3.1.1 Interview Methods

Surveys in social networks research have a long history and play a central role in the development of network theory and methods. However, many of the ways scholars aim to capture the pertinent elements of social networks stem from the interview-based approaches that are found in a few key early studies, or are most clearly elaborated in recent interview-based research. So, I begin this chapter by discussing the approaches taken in interview based social network research.

Family and Social Network (Bott 1957) and All our Kin (Stack 1970) provide classic examples of how to develop interview approaches to examining personal networks. I’d like to draw researchers’ attention to the often peripheralized, but highly useful methodological appendices that are so common in academic books. In the appendix to her book Stack describes how she combines ethnographic observation with interview data. As can be seen in the detailed interview guide,54 the motivations and inductive approach to the interviews are especially informative. If she had relied on expected accounts of kinship dysfunction, she likely would not have even sought information on what turned out to be a key finding of the study. Stack’s book is often cited as one that helped debunk the “culture of poverty” account of internalized community values as perpetuating inequalities across generations. These interview data allowed Stack to demonstrate the functional organization of kin and personal networks in the impoverished community she studied. These observations revealed that understanding the experiences of participants’ interactions with and support from their kin and other connections required wide-ranging open-ended conversations. These studies each disrupted a number of facile theoretical ideas that didn’t match the empirical reality, and required flexible interview approaches to reveal those patterns.

More recently, Mario Small’s latest book Someone to Talk to (2018) revisits the importance of acquaintance relationships (“weak ties”) finding their occasional importance as confidants about key life events or even crises. His methodological appendices (see both Appendix A & B) compellingly describe why the book ended up combining structured interview elements reproducing common quantitative elements that anchor his data within patterns found in broader samples,55 with unstructured interviews that allowed for respondents’ perspective, interpretation and representation to come to the fore.

These examples highlight how our tidy operationalizations for capturing and assessing the relationships among members of a study population, oftentimes fail in the field. Reality is often messier than those carefully planned designs allow. But also note that doing so did not mean jettisoning structured interviewing, or even survey-based methods (see e.g., Bott 1957). In fact, these examples illustrate that mixed methods available to researchers can serve to more adequately capture the messiness of social life (Dominguez and Hollstein 2014).