Analysing the Data

There are many different approaches to analysing qualitative data and researchers will often adopt different approaches to the same data at different times as they attempt to use it to answer questions that are put to them. In order to make the most of life-history data, however, it is important to adopt approaches that do not prematurely relinquish what is specific about the people interviewed. Following other researchers in the field of psychosocial studies, such as Hollway and Jefferson (2000) and Gadd and Dixon (2011), the From Boys to Men researchers constructed a pen portraits for each interviewee. This entailed trying to organise and summarise what was said in each interview into a 4-6 page document that summarized what the interviewee said (see the example of Andrew) .

As far as possible, quotations are retained to convey exactly what was said about pertinent issues, relationships or incidents. Participants’ use of particular adjectives, phrases or labels can be very revealing in violence research. Attention to detail can expose emotional pain beneath expressions of anger, for example. Carl’s account (below) of a serious assault on his mother after she brought about the end of his relationship with a girl he had described as only a ‘fuck buddy’ is revelatory in this regard, the misogynistic language concealing the desire and emotional dependency that for him motivated his violent rage.

depressionAnd me mum was having a go at me and I told her to shut up and called her a slag [DG: right] and she didn’t like being called a slag [DG: no] so she jumped over the settee at me and as she jumped over the settee I punched her. So she hit the floor and then I started stamping on her. I was literally trying to kill her. Me mate had to drag me away from her. I’d been out with a few mates and with a few girls and that. And em I came back with one of my mates and this girl and me mum went mad saying, ‘why are you bringing these slags in my house’ and all this to me [DG: right]. But with her calling this girl a slag who I was seeing at the time and she wasn’t a slag [DG: no]. So I snapped because how she was speaking to her, I actually liked her. I didn’t want it to just be sex [DG: no] I didn’t know how to tell her but me mum said that and I just lost it because she wasn’t a slag. She lost her virginity to me, I know she wasn’t a slag.”

Similarly, when the same words are used to describe two or more people who have aggrieved the participant, this can reveal a lot about thinking patterns and feelings that have endured across particular conflicts. For example, Ray described a number of people in his narrative as a a ‘cunt’. Firstly, his girlfriend’s father who ‘battered’ Ray just for being with his daughter. Secondly, his grandmother with whom Ray’s family used to live but after having invested money and made her house like more better his grandmother ‘kicked’ the family ‘out’, leaving them homeless and with no money as they had ‘spent it all on her’. And, thirdly, his girlfriend who Ray claimed falsely accused him of ‘looking at’ other girls and who would ‘go on’ ‘over nothing’. According to Ray’s accounts, these individuals had treated him, or his family, unfairly and were ultimately not to be trusted. He then revealed, in his assessment of his reaction to his girlfriend’s controlling behaviour, that he extended this term of contempt to himself.

MLC: Could you give me another example of how she was controlling?

Ray: Like, weren’t allowed to go out with my mates, that was the main reason, that was the  main thing… Every day, every day, she just wanted me all to herself [MLC: mm mm] do you know what I mean… So I’d be sitting there every day, just bored watching the telly like. Fuckin boring cunt know what I mean, sitting at home all the time, staying in, just sad, know what I mean… It just depressed me [MLC: ok], fuckin depressed me.

Repeated denials often also merit closer interpretation, so that when something is claimed insistently to be obvious, the researcher might question whether it really was so self evident, as illustrated in the portrait of Jez.

Jez was an 18 year old unemployed man who had, until recently, been living with his mother, his father having been imprisoned when he was an infant. He described a turbulent home life, in which is mother was ‘always out … with different men, like the whole way through, six different men, most of them were muppets’ or otherwise caught up in ‘constant arguments’:

screaming, slamming doors and smashing plates. Walking out the house, slamming the door again, going missing for about three hours, coming back.

There were hints that Jez harboured resentment towards his mother about the times when she left, though he had never said as much, telling us he had been left alone ‘wondering’ while his mother went missing: ‘I never used to ask her, I always knew what had happened, but I never said anything’.

Now Jez had lost ‘everything’, his mother having moved in with a boyfriend, leaving Jez with extended family, following a fire in the family home.

‘I just had enough. It was in my room. Everything, literally everything just bam gone’.

He went onto explain that that people ‘couldn’t blame’ him as he ‘obviously’ had been downstairs at the time the fire started.

Jez: I was the only one in the house as well. So obviously I was downstairs, come up and see my room on fire like, black smoke. So obviously I got my dog, gone out, in jumper, trackies, socks, that’s it. And like obviously went out and all the fire brigades come. Blocked just the whole street off. It was in the paper and everything, it was quite big [DG: mm mm]. And basically yeah that was it.

