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Soc Sci Med. 1990;30(11):1229-39.

The status and validity of accounts obtained at interview: a contrast between two studies of families with a disabled child.

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MRC Medical Sociology Unit, Glasgow, Scotland.


Within the qualitative perspective, data generated in the interview context present particularly difficult problems of interpretation. The status and validity of respondents' accounts is unclear. One dimension underlying their production is that between public and private domains, and their corollaries in speech, 'public' (ought-type) accounts and those reflecting a 'private', and potentially much less acceptable, reality. This paper contrasts two apparently similar studies of families with a disabled child which resulted in entirely different sociological accounts of their situation. The data on which each was based almost exactly mirrors the distinction between public and private accounts. The first, Voysey's influential study, is a 'glowing' account of the way parents make sense of the problem by reference to 'official' versions of the situation and adjust, relatively unproblematically, to it. The second, the author's epilepsy study, is a 'gloomy' account of parents struggling to cope with the problem in an 'official' vacuum, within which doctors in particular are strongly criticised. Because the accounts on which the sociological account is based are not separable from the different research stances adopted by the investigators, it is not possible to know what status and validity to ascribe to them. In the epilepsy study, on the principle of triangulation, an attempt was made to validate parents' negative evaluation of doctors by reference to an observational study of medical encounters. In major respects, this confirmed their version of the situation. It is suggested that attention to the type of accounts produced in interview, together with the use of triangulated data-sets, goes some way towards resolving the problem of their status and validity for a sociological account.

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