Social Research update logo
Issue 25 Summer 1999

Social Research Update is published quarterly by the Department of Sociology, University of Surrey, Guildford GU2 7XH, England. Subscriptions for the hardcopy version are free to researchers with addresses in the UK. Apply by email to

The Use of Vignettes in Qualitative Research

Christine Barter and Emma Renold

Christine Barter is an NSPCC research fellow with the University of Luton. She has previously worked on a range of projects concerning the experiences of children and young people. At present she is involved in a study of violence between young people in children’s homes, funded by the ESRC.

Emma Renold has just completed her PhD on an ethnographic exploration into the construction of children’s gender and sexual identities. She is employed by the NSPCC as a research assistant working on the ‘violence in children’s homes’ project and is writing a literature review on the sexual exploitation of children.

There are few detailed accounts about the use of vignettes, particularly within qualitative research and as a complementary method with other data collection techniques. Nevertheless, the literature is clear about what constitute vignettes. Finch (1987:105) describes them as “short stories about hypothetical characters in specified circumstances, to whose situation the interviewee is invited to respond”. Although she is describing their use within a quantitative paradigm, others offer similar definitions of their use within qualitative research:

Short scenarios in written or pictorial form, intended to elicit responses to typical scenarios (Hill 1997:177).
Concrete examples of people and their behaviours on which participants can offer comment or opinion (Hazel 1995:2)
Stories about individuals, situations and structures which can make reference to important points in the study of perceptions, beliefs and attitudes (Hughes 1998:381)

The vignette technique is a method that can elicit perceptions, opinions, beliefs and attitudes from responses or comments to stories depicting scenarios and situations.

Vignettes are employed in different ways and for different purposes. Some of the major differences are: whether they are used as a self-contained method or an adjunct to other research techniques; how the story is presented; at what stage in the data collection process they are introduced; and how responses are structured. Nevertheless, vignettes generally fulfil three main purposes:

  1. interpretation of actions and occurrences that allows situational context to be explored and influential variables to be elucidated;
  2. clarification of individual judgements, often in relation to moral dilemmas;
  3. discussion of sensitive experiences in comparison with the ‘normality’ of the vignette.

Using vignettes within the qualitative paradigm

In qualitative research, participants are usually asked to respond to a particular situation by stating what they would do, or how they imagine a third person, generally a character in the story, would react to certain situations or occurrences, which often entail some form of moral dilemma. Sometimes participants are asked to comment on both. However, as Finch (1987:113) cautions, “asking about what a third party ‘ought’ to do in a given situation is not the same thing as asking respondents what they themselves think they ought to do”.

Ice breaker

Employing vignettes as an ice breaker at the beginning of an interview can facilitate a discussion around participants’ opinions and the terms they use (Hazel 1995:2). It can also be a good way of developing rapport by making them feel at ease. However, where the main aim of the research is to explore participants’ own definitions and evaluations, caution should be exercised in case the vignette forecloses areas by channelling participants’ responses.

Tapping general attitudes and beliefs

Vignettes have been used to elicit cultural norms derived from respondents’ attitudes and beliefs about a specific situation. Finch (1987) explores the merits of tapping into the general imagery of respondents, especially when using more than one vignette and varying the story with respect to age, gender, ethnicity, etc. Vignettes have also been used to explore participants’ ethical frameworks and moral codes. Wade (1999), for example, used vignettes to explore the ethical frameworks informing children’s thinking about issues such as the family. Neale’s (1999) research into post-divorce family life used vignettes as a useful way of exploring young people’s moral codes and their contingent status within different contexts. <>br

Multi-method approach

Vignettes have been widely used as a complementary technique alongside other data collection methods (see Hazel 1995; Hughes 1998). They can be employed either to enhance existing data or to generate data not tapped by other research methods (such as observation or interviews). With regard to the former, MacAuley (1996) sought to explore children’s perceptions and experiences of long-term foster care, using vignettes, unfinished sentences, postal boxes, response cards, games and other visual stimuli to achieve an ‘insider’ position on children’s perceptions and value systems. Wade (1999) employed vignettes following individual interviews in her study about children’s perceptions of the family. She selected stories on topics that had not been covered in the interview or which would benefit from further exploration. Barter and Renold (1999), in their work on violence between young people in residential children’s homes, also used vignettes in conjunction with semi-structured interviews. They routinely asked all participants to respond to a range of selected vignettes, regardless of whether they had disclosed a similar situation in the interview. In this way, a systematic comparison of individual responses to different behaviours could be generated.

Sensitive topics

Vignettes can be useful in exploring potentially sensitive topics that participants might otherwise find difficult to discuss (Neale 1999). As commenting on a story is less personal than talking about direct experience, it is often viewed by participants as being less threatening. Vignettes also provide the opportunity for participants to have greater control over the interaction by enabling them to determine at what stage, if at all, they introduce their own experiences to illuminate their abstract responses.

Comparing perceptions of disparate groups

Vignettes also offer the possibility of examining different groups’ interpretations of a ‘uniform’ situation. In their children’s homes research, Barter and Renold (1999) use vignettes to explore young people’s, residential care workers’ and managers’ evaluations and perceptions concerning different forms of violence between children. Responses were then analysed to reveal the level of harmony or discord between adult and child evaluations, thus providing benchmarks for understanding differences in interpretation.