When asked directly what had caused the fire, Jez offered only ‘electrical problems like’ and no account whatsoever of what he having ‘just had enough’ had to do with it.

Other participants provided accounts of violence that seemed logically incredulous, but nevertheless revealed just how invested they were in maintaining particular public personas. Phil, for example, insisted he had ‘never been accused of hitting a girl’, ‘wouldn’t fully hit a girl’, that he, in particular, is ‘not like that’ even if some of his ‘mates’ are. More generally he was proud to have become a celebrated exemplar of rehabilitation in action, having given up drugs and volunteered for a national charity after his release from custody. This made it hard for him to concede that he was abusive to his girlfriend, despite having been convicted of an assault on her, while she was pregnant, and having plead guilty as charged when he appeared in court.

Gavel & female judge“So I just told her em, you know, ‘I want to know where you’ve been staying and that because you didn’t stay in yours last night because you know, no one was there and that’. And em, like she comes towards me to attack me so then I’ve just put my foot up cos I’ve been sitting on the couch and then, eh, she’s ran into my foot while she was pregnant’, I am supposed to have hit Rachel and all which I didn’t, I put my foot up and because I went guilty in court cos I. She didn’t keep turning up in court and I just wanted to get my sentence and get on with it [MLC: mm mm] instead of being on remand and not getting my remand time took off. So I just wanted to get a sentence and get on with it.”

When asked to expand on the details of the attack, at another point in the interview, Phil’s slip of the tongue ‘my foot ran into, her stomach ran into my foot’ – raised the obvious question about the direction of this ‘attack’.

She come up to attack me and that’s when I put my foot up and then just like, my foot ran into, her stomach ran into my foot so I just got out of there cos she said she phoned the police on me.

It is important to retain in the pen portrait accounts that are ambiguous, inconclusive or defensive, since when appraised in the context of the collection of stories told, they can expose patterns that are more revelatory than sentences taken in isolation. Gadd (2012) and Garfield et al (2010) both provide discussions of the processes involved in undertaking this kind of data analysis.


One challenge in analysing data of this type involves the need to work across the dataset to reveal what, if anything, is general or generalizable from the entire sample. The researchers found it useful to create a table of the participants (see From Boys to Men project Phase3: Summary of Participants) in the sample that identified, for example, those individuals who had abused their partners and those who said they had been abused by their partners, those who had witnessed violence between parents, those who had been abused by parents, and those who had abused parents. This table was used to organise the themes addressed in the Phase 3 report, which documents the first summary of the 30 life-history interviews conducted in the From Boys to Men project.

Another challenge involves gaining sufficient distance from the interviewee to be able to think critically about the nature of how a life has been recounted, how agency has been constructed, or, as is often the case in stories about violence, blame attributed. Undertaking analysis with research team members who did not participate in the interviews can help with this process. The researchers also found when producing pen portraits about men’s accounts of violence that attention to the following complexities can also be illuminating.

  1. Avoidances. Was the interviewee reluctant to talk about particular events, people or periods in their life? Is there any pattern to the things that cannot be remembered? Are events that are avoided at one point in the interview alluded to in subsequent parts of it? To what extent do the avoidances appear to be motivated by shame or embarrassment, as opposed to guilt or fear of recriminations, or the pain of loss or trauma?
  2. Conflations. Are there points in the interview where several events are inextricably conflated, making their ordering difficult to decipher? For example, is the recollection of violence or abuse in the recent past being told as if it followed the logic of something that happened much earlier, or vice versa? Where ‘fights’ are described, where is the starting point of the conflict located?
  3. Inconsistencies. Are there inconsistencies or contradictions in the stories told? Are two or more different accounts of the same event offered? Is the ordering of who said and did what consistent? Are assertions made that are not supported by the examples given?
  4. Attribution of agency. Is a third person perspective introduced when a first person account might have been expected? Are some events depicted as things that ‘just happened’, as a product of good or bad fortune, when others are construed as entirely under the interviewee’s control and of their own making? Does the interviewee accuse others of doing things that they have done? Are insinuations made, whether about significant others, the government, or people like the interviewer, that merit further exploration? Has the listener been made to feel complicit or uncomfortable?
  5. Delivery Style. Are certain events described with laughter, relish, hesitation or a degree of moralising? Does the interviewee ask the interviewer to endorse their viewpoint, become inexplicably defensive, or seek some additional recognition or validation beyond the affirmative facilitation provided? Is there any pattern to the hesitation, pauses, or incomplete sentences evident in the transcript? Are there certain descriptive terms that are repeatedly applied to a range of quite different events or relationships?

Alternative approaches to narrative analysis are described in more depth via the following link: