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A qualitative study to explore the meaning of identity using interview data and relating it to theoretical understanding in this area

Free essay example:

DSE212 Exploring Psychology

TMA 04  Qualitative project                 Jennifer Verney

June 2007                Personal ID: R6402528

A qualitative study to explore the meaning of identity using interview data and relating it to theoretical understanding in this area


This qualitative study explores the subject of identity in relation to a pre-recorded interview of a married couple who are asked specific research questions.  A thermatic analysis of the interview is carried out and relevant material extracted.  This information is then interpreted in relation to theoretical understanding on the subject of identity to compare the two – how does the ‘lived reality’, as represented by the individuals interviewed, fit in to various theories on identity?  


From the information gathered from the interview, Jo and Tony have experienced a great deal of social changes that have happened to them personally, in their time. Using the information they offer in their interview, they have both experienced a war and were young children when their fathers were taken away from them.  They both had a disruptive childhood and had very limited options when leaving school.

Many social changes have taken place in the last 50 years including changes in gender roles, patterns of employment, changing class and ethnic composition of the UK. These social changes are taking place at a global level as well as at a personal level and can produce uncertainties in relation to who we are and our place in the world.  However it also means opportunities for the formation of new identities creating new opportunities for redefining ourselves at home and in the workplace.

Although their ages are not specified in the video recording, in addition to their own personal experiences it is likely that during their childhood, their adolescence and throughout their adult life they will have seen and experienced many of these social changes and can reflect on their own identities as a result.  The fact that they mention they were both around during the war means they will have experienced grown up during the ‘golden age’ of full employment (1950’s to mid 1970’), seen the end of the ‘golden age’ (mid 1970’s to mid 1980’s) and finally flexible working (late 1980’s onwards). They also have children and are also able to reflect on their own children’s lives and the differences in their children’s characters and lives – partly due to their upbringing but also due to the era in which they were raised and how different that was to the era in which they themselves were raised in.  Different identities are produced in different historical periods and different cultures.

Different theories on the subject of identity fit into different parts of Tony and Jo’s lives but no one theory is comprehensive in relation to their experiences and indeed no one theory offers the truth.  They do, however, offer several ways of examining identity and undoubtedly, identity is physical, biological, social, historical, psychological and embodied.  Embodiment is important to our identities because we use our bodies to produce identities.

The report tends to make evident how the represented lives of a married couple interviewed together, agree or disagree with various theories on identity.  A point worth noting here is that much of the cited work (such as Erikson’s, 1968) has been carried out in different cultural context and at different historical periods.  


This is a qualitative study on identity. A thermatic analysis of an interview was decided to explore meaning whilst addressing issues in context.  The study involves analysing pre-existing material, provided by The Open University.  This is a videotape of a filmed interview of a married middle-aged couple called Tony and Jo.  The videotape was specially constructed for teaching purposes.  The couple are firstly interviewed by Jane Tobbell, who has known them for quite a long time and secondly by Dan Goodley who is meeting them for the first time.  The couple are asked similar questions by the two interviewers.  Finally, a further interviewer, Carol Tindall, asks them to reflect on their experiences of being interviewed – the experience in general, how each interview differed and whether this has any bearing on the relationship between the interviewee and the interviewer (an insider viewpoint).

As with all psychological study, ethical implications are always considered.  The researcher is a psychology student at The Open University and is therefore not ethically or professionally authorized to provide counselling or to interview in this context.  Pre-existing material is used for this reason and the participants have given their full permission for their interviews to be used in this manner and are aware that they are being studied.

The thematic analysis was carried out by extracting material relevant to the research topic and grouping the information taken into themes listed below.


On reading the transcript, a number of themes emerge relating to the topic of identity.


Tony had a disrupted childhood, taken ill at eleven and didn’t attend school much before then and because of the war and being moved around and refers to himself as:

…totally uneducated (Tony) [line 28].

Although it is clear that from a young age he already had clear views on his own identity:

They also wanted to turn me into something that perhaps I wasn’t.  I always remember I was told never to put Brylcreem on my hair because I would look like a barber’s son (Tony) [lines 37-39].

He mentions that at that time there were:

…a lot of strange influences (Tony) [line 40]

And when answering the interviewers question about how he was educated, because she mentions that he doesn’t ‘seem’ uneducated, he replies:

yes I suppose I am self-educated I’ve read an awful lotobviously (Tony) [lines 40-41]

Jo’s childhood was also affected by the war:

…I went to school in Leeds ‘til I was just eight and then I was evacuated (Jo) [lines 44-45]  

She offers information about how she felt about this:

Which I found quite traumatic like everybody else.  (Jo) [lines 45-46].

Both Jo and Tony share the fact that their fathers were taken away from them because of the war and this is the first point Tony makes when asked by the second interviewer to compare his childhood to that of his own children’s.  He answers it as a shared experience.  It clearly had an impact on their lives:  

our fathers were taken away from us because of the war.  Now our children didn’t have that (Tony) [lines 90-92].

And it was the period of whether he would get home.  And I remember that distinctly (Jo) [lines 95-96).

After leaving school Jo comments on how ‘rigid’ (Jo) [line 71] it was and how these options available to her did not fit in with what she wanted to do.  She offers a possible reason as to why this was the case:

…when I left was you know you’ll either be a nurse or you’ll be a domestic science teacher, you go into an office or be a teacher it was so narrow I wanted to do something with biology plants I was so interested.  But there was not, no opening.  And to a certain extent things were governed by how much money you had to be able to pursue certain things (Jo) [lines 72-77].

It appears here that Tony is suggesting that life is possibly easier now:

And I think that you can do so much more now with with less qualification.  As I say it’s just a wider canvas (Tony) [lines 84-85].


The theme ‘workaholic’ emerges when asked to describe themselves, it’s the first word Tony uses to describe himself:

workaholic to a certain extent (Tony) [line 7].

we’re both tarred with the same brush of being workaholic (Jo) [lines 11-12].

Tony and Jo go on to expand on the possible reasons for this, related to early upbringing and parental attitudes:

It’s part of our background, it’s the Victorian work ethic (Tony) [line 54].

Our parent’s influence (Jo) [line 59].

Could have been you know the Methodist attitude (Jo) [line 62].

Jo’s mother was brought up as a Methodist and my father was as well.  And I think Methodist principles were fairly firmly entrenched.  And yes I think that has, that makes us to a certain extent the sort of people we are (Tony) [lines 63-67].


Both Tony and Jo have clear views on the second interviewer’s question regarding the conflict couples have maintaining their own individual identities and taking on a shared one:  

I don’t think we’ve ever achieved that[a shared identity] (Tony) [lines 110-111].

Never (Jo) [line 114].

And give the reasons:

…we had our own interests, our own friends… (Tony) [line 117].

…we’ve encouraged each other to keep up our own interests as much as we possibly could (Jo) [lines 119-120].

Jo mentions children here as maybe the exception to the rule, but more giving things up for the children rather than each other:

…when the children are younger, … you sacrifice some things or you adapt.  You just can’t pursue them for a short period of time (Jo) [lines 121-123].

Tony confirms:

…I don’t feel for one minute as though we are one being… (Tony) [line 127).

When asked about their children’s independence:

..it’s different today…young people find it easier to live more or less independent lives. …I can well imagine our children going right throughout life and leading very independent lives (Tony) [lines 137-141].

…things have changed… now it’s applauded that women have equal rights as men and the although the family’s there, then the women can forge ahead.  But… if you want to nurture and encourage your children, then some one or other has got to stay, perhaps hold back a little to give as much as you can to your children (Jo) [lines 142-148].

I think that that life has moved on or changes have taken place so rapidly that our children are not going to be awfully influenced by our lifestyle in our early in our early years (Tony) [lines 150 – 152].


It should be noted that this is a personal interpretation of the materials reviewed; other researchers would apply their own interpretation.

Erikson was the first theorist to view identity as psychosocial, meaning that “the community in which children and adolescents live helps to shape their identity” (Phoenix, 2002 p.56) and the fact that both Tony and Jo had their fathers taken away from them quite early on in their childhood quite clearly had an impact on their lives.  It is also something that both of them as a couple have in common and may have been a contributing factor in bringing them together because it’s something they can both relate to.  This can be related to Tajfel’s social identity theory suggests that identity forms through group membership and a social group for Tajfel was “two or more individuals who shared a common identification or who saw themselves as members of the same social category” (Phoenix, 2002 p.62). Jo describes the evacuation as “traumatic like everybody else” (line 46) and later on when Tony is making the comparison between his childhood and his own childhood he makes the point that their children did not have that instability in their lives.  Interestingly, although the interviewer is asking him direct, he answers the question as a collective “our fathers….” and “our children…” (line 90 – 92) possibly it made them both more determined as parents to provide their own children with a safe, stable and secure upbringing, something possibly neither of them experienced themselves.

Erikson’s theory also claims that the historical period and culture in which people live are considered to affect the identities they can construct and this seems to be the case with Jo who states how limited her options were when she left school.  Although she puts it down to “how much money you had” (line 77) at that time it may have also of been gender specific and options were also quite limited if you were female. Jo makes a reference to women having equal opportunities later on saying women can now “forge ahead” (line 144) but at that point is referring to women having children and a career rather than women having a career (without children).  Tony, on the other hand, makes the point that he thinks the opportunities were limited for both sexes but makes the additional point that “parents’ experiences and aspirations certainly entered into it as well” (lines 81 – 82).  He makes the point later on, when talking about his children’s independence, that times have changed to the degree that it is unlikely their children will be influenced by their own (Jo and Tony’s) upbringing.  Weber’s theory of power relations suggests that power is a top-down affair with clearly defined lines of authority, delegation and obedience and this theory fits with Jo and Tony’s upbringing where everything was much more rigid and where they were influenced by their parents own beliefs.  Foucault’s theory which is that power is not held in any one person’s hand but works it’s way into our imaginations and serves to constrain how we act seems to be more relevant to their children’s upbringing (Allen, 2000).  

From a work point of view, both Tony and Jo attribute their “workaholic” attributes to how their parents were, this illustrates an aspect of the way in which social constructionists theorize identities: the identities available to us and that we take up are affected by our social histories, social positions, relationships and experiences, as well as by social and technological changes (Connell, 1995: Hollway and Jefferson, 2000).  

The social constructionism theory of identity suggests that identity is multiple and changing and that we can take as many identity positions that are available to us and that it reflects changes in both society and relationships.  Jo and Tony clearly see themselves as a couple with joint interests as well as two very independent people with separate interests and on the subject of children Jo mentions having to “sacrifice some things” and having to “adapt” (lines121 – 123) but for the sake of the children rather than each other.  

It seems the case with Tony and Jo that many aspects of their identity derive from childhood experiences – their identity has been constructed by the past as well as through the present and they can reflect on their own children’s lives and how their identities are different as a result of having a different upbringing to themselves.

Reflexive analysis

What has taken place with this qualitative analysis is two semi-structured research interviews with the interviewers having a specific area of research interest and a third interview where they are asked to reflect on their experiences of being interviewed, providing and ‘insider’ viewpoint.  

Although the set up was ‘staged’ – i.e. Jo and Tony knew they were being filmed and although, in the third interview when they were asked what they thought of the experience Tony commented on the fact that it was “constraining”, I felt that it was an effective way of obtaining information about the experiences and feelings of this couple.  The surroundings were relatively informal and the atmosphere seemed relaxed.  They were under no obligation to answer any of the questions and were just required to recall/answer experiences from their past and give their own opinions on questions asked regarding various situations and circumstances.  Although body language was not taken into consideration in this research, the fact that it was filmed means that, if necessary, it can be taken into consideration in future studies.

Two different interviewers provided the opportunity to obtain different and varied information even though the questions asked were on the same subject. The first interviewer already knew Tony and Jo.  She seemed to obtain more facts and information about both their pasts which included information about their childhood experiences, school years, opportunities and work ethics.  Prior to the interview, the second interviewer had met Tony and Jo for the first time, and seemed to ask more open ended questions which meant that Jo and Tony were able to be more ‘reflective’ in their answers and provided valuable information on ‘how they felt’ about certain topics and certain things that have happened in their lives.