Closing the interview

Some researchers have used vignettes because they offer a way of winding down the interview and broadening the focus from personal experiences to more abstract issues. This can be particularly useful when highly sensitive topics are under discussion (Wade 1999, Rahman 1996).

Focus Groups

Vignettes can be used with participants individually or within a ‘focus’ group, a method that is becoming increasingly popular with social researchers (see Wilkinson 1998). However, little has been written about the use of vignettes in groups, although it is often used as a warm-up exercise to get participants to start talking to each other. Maclean (1999), exploring children’s perspectives on the work-family interface, commented that it encouraged even the quietest group member to voice an opinion.

Methodological challenges

For many researchers the indeterminate relationship between beliefs and actions is the biggest danger in using this technique in isolation (West 1982, cited in Finch 1987; Faia 1979). If the aim of the research centres on the meanings people ascribe to specific contexts, without making any association with actions, this danger can be avoided. However, researchers often wish to make links between beliefs and actions. Some studies have concluded that responses to vignettes will reflect how individuals actually respond in reality. For example, Rahman’s (1996) study of female carers’ coping strategies found that, both in their responses to vignettes, and in their recollections of how they had acted in the past, carers dealt ineffectively with conflict. In contrast, Carlson (1996), using vignettes depicting domestic violence, found that most participants replied that they would leave the violent relationship and seek help, although we know from other studies that this is frequently not how victims of domestic violence respond. Hughes (1998:384) concludes that “we do not know enough about the relationship between vignettes and real life responses to be able to draw parallels between the two”. The recent inclusion of vignettes in multi-method approaches may clarify some of these methodological issues by helping to understand the extent to which abstract responses relate to actions in everyday life.

Implementation of vignettes

Some principles can be distilled from the literature to guide the design of research that uses vignettes:


Vignettes provide a valuable technique for exploring people’s perceptions, beliefs and meanings about specific situations, and are especially useful for sensitive areas of inquiry that may not be readily assessable through other means. However when using this technique, whether in isolation or as part of a multi-method approach, the problematic relationship between belief and action must be heeded.

Further Reading

For further reading on the use of vignettes see Finch (1987) and Hughes (1998), and for the use of vignettes in a multi-technique approach with children see MacAuley (1996).


Barter, C. and Renold, E. (1999) Physical and sexual violence amongst children in residential settings,

Carlson, B. E. (1996) Dating Violence: Student Beliefs About Consequences, Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 11, pp.3-18

Cohen, D. and Strayer, J. (1996) Empathy in Conduct-disordered and Comparison Youth, Developmental Psychology, 32, pp.988-98

Faia, M. A. (1979) The Vagaries of the Vignette World: A Document on Alves and Rossi, American Journal of Sociology, 85, pp.951-54

Finch, J. (1987) The Vignette Technique in Survey Research, Sociology, 21, pp.105-14

Harden, J. (1999) Impact of Risk and Parental Risk Anxiety on the Everyday Worlds of Children,

Hazel, N. (1995) Elicitation Techniques with Young People, Social Research Update, Issue 12, Department of Sociology, University of Surrey,

Hill, M. (1997) Research Review: Participatory Research with Children, Child and Family Social Work, 2, pp.171-183

Hughes, R. (1998) Considering the Vignette Technique and its Application to a Study of Drug Injecting and HIV Risk and Safer behaviour, Sociology of Health and Illness 20 (3) pp.381- 400

Leierer, S. J., Strohner, D. C., Leclere, W. A., Cornwell, B. J. and Whitten, S. L. (1996) The Effect of Counsellor Disability, Attending Behaviour and Client Problem of Counselling, Rehabilitation Counselling Bulletin, 40, pp.82-95

MacAuley, C. (1996) Children in Long term Foster Care: Emotional and Social Development, Hampshire: Avebury

Maclean, C. (1999) Children, Family, Community and Work: An Ethnography of the Oil and Gas Industry in Scotland, (Department of Management Studies).

Miller-Perrin, C.L., Wurtele, S.K. and Kondrick, P.A. (1990) Sexually Abused and Non-abused Children’s Conceptions of Personal Body Safety, Child Abuse and Neglect, 14, pp. 99-112P>

Neale, B. (1999) Post Divorce Childhoods,

Peterson, D. L. and Pfost, K. S. (1989) Influence of Rock Videos on Attitudes of Violence Against Women, Psychological Reports, 64, pp. 319-22

Rahman, N. (1996) Caregivers’ Sensitivity to Conflict: The Use of Vignette Methodology, Journal of Elder Abuse and Neglect, 8, pp.35-47

Stolte, J. F. (1994) The Context of Satisficing in Vignette Research, Journal of Social Psychology, 134, pp.727-33.

Vitkoritch, M. and Tyrrell, L. (1995) Sources of Disagreement in Object Naming, Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, Section A: A Human Experimental Psychology, 48A, pp.822-48

Wade, A. (1999) New Childhoods? Children and Co-Parenting After Divorce,

Wilkinson, S. (1998) Focus Group Methodology: A Review, International Journal of Social Research Methodology Theory and Practice, 1 (3) pp.181-203.

Social Research Update is published by:

Department of Sociology
University of Surrey
Guildford GU2 7XH
United Kingdom.

Telephone: +44 (0) 1 483 300800
Fax: +44 (0) 1 483 689551

Edited by Nigel Gilbert.

Summer 1999 © University of Surrey

Permission is granted to reproduce this issue of Social Research Update provided that no charge is made other than for the cost of reproduction and this panel acknowledging copyright is included with all copies.