Undertaking Interviews

Interviewing people who have experienced or perpetrated violence takes considerable skill and composure. One needs to be prepared to listen, without prejudice, to accounts of behaviour that are disturbing and upsetting. One has also to be prepared to hear, endure and, sometimes, contain the feelings felt by tellers as they recount. These feelings can include anger, rage, disgust, shame, enjoyment, and self-righteousness. Opinion varies on whether researchers should challenge the prejudices of participants directly, but in research on violence one must anticipate hearing expressions of racism, sexism and homophobia. In order to explore how and why participants think and feel this way, one has to, at the very least, be willing to engage with participants who express prejudice on their own terms before offering counter opinions.

In the From Boys to Men project, researchers approached the interviews using techniques drawn from life-history research (Gadd, 2012; Hollway and Jefferson, 2012; Plummer, 2001; Wengraf, 2001). Participants were asked to tell their life stories in their own words, taking as much time as they needed, and the researchers promised not to interrupt while they were talking. While participants spoke, the researchers took notes and used these to follow-on with more narrative-focused questions that responded to what participants had disclosed. The following extract from an interview with Lee illustrates this process well.

DG: So you started your story by saying, I think you said you’ve not had an easy life and your parents separated at the age of 12.

Lee: Mm mm.

DG: So I was wondering if you could tell me a little bit about the story of your life before the age of 12.

Lee: Certainly yes.

DG: And living at home, was it just you and your mum and dad or was there.

Lee: Just me and my mum and dad yeah.

DG: So, tell me a bit about that time.

Lee: Essentially they worked different shift patterns. My mum was working in the morning and my father was working in the evening [DG: right]. So em, and they only really saw each other for about an hour in the middle of the day and an hour afterwards when eh, they got, when my dad got home. I was usually in bed for this but I was usually awoken by the arguments and stuff. I mean, my earliest memory of them arguing was actually em me, I think I was about four or five, you know not very old so it’s a bit fuzzy the memory is really. But all I remember is having to hide whilst they were hitting each other because it was a very [DG: mm mm], I just remember the fear mainly, you know. Cos it just, that’s the only thing I can remember from that is just the fear really. I knew they were being violent really but it’s my earliest one of them.

As far as possible, this approach was used to solicit accounts of violence, control, conflict, relationships, family life and schooling.  In most cases, the technique was effective, though the researchers always had to be alive to what they were not being told and to ensure that they probed the features of the stories that specifically spoke to the challenge of understanding men’s violence. The following extracts illustrate why this is necessary, in particular, the elaboration of events leading up to a supposedly false accusation revealing considerable substance behind the victim’s allegation, even while the teller sees no hint of contradiction in his account of what he didn’t do.

Part of a response to please tell me your life story

Wayne: … One day and you know it all kicked off and I ended up hitting her because I’d just had enough of her. …  But eh she, like after I hit her she accused me of eh, trying to set her on fire. She said that I put petrol on her and tried to burn her [MLC: mm mm]. So obviously the police don’t just take that as a joke they come out and take this seriously [MLC: mm mm]. And they arrested me, eh, I just, I denied it. You know, I didn’t do it. I still say today I didn’t.

When asked for further elaboration:

MLC: I just wanted to go through the few relationships that you’ve had and just pick up on a few things from those… I was just wondering if you could tell me in a bit more detail the story about when you hit her …

