The Easterlin Paradox

A particularly interesting observation from the OECD report ‘How’s Life?: Measuring Well-being’ suggests that this relationship between income and well-being is a little more complex; The Easterlin Paradox, first observed by Richard Easterlin in 1974, suggests, according to report, that:

a higher rise in personal income leads to higher subjective well-being for that person, but that a rise in average incomes for a country does not give rise to a corresponding increase in the country’s average subjective well-being

In other words it is not necessarily increases in income per se which increase well-being, rather it is the increase in income relative to the rest of the population. So in terms of the step we have previously mentioned, an increase in life-satisfaction from moving from a household income of under $30 000 NZD to say $45 000 NZD is much likely to be the case when applied to an individual household, rather than all households in that group.

One final observation of interest. When comparing areas within the UK there appears to be no relationship between an areas level of wealth and well-being. Most famously, London, the economic powerhouse of the UK,  seems to do particularly badly when it comes to indicators of well-being. This is discussed more fully in a previous post, but one possible line of explanation is that the particular economic and social conditions arising from the global city form may be detrimental for well-being.


From this short review can we say that money buys happiness? It certainly appears to be the case on both a national level and an individual level that higher incomes are correlated with higher levels of reported well-being. Certainly it seems that being towards the bottom end of the income range is particularly bad for well-being. This appears to have much to do with the income required to provide for basic human needs such as food, warmth, shelter, education and healthcare, or the income required to participate fully in society. Once these have been attained then the effect of income in terms of increasing well-being seems to be less potent, and there is even some limited evidence to suggest that having a very high income is actually detrimental to well-being.

Policy implications : To redistribute, or not?

The Easterlin paradox is also rather interesting  in that it points to a more complex relationship between well-being and income. Raising the overall average level of well-being is not therefore simply a matter of increasing income among the bottom groups, primarily by redistribution, however, according to the paradox this would be rather limited in effect and even any small gains would be counteracted by the losses to well-being incurred by other groups.

This does not mean to say that re-distribution is necessarily wrong, as statistics New Zealand suggest:

In addition to lower life satisfaction, people in lower income households were more likely to report feeling unsafe walking alone in their neighbourhood at night and to say they had ‘fair or poor’ health than people in higher income households.

It has long been held that low income has been associated with various types of disadvantage; housing, health and education to name a few. It could well be that it is not low income itself which results in low well-being, but these other factors associated with  low income. This would explain, in part, why overall rises in average incomes have little impact, compared to individual rises. A rise in the average, whilst improving some material conditions e.g more televisions, has little effect on things such as housing, whereas a rise in an individuals household  income may mean the opportunity to move to a better neighbourhood with a better school, or better access to health-care facilities. In other words in developed industrial societies everyone may have a fridge, T.V and mobile phone, but poverty and disadvantage remain entrenched and their effects real.

As mentioned, there is also some, albeit limited, evidence that having a very high income has a detrimental affect on well-being. The obvious solution in this case would be to give away large parts of wealth. Could this explain the impulse to philanthropy among members of the super-rich past and present?  Is this charitable giving an attempt to mitigate the negative impact of high-income on well-being , or at the very least an acknowledgement that both globally and individually a more even distribution of wealth is desirable