The fact that there were two different interviewers definitely played a key part in obtaining different viewpoints from Jo and Tony.  However, something which would have provided a completely different perspective would have been to interview both Jo and Tony separately ensuring that they are asked the same questions.  The first interviewer tended to ask more direct questions specifically to either Jo or Tony (and usually to Tony first) but the second interviewer tended to ask more open-ended questions to both where either one had the opportunity to answer (and usually Tony tended to answer first).  An interesting occurrence was when he asked a question about their children’s experiences and Jo actually looks at Tony as if she is waiting for him to answer the question first, which he does.  He definitely seemed to be more dominant in this particular interview.


Allen, J. (2000, 2004) ‘Power: its institutional guises (and disguises) in Hughes, G., and Fergusson, R., (ed’s) Ordering lives: family, work and welfare, The Open University.

Connell, R. (1995) Masculinities, Cambridge, Polity.

Hollway, W. and Jefferson, T. (2000) Doing Qualitative Research Differently: Free Association, Narrative and the Interview Method, London, Sage.

Phoenix, A. (2002) ‘Identities and diversities’ in Miell, D., Phoenix, A., and Thomas, K., (ed’s) Mapping Psychology 1, Milton Keynes, The Open University.

Videotape DSE212 Video 1, Research Methods in Psychology, The Open University (2002).


Introduction by Wendy Hollway

In this videotape you are going to see edited extracts from interviews with a married middle-aged couple called Jo and Tony.

The videotape was specially constructed for teaching purposes and as you see they were filmed.  Therefore, the research situation differs from what it would normally be like.  Partly because there’s a camera there and normally there’d be an unobtrusive audiotape.  And secondly because Jo and Tony are interviewed successively.  First by Jane, who knows the couple and has known them for quite a long time.  And second by Dan who is meeting them for the first time.

We did this on purpose because we wanted to show you how the different research relationships can affect the material that comes out.

Interview One with Jane Tobbell


Okay Jo and Tony you know that today we’re gonna talk                1

A bit about identity, what it means to be you, what’s made                2

you into the people you are.                                                3

So Tony if I could ask you, if someone said to you what                4

sort of person are you, who are you? How do you think                5

you’d reply?                                                                        6


A mass of contradiction.  A workaholic to a certain extent.                7

Fairly easy going.  I’m always accused of manipulating                8

situations.  But that’s just my management style.                        9


So Jo how would you describe yourself?                                        10


Perhaps we’re both tarred with the same brush of being                11

workaholic.  Yes I think we are.  I would say that I’m more                12

abrupt, perhaps and more direct, I think Tony’s polished                13

his skills over the years.  Think that’s the difference.                        14


Ahh, Tony how do you react when you listened to Jo’s                15

description of herself?                                                        16


Yes, I mean I yes I think that’s that’s fair comment.                        17

But Jo’s extremely generous and and kind.                                18


One of the things I’d like to ask you about as well is your                19

childhood and your experiences of childhood.  Sort of to                20

look at how you think the person you were has contributed                21

to the person you are now.  So Tony could you tell me                22

something about your childhood?                                                23


I had a very disrupted childhood, I was taken ill when I was                24

eleven and didn’t go to school much before I was eleven                25

because of the war and being moved round the country.                26

And then I only went to school for a year, after I was eleven.        27

So totally uneducated.                                                        28


But were you educated at home then? ‘Cos                                29


No, no.                                                                        30


You don’t strike me as an uneducated person.                                31


Really. Ah, well.                                                                32


It must be said.                                                                33


I had a very interesting year the year’s education I had was                34

very interesting situation in at a boarding school in Sussex.                35

Where I was I learned a great deal actually.                                36

They also wanted to turn me into something that perhaps                37

I wasn’t.  I always remember I was told never to put Brylcreem        38

on my hair because I would look like a barber’s son.                        39

So there are a lot of strange influences, and I’ve, yes I                40

Suppose I am self-educated I’ve read an awful lot obviously.        41


Yeah.  Jo what about you and your childhood?                                42


Oh well mine was completely different because I was born                43

in Leeds, I was brought up in Leeds.  I went to school in Leeds        44        

‘til I was just eight and then I was evacuated.  Which I found        45

quite traumatic like everybody else.  And then I was then I                46

went to boarding school for the next ten years.                        47


So there are some similarities there then you, ‘cos you said                48

no it’s completely different but you can see similarities there        49

in removal really from the family home.                                50

Yet you both say you’re workaholics so work has been a big                51

thing for both of you through the through the relationship                52

and through your lives.                                                        53


It’s part of our background, it’s the Victorian work ethic,                54

Which I’ve been trying for decades to throw off.                        55


I’m fairly sure you’re not from Victorian times I have to say.        56


No I know but we think it’s                                                57


No.                                                                                58


Our parent’s influence.                                                        59


Oh right.                                                                        60


Yeah.                                                                                61


Could have been you know the Methodist attitude.                        62


Now that’s a very interesting point because Jo’s mother                63

was brought up as a Methodist and my father was as well.                64

And I think Methodist principles were fairly firmly entrenched.        65

And yes I think that has, that makes us to a certain extent the        66

sort of people we are.                                                        67


When you look at your children’s lives and think back to your        68

lives you know when you were say teenagers for example,                69

Do you think theirs were very different?                                        70


We were so rigid.  What was offered when we left school,                71

When I left was you know you’ll either be a nurse or you’ll                72

be a domestic science teacher, you go into an office or be a        73

teacher it was so narrow I wanted to do something                        74

with biology plants I was so interested.  But there was not,                75

no opening.  And to a certain extent things were governed by        76

how much money you had to be able to pursue certain things.        77


Do you think that was worse for women?  Did you experience        78

it like that as well?                                                                79


I think it was the same for both sexes, I think it’s exactly the        80

same.  I have to say that I think that one’s parents’ experiences        81

and aspirations certainly entered into it as well.                        82


Right.                                                                                83


And I think that you can do so much more now with with less        84

qualification.  As I say it’s just a wider canvas.                                85

Interview Two with Dan Goodley


How would you kind of contrast say your own experiences                86

in early childhood say and what have you early adulthood with        87

your own children’s experiences.  Are there marked differences?        88


Well I mean one way in which Jo and I.  Once experience that        89

Jo and I both had as young children was that, that our fathers        90

were taken away from us because of the war.  Now our children        91

didn’t have that.                                                                92


No, I remember that the when Dunkirk was there and I was at        93

school and I was left at school, after the during the holidays.        94

And it was the period of whether he would get home.                95

And I remember that distinctly.  Whereas our children,                96

you know one family we knew there was a separation and our        97

children got quite frightened didn’t they? Were we going to                98

Do the same thing.                                                                99


Right.  That’s interesting the kinda notion of like, there’s a lot        100

of shared experience between the two of you and you’ve                101

Then can contrast with your own kids experiences.                        102


Mmm.                                                                                103


I mean talking about like the development of your own                104

identities, there’s some kind of literature in psychology that says,        105

‘when a couple get together one of the biggest conflicts they        106

have is maintaining their own individual identities and                107

taking on a shared one’.  And I wondered what you kinda                108

thought about that?                                                                109


Well I mean I’ll be quite honest with you, I don’t think                110

we’ve ever achieved that.                                                        111


What the shared identity?                                                        112


Not for one. No.                                                                113


Never.                                                                                114


Never, I mean not at all.  We were well not by today’s standards        115

but by the standards of our day, we got married quite late.                116

And and we had our own interests, our own friends and obvious        117

I don’t think sometimes things have changed all that much.                118


No we’ve encourage each other to keep up our own interests        119

as much as we possibly could. I mean granted when the                120

children are younger, you’ve got to you know, you sacrifice                121

some things or you adapt.  You just can’t pursue them for a         122

short period of time.                                                        123


And we have a lot of interests in common obviously because        124

you know those are the things that bring you together aren’t they?125


Yeah.  Yes.                                                                        126


But I don’t fee for one minute as though we are one being                127

if you like.                                                                        128


I don’t think it’s right anyway.                                                129


No.                                                                                130


We work we work towards that I have to say.                                131


Yeah yeah.  And do you, I mean if you were to kinda look at                132

your own children and their experiences would you see the                133

similarities between your own ex your own relationship and                134

their relationships.  Would you see that there’s like strong                135

individual personalities on the part of your children?                        136


Well I think it’s very different today and I think that young                137

people find it easier to live more or less independent lives.                138

That perhaps wasn’t going to happen very easily in our                139

in our day.  But well I can well imagine our children going right        140

throughout life and leading very independent lives.                        141


I think things have changed of course they have, I, from certainly        142

now it’s applauded that women have equal rights as men and the        143

although the family’s there, then the women can forge ahead.        144

But that can’t be in my estimation, if you want to nurture and        145

encourage your children, the some one or other has got to stay,        146

perhaps hold back a lttle to give as much as you can to                147

your children.                                                                148


Mm. interesting.  What would your views be Tony on that?                149


I, I think that that life has moved on or changes have taken                150

place so rapidly that our children are not going to be awfully        151

influenced by our lifestyle in our early in our early years.                152


No. But don’t you think that it’s the base that you create as        153

being the stability because children like stability.  And it’s the        154

stable base that you make around them that matters more and        155

who you bring into that stability.  Whether it’s another                156

relationship or whether it’s more friends.  I think that’s the                157

hardest thing to maintain.                                                        158


Mmm. Okay thank you very much.                                        159

Comment by Wendy Hollway

So what did the interviewees think of their experience?

Interview Three with Carol Tindall


Okay Tony and Jo we’re going to change tack a little here                160

now and what I’d like you to do is comment on what’s                161

just happened, how those interviews were for you.                        162

So anything that occurs to you about that experience.                163


It’s it’s quite a constraining occasion I find it.                                164


Okay.                                                                                165


There’s a lot of things that are holding one back you’re trying        166

not to be boring, you’re trying to be reasonably articulate.                167

And also, I suppose you’re trying to keep off subjects that                168

you don’t really want to discuss.                                                169


Okay.  And what about the difference between those two                170

interviews.  You’ve just be interviewed by two very different        171

people and I’d like to you to comment on the different style of        172

questioning and how you experienced that and also, the ensuing        173

conversation that came from those questions?                                174


Well the similarities really were the type, were the subjects of        175

the question weren’t they?                                                176


Okay.                                                                                177


But they were totally differently slanted.                                178


Yes.                                                                                179


Yes.                                                                                180


Totally differently slanted.                                                181


Yeah.                                                                                182


I think they were both very valuable in their their own way and        183

if the attempt was to achieve two different slants then I feel that        184

it probably worked well.                                                        185

Certainly Jane, gave us more opportunity to                                186


Personal.                                                                        187


To be personal and bring in a lighter touch.                                188


In the second interview                                                        189


With Danny                                                                        190


Yes.                                                                                191


I felt that it gave us an opportunity to be more reflective and        192

perhaps delved slightly more deeply into the subject matter.        193

Oh yes.                                                                        194


And so that led to different responses from you, different                195

conversation?                                                                196


Yes.                                                                                197


Yeah.  Okay well what difference do you think it made that                198

you knew Jane because you know Jane well and you’ve known        199

her for many years I understand.  Whereas you’ve just met Dan        200

today, so what difference do you think knowing Jane made?                201        


I think, I think it made a difference to Jane’s questions.                202


I would agree with that but that was find wasn’t it because that        203

Enable two different aspects of the subject to be aired.                204

And I thought that was fine.                                                205


Yeah.                                                                                206

Summary by Wendy Hollway

The message I think to take away from this is that in a research interview the account that we get from any interviewee is going to be a complex product of the contact within which the interview takes place.  And a very key part of the context is the relationship that the interviewee has with the interviewer.

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