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Three levels of analysis

By: June Melody & Richard Veryard

Date: December 1998

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example 1 - teenage girls
example 2 - management
going deeper
issues for research
issues for consultancy
general issues
author details
In this paper, we briefly describe a simple method for analysing beneath the surface. It has been used in several domains. June has used it in a study of teenage girls; while Richard has used it both in his direct work with organizations and when acting as a mentor to other management consultants.


Surely the best way to find out what is going on is to talk to the people that know. Whether we are engaged in practical help or academic social science, all we need to do is interview people, individually or in small groups, and take careful notes.

But we cannot always take the things we're told at face value. Sometimes we detect blatant contradictions or holes in what we've been told by different people. (Sometimes, of course, one person will even contradict himself.) These are often the most interesting areas to explore further; they may indicate problems that we can help to solve or resolve, or they may be symptoms of much wider problems. Alternatively, when we pursue these contradictions or holes, they may disappear - as someone carefully explains to us how we've misheard or misunderstood something.

But whether the material appears to be consistent and complete, or not, we should not assume that it gives us access to the Truth.

Our method does not make any claims to establishing absolute Truth either. All we claim is that this method sometimes helps us to reach a deeper level of understanding that we can otherwise access.

We define three levels of analysis.

Level 1: What's going on At this level, we look at what is said. We don't have to take this at face value if it is obviously wrong; but even if it is wrong, we don't ask why.
Level 2: How do people describe what's going on. At this level we ask: who is speaking. We are presented with a narrative, which is constructed by a person or group with a particular identity and agenda. What can we learn from the way people describe (and construct) their world?
Level 3: How do people describe to us what's going on. At this level we also ask: who is listening. What is it about ourselves, as researchers or consultants, that prompts one narrative rather than another? What can we learn from reflecting on how we listen to this narrative?

One of the most important differences between the three levels is the approach to perceived contradictions in the material. At level 1, the emphasis will be on determining which account is true. At level 2, the emphasis will be on explaining the contradiction as an internal phenomenon of the person or organization being studied. At level 3, the emphasis shifts to the question why this apparent contradiction has been revealed to this researcher or research team.

Example 1: Teenage Girls

In a recent study of teenage girls and their families (conducted with Valerie Walkerdine and Helen Lucey), June used the three levels of analysis to understand a large amount of complex interview-based material.

When a researcher in the social sciences interviews a teenage girl and her parents about such topics as education, class and pregnancy, the researcher is not simply presented with objective data; instead, she is presented with a number of narratives.  These narratives are often emotionally charged, and always meaningful to the subjects. The narratives themselves provide important insights on the way the subjects forge their own identity..

Furthermore, the narrratives presented to a particular researcher are in part determined by the researcher herself. For example, the fact that the researchers all have university education influences the way the subjects speak to these researchers about the possibilities of university education for themselves. It also influences the way the researchers listen to the choices being made by the teenage girls.

One of the researchers carried out several interviews while she was pregnant. This clearly affected the narratives on pregnancy and motherhood that were presented to her by the teenage girls and their mothers.

More details of this study will be published in Valerie Walkerdine, Helen Lucey & June Melody, Transitions to Womanhood (forthcoming).

Example 2: Management Image

In a recent study of enterprise transformation, Richard found the following statements.
‘The CEO … changed the IS function’s position within the company structure … . As a consequence of this change, the power symmetry that existed between the IS department and its business clients was mitigated. Hence many of the negative effects of “political influence” … were overcome.’

‘The IS management’s role has moved beyond that of being a mere strategy implementor and has grown to be one of executive leadership, technology architects, and IT catalysts.’

The first level of analysis takes these statements at face value.

The second level of analysis asks: who is speaking? Is this what the researcher was told by the IT director? It certainly conveys a strong sense of the way we might imagine an IT director to speak. But the IT director's perspective is not the only one - is this study limited by its over-reliance on the IT director's narrative? Whose value system is being expressed here?

The third level of analysis asks: who is listening? What is the relationship between the researcher and the IT director? What was this interviewer predisposed to hear? Would a different researcher have heard something different?

Of course, when we are reading a published paper, we can only speculate on these questions. When we are engaged in this kind of work ourselves, we have more direct ways of addressing them.

How to go deeper

The three levels of analysis are simple to define, but.hard to achieve. Where the interviews raise personal and emotional issues, as they certainly do in June's work, psychoanalytic techniques and appropriate levels of supervision may be required to help the researcher achieve the necessary level of self-awareness.

When interviewing people about important things, the researcher must engage actively with the interviewee. The researcher is the research instrument, and the feelings aroused by the interview or the interviewee are often important sources of material, to be thoroughly analysed with colleagues or supervisors. (In psychoanalysis, the technical term for this is countertransference.).

This is equally true of consultants. Peter Block urges consultants to pay attention to their feelings when engaging with clients, and argues that successful consultancy demands personal authenticity from the consultant.

Furthermore, the interviewee may reveal or withhold information, or describe it in particular ways, and this partially depends on the interviewee's beliefs about the interviewer. Often the interviewee actually knows very little about the interviewer, but constructs an image of the interviewer based on the interviewee's past relationships. (In psychoanalysis, the technical term for this is transference.) How this affects the interview material is also something that the researcher or consultant needs to be able to analyse, and is often not able to perceive such things without help.
more Transference and CounterTransference

Issues for Research

Based on the three levels of analysis, it is plausible to suggest that if the interviewer presents a flat and uninteresting image to the interviewee, the interview material will in consequence be equally flat and uninteresting. Whereas if the interviewer presents a rich and well-rounded personality, the interview is more likely to produce rich and well-rounded material.

This clearly slants the choice of researcher.  Perhaps we should not expect much from young researchers with little experience of life, although clearly there are some capable young researchers who are able to overcome this limitation.

Issues for Consultancy

Similarly, it may not make sense to expect young inexperienced consultants to uncover the interesting material, although many large consultancy practices use recent graduates for much of the routine work.

Furthermore, the three levels of analysis force us to ask a number of questions about the consultant-client relationship For example, what concerns is a client prepared to share with this consultant at this time. This not only raises important questions of trust and rapport, but also the identity of the consultant. A factory manager, for example, may prefer a mentor who appears to have the characteristics and experience of an excellent factory manager.

We might be tempted to ask: what are the characteristics of the ideal consultant or researcher for a given situation, to gain the maximum amount of trust and insight? But this we feel this idealization is inappropriate. Instead, we should be asking: how can we make the most of a given relationship between consultant and client, and how can we develop this relationship?

General Issues

When we work on our own, whether as researchers or consultants, we cannot step outside our own skin, to get a reliable entry into the third level of analysis. Analysing one's own personal engagement in a situation is often uncomfortable.

It follows that we should not work on our own. We all need colleagues, team-mates, supervisors, analysts or other partners, who will help us reach the third level of analysis.


June Melody has recently completed a book on teenage girls.
Richard Veryard is a technology consultant.


One of the best books on consulting ... Peter Block. Flawless Consulting: A Guide to Getting Your Expertise Used. Second Edition, Jossey-Bass, 1999. buy a copy - us
growing up girl - click for larger image

Growing Up Girl: Psychosocial Explorations of Gender and Class

Valerie Walkerdine, Helen Lucey and June Melody, Macmillan 2001
UK Paperback
UK Hardback
US Hardback


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Written December 1998
Technical update December 17th, 2002
Copyright © 1998 June Melody & Richard Veryard

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