What is an interview?

Interviews are the most commonly used qualitative methodology. To recap qualitative research, interviews are inductive (theory building), use a phemological epistemiology and the ontological position is constructionalist. They are used to seek social meanings and answer the critical question of 'why'. In other words, you can find out about things that cannot be seen or heard, such as the interviewee's inner state, the reasoning behind their actions and feelings. Sometimes interviews are used in quantitative research as 'pilot interviews', where interviews are used to gather basic information before imposing inflexible methods. For example, identifying behavioural groups to be sampled or to establish a variety of opinions concerning a topic that can then be transposed into a questionnaire. Interviews have also been used to get detailed and extensive data, called 'life histories', which is common in feminist research. They are used when the subject matter is sensitive or complicated and involves only one interviewee. Interviews involve the researchers themselves doing the interviews and not the 'hired help' approach of large scale survey research, where teams of interviewers are trained to ask the same questions in the same way of everyone they interview. By involving themselves in the process, researchers have the freedom to follow up on interesting leads.

Qualitative interview techniques can be used in three ways:

 1. One-to-one, where interviewees are seen individually (this is what people typically mean when they say that they used interviews as their research methodology).

2. Focus groups, where the interviewer (called a 'facilitator' or 'moderator')guides the discussion among a small group of respondents. The strength of group discussions is the insight they offer into the dynamic effects of interaction on expressed opinion. Focus groups are commonly used in market research, health research and in studies of political and policy preferences. (See Focus Groups in Toolkit for more details)

3. Telephone/online interviewing, where standardised interviews are usually the prefered medium. Semi-structured or unstructured are sometimes conducted in this manner but the require a 'bug'. Body language is lost using this method but it can be timely if a number of preliminary calls have to be made before getting the interview. Beware that market research has misued this form of interviewing and so many respondents are now suspicious and can be non-responsive.

Types of Research Interviews

Standardised (Structured) Interview

This type of interview involves a formal interview schedule with a list of specific questions. The wording of the questions and the order in which they are asked is the same form from one interview to another. Often the interviewer holds the interview schedule and ticks the boxes on behalf of the interviewee. The interviewee does not really get the opportunity to speak openly on an issue. There is also a predetermined coding system. It is used alot in market research and it can be used in quantitative research as well.

You should only use this form of interview if you already know what is happening in relation to your research topic and where there is no danger of loss of meaning as a result of imposing a standard way of asking questions.

Semi-standardised (Semi-structured) Interview

With this type of interview, the interviewer asks major questions in the same way each time but s/he is free to alter the sequence and to probe for further information. The research instrument can thus be adapted to the level of comprehension and articulacy of the interviewee. The interviewee can speak more openly.

Non-standardised (Unstructured) Interview

Sometimes referred to as 'in-depth' interviews, this type of interview has no interview schedule. Instead, it uses an interview guide. This means that interviewers only have a list of topics to cover with the interviewees. The interviewee is free to speak openly. Questions can be phrased as the interviewer wishes and can be asked in any order. Discussion usually begins as a general conversation. The interviewers can provide prompts and can join in the interview by discussing what they think of the topic themselves. The interview should take place in an environment that will foster informality if you are doing in-depth work. The aim is to create a friendly relaxed atmosphere. The unstructured interview is the most common form of qualitative interview and is used mostly for exploration in little researched areas. You should also note that you need to be quite a skilled interviewer to conduct this type of interview properly. It is a lot harder than it sounds!

Conducting an Interview

An interview is not a conversation! There is a rigorous format to conducting an interview properly and it can take some time to perfect your interviewing technique. You will have to watch your body language and make sure you maintain interested eye conduct. It is worth taping yourself conducting a few practice interviews in order to check if you are pushing people into giving the responses you want. The following are some steps to follow when doing an interview:

  • Pick a setting that is as neutral and conducive to the fostering of a relaxed, friendly atmosphere.
  • Start off by introducing yourself and your research and ask the interviewee simple and straightforward questions.
  • Try to establish rapport. For example, use comments like "I know what you mean", "Yes, my parents were like that too" or nod or smile encouragingly.
  • If the respondent is having difficulty answering your questions, conversation can be stimulated by the interviewer describing their own experiences.
  • Don't rush ahead with questions! Keep your contribution to a minimum and let the respondent talk. Give them a few seconds after they finish before asking a question.
  • Keep 'probe' questions in your head. This helps you to prevent the interview turning into a conversation.
  • Beware of 'taken for granted' ideas. There may be things that are left unsaid because the repondent assumes that you know what s/he means. This should not happen in an interview. Admit ignorance of things that appear obvious to the interviewee or show interest in detail. You could also simply wait and probe for further information at a later stage in the interview.