Wayne: And it just got worse and worse and like you know all these lads kept texting me ‘oh I slept with her last night’ and that. And eh, it got to the stage where I thought ‘this needs to stop’ and I texted her I said, ‘Are you not at [alternative education programme] today?’. She goes ‘yeah’, because she had some of my belongings, she had em, a em jumper on of mine. And this is where you’ll get some understanding of the fire thing [MLC: mm mm]. I went down there and I had a water bottle with me not like a bought water bottle, it was like for a bike, so it wasn’t see through [MLC: yeah]. And I walked up to her and I said to her ‘can I have my jacket back?’, I says you know ‘we’re over’ and that. I texted her ten minutes before I get there saying ‘you better come outside because I’m going to sort you out, I’m sick of you treating me like this’. So she came outside and I, I was, I thought no, I said ‘can I have my jacket back?’ and she said ‘it’s mine’ and it was a Christmas present from my mum and I said ‘I want it back’ so I said, ‘if you don’t give it me back ‘I’m going to burn it off you’. And she went, ‘what?’ I said ‘I’ve got fire fuel in here’ but it was water. And I said, I pulled out a lighter out of my pocket and I said, ‘I’m going to burn you you black bastard if you don’t give me my jacket back’. And eh, she went ‘you’re full of shit’. And I started squirting it at her and she thought ‘oh my god is this fuel?’ And I pinned her up against the fence and I lit this lighter and I thought ‘you either give me the property back or I’ll burn it whilst it’s on you, it’s my property, I’ll burn it, I’m allowed to’ [MLC: mm mm]. ‘It’s your choice if you take it off or not’. So she took it off, she went, ‘oh I’m so sorry, have it’. … But when she went like that snarling I thought, ‘you want to play that game do you?’ And I went, ‘fuck it, burn anyway and I sprayed it all over her…  She was up against the fence and I kept flicking this lighter at her, intimidation basically, I’m going to burn you, you’re going to die’ kind of thing.

Probing also had the potential to lead to more positive revelations in young people’s stories. The following extract, for example, illustrates how further questioning of Nigel revealed two sides to the involvement of child protection in his family home, the alcoholism and violence at home, and the time in a temporary placement with his aunt.

MLC: Do you want to tell me a bit more about that story then, maybe about you moving to auntie Julie’s and child protection, what happened then?

Nigel: I can’t really remember the specific thing that had gone on but it was probably a drunken weekend or night, em, where they’d got drunk and things got out of hand between them [MLC: mm mm]. I think it was something, I think he threw a glass ashtray at her that blacked her eye, like my mum’s eye underneath. Em and we ended up calling the police because we witnessed that and stuff. Em, they’d taken us to my auntie Julie’s for the night. The police had dropped us off with a few of our clothes and things that we needed for over night, em, toothbrushes and that. Took us to my auntie Julie’s and then we stayed there, didn’t go home at all for about three months [MLC: ok]. Every day my mum would be up, eh, sometimes she would be sober but sometimes she would be under the influence of drink [MLC: yeah] and inebriated and em, she’d come up to see us every day, go back to Steve and get drunk. Em.

MLC: So was it both you and your brother that went to Julie’s?

Nigel: Yeah.

MLC: And what was it like during those three months in Julie’s?

Nigel: Good [MLC: mm mm], we’d got routine, we’d got a bit of discipline, you know. We earned our pocket money for doing chores around the house and if we wanted anything we saved up for it like Xbox games and stuff [MLC: yeah] and you know we were always in school on time, clean clothes, em, it was great. We should have been able to stay there.

When the research team had probed the stories that were initially offered, they would then return to the interview schedule to explore key issues in the home lives or intimate relationships of the participants. The interview schedule that was used can be found in Research Materials. In a few cases, young men were not forthcoming with an opening story and the interviewer thus posed a number of questions which asked the participant to ‘tell me about any times’ they had witnessed, been a victim of, or perpetrated, domestic abuse and physical violence. All participants were also asked if ‘sexual aggression’ had ‘impacted’ on their lives in any way and were asked to recount any times where violence away from relationships or the home had impacted on their lives. Finally, participants were asked about their experiences of seeking help in relation to the violence they had experienced.

The following websites and sources provide useful advice for those adopting narrative approaches to interviewing.



Some of these sources recommend undertaking two or more interviews with the same participants. This is something that the From Boys to Men research team would advocate too. But it is exceptionally difficult to accommodate such scope with the time constraints of a research project and with young people who cannot be relied upon to turn up for appointments. The following link provides an overview of the different types of qualitative interviewing.


For a concise open access account of Hollway and Jefferson’s approach to Free Association Narrative Interviewing: