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  One of human geography\'s most widely used fieldwork methods. As a key means of data collection in household surveys, face-to-face interviewing forms a cornerstone of the extensive cross-sectional, cohort and panel surveys that underpin large-scale quantitative social science (see quantitative methods; survey analysis). Structured questionnaire data are often collected by professional interviewers employed by commercial market research firms who provide varying amounts of project-specific training. The quality of the data can vary enormously from interviewer to interviewer, from study to study (depending on the complexity and sensitivity of the questionnaire and on the character of the target sample), from survey company to survey company (depending on the nature and extent of quality control in the field), from place to place and from time to time.

There are also technical problems related to sampling procedures, response rates, and debates over the nature, use and calculation of inferential statistics, especially for the cluster sampling which forms the basis of so many large-scale surveys (see inference). Perhaps more crucially, there are important ethical questions related to the storage and analysis of individual computerized records, especially when these are tagged to spatial coordinates (see also ethics, geography and).

The advantage of the structured questionnaire is that it provides comparability between regions and through history among some key demographic and socio-economic characteristics of large populations. Pieced together, the various national surveys that currently exist already offer a fairly comprehensive map of the social world — at least for the developed countries. The disadvantage of this approach is that it masks individual variety, attributes a consistency and stability to attitudes and opinions that is rarely found in everyday life, and limits the kinds of responses that the interviewees can make. The questions reflect the purposes and presuppositions of the analyst, which respondents have little scope to challenge or augment.

Interview data can, however, also be collected from groups and individuals in less structured settings (see qualitative methods). This approach sacrifices comprehensiveness for intensity, and is less preoccupied with mapping society than with exploring the relationships between society and space. Individual and group interviews have thus been used in geography to explore the relationships between people and their environments providing, among other things, a commentary on the value, utility and safety of activity space.

In-depth individual interviews allow researchers to study subjective meanings and motives alongside the more objectifiable attributes and aspirations that can be tapped by structured questionnaires. They are a means of explaining and understanding the kinds of relationships which can only be described by more extensive quantitative approaches. Individual qualitative interviews seem particularly appropriate for documenting life histories, and for charting the route taken by individuals and households through the sets of markets and institutions (labour market, housing system, welfare services, social support networks) that mediate between who people are and where they are positioned (cf. positionality). The individual approach may also be appropriate where the subject of the research is highly sensitive or confidential. Wherever they are employed, qualitative interviews offer the subjects of the research much more scope to speak for themselves than do structured questionnaires.

Group interviews take this commitment to the authenticity of everyday life and experience a step further, allowing participants not only to speak for themselves but also to begin to negotiate their own shared views. This can be seen as a contribution to the democratization of the research process: it allows ordinary people to generalize about their lives and futures, rather than relying on the analyst to derive aggregate statements from a set of individual observations.

Group interviewing within geography takes two broad forms: the one-off focus group which was developed as a market research tool (Holbrook and Jackson, 1996); and in-depth discussion groups, developed from ideas in psychotherapy, which meet on several occasions in the course of the study (Burgess et al., 1998). During the 1990s, group interviewing virtually became the new orthodoxy for qualitative research in human geography. The distinction between focus groups and group discussions has (for many but not all researchers) become blurred, and as a methodological tool, group interviewing has proved very flexible. Groups may be small (3) or large (c.15), pre-existing or purposively assembled, interviewed once or on several occasions, employed on their own, or as one step in a mixed methods approach. The result is a style of interviewing which takes away some (but not all) of the analyst\'s power to define the research agenda, allows those who are being researched to collaborate actively rather than respond passively, and favours a collective approach to the production and negotiation of knowledge. It has even been suggested that group interviews can form the basis of a new politics of knowledge and empowerment, with the potential to democratize governance and service provision (Johnson, 1996).

References Burgess, J., Limb, M and Harrison, C.M. 1988: Exploring environmental values through the medium of small groups, part one: theory and practice. Environment and Planning A 20: 309-26. Holbrook, B. and Jackson, P. 1996: Shopping around: focus group research in North London. Area 28: 136-42. Johnson, A. 1996: \'It\'s good to talk\': the focus group and the sociological imagination. The Sociological Review 44: 517-38.

Suggested Reading Area 1996, vol. 28 (2) contains six articles on group interviewing.



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