Tips on Communication in Interviews

  1. Questions should be as open-ended as possible. This results in the information being spontaneous rather than a rehearsed position.
  2. Your questioning techniques should encourage interviewees to be as frank as possible. This should help overcome any inhibitions a shy interviewee may have.
  3. Develop good prompting skills. Prompting encourages the respondent to produce an answer. The mildest technique is to repeat the question. If this fails, re-phrase the question slightly. In standardised interviews, failure to elicit a response after such attempts will result in missing data.
  4. Probing is a key interview skill to have. It helps encourage the interviewee to give a full a response as possible. It typically involves follow up questioning to get a fuller response. This can be verbal or non-verbal. An expectant glance can work as much as a direct request like "Please tell me more about that" or "Any other reasons?". Use 'um', 'hmm', 'yes' followed by an expectant silence. Try to keep your probe as neutral as possible! You don't want to force your interviewee to state something that is not true to them (this can sometimes happen if the respondent is made to feel that they have to give a socially acceptable answer).

You may have follow up interviews, which allow you to follow up on any piece of interesting information. This enables you to explore opinions and statements in greater detail.

Interviewer Effects

In structured interviews, minimise the effect of the interviewer as much as possible. For unstructured interviews, value and analyze the part played in the discussion by the interviewer. Also be wary of demographic effects such as age, gender and ethnicity and effects of class and religion. It may be difficult to get good data from a teenage Afro-Caribbean male if you are a middle aged white woman. Do watch your behaviour and how you conduct the interview. Remember, you are eliciting information from the interviewee so you do not want to inhibit them or make them uncomfortable talking to you.

Designing the Interview Guide

  1. Identify your topic that is appropriate to be studied by interviewing.
  2. What is it you find problematic about the topic? In other words, what is your puzzle?
  3. Jot down questions that express your puzzlement with the topic.
  4. Try to expand the range of enquiry through a literature review and discussion with colleagues, friends, etc.
  5. Who are your subjects?
  6. What is your setting?
  7. Design your probes.

Example of in-depth topic or interview guide

Young Asian women
Topic areas
Family history

Wider kin
Education and work
The future

Probe questions
What do you do in your spare time?
Do you go out often? With whom?

Transcription and Analysis

  1. Record the interview with a tape recorder and take notes.
  2. Write it up immediately or as soon as possible. Do not sit on it! You will forget what had been said and how!
  3. Interview scripts are written up like a drama script. For example:
Interviewer: Hello, how are you today?
Teacher: (coughs) I'm fine, though I've had better days.
[Teacher takes out a tissue and blows her nose.]

4. Analysis involves thematic analysis and use of codes (especially if using grounded theory).  Typically, you analyze data by (1) sorting and classifying; (2) open coding - i.e. focus on the data and assign code labels to themes; (3) Axiel coding - researcher looks for categories and concepts that can be clustered together; (4) Selective Coding - the researcher scans the data and previous codes to find cases that illustrate the themes and makes comparisons ; (5) Interpret and elaborate.  

5. There are a number of computer packages to help - NUD*IST, ATLAS, Ethnograph etc.

6. Don't forget validity and reliability!

Further Reading

Baker, T.L. Doing Social Resarch. McGraw Hill, 1999.

Berg, B.L. Qualitative Research Methods for the Social Sciences. 4th Edition. Ally & Bacon, 2001.

Bernard, R. Social Research Methods - Qualitative and Quantitative Approaches. Sage, 2000.

Bowling, A. Research Methods in Health, 2nd Edition. Open University Press, 2002.

Richardson, J.T.E. (Ed). Handbook of Qualitative Research Methods for Psychology and the Social Sciences. BPS Books, 1996.

Bryman, A. Social Research Methods. Oxford University Press, 2001.

Gilbert, N. Researching Social Life. Sage, 2001.

Leedy, P.D. Practical Research: Planning and Design. Prentice Hall, 1997.

Neuman, W.L. Social Research Methods: Qualitative and Quantitative Approaches. Allyn & Bacon, 1997.

Seale, C. Researching Society and Culture. Sage, 2001.

Spradley, J.P. The Ethnographic Interview. Holt, Reinhart & Winston, 1979.

Strauss, A.L. Qualitative Analysis for Social Scientists. Cambridge University Press, 1987.