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How do Interviews Work?
Researchers can ask different types of questions, generating different types of data. For example, closed questions provide people with a fixed set of responses, whereas open questions allow people to express what they think in their own words.
The researcher will often record interviews, and the data will be written up as a transcript (a written account of interview questions and answers) which can be analyzed later.
It should be noted that interviews may not be the best method for researching sensitive topics (e.g., truancy in schools, discrimination, etc.) as people may feel more comfortable completing a questionnaire in private.
Interviews take many forms, some very informal, others more structured.
A structured interview is a quantitative research method where the interviewer a set of prepared closed-ended questions in the form of an interview schedule, which he/she reads out exactly as worded.
Interviews schedules have a standardized format, meaning the same questions are asked to each interviewee in the same order (see Fig. 1).
Figure 1. An example of an interview schedule
The interviewer will not deviate from the interview schedule (except to clarify the meaning of the question) or probe beyond the answers received. Replies are recorded on a questionnaire, and the order and wording of questions, and sometimes the range of alternative answers, is preset by the researcher.
A structured interview is also known as a formal interview (like a job interview).
- Structured interviews are easy to replicate as a fixed set of closed questions are used, which are easy to quantify – this means it is easy to test for reliability.
- Structured interviews are fairly quick to conduct which means that many interviews can take place within a short amount of time. This means a large sample can be obtained, resulting in the findings being representative and having the ability to be generalized to a large population.
- Structured interviews are not flexible. This means new questions cannot be asked impromptu (i.e., during the interview), as an interview schedule must be followed.
- The answers from structured interviews lack detail as only closed questions are asked, which generates quantitative data. This means a researcher won’t know why a person behaves in a certain way.
Unstructured interviews do not use any set questions, instead, the interviewer asks open-ended questions based on a specific research topic, and will try to let the interview flow like a natural conversation. The interviewer modifies his or her questions to suit the candidate’s specific experiences.
Unstructured interviews are sometimes referred to as ‘discovery interviews’ and are more like a ‘guided conservation’ than a strictly structured interview. They are sometimes called informal interviews.
Unstructured interviews are most useful in qualitative research to analyze attitudes and values. Though rarely provide a valid basis for generalization, their main advantage is that they enable the researcher to probe the subjective point of view of social actors.
- Unstructured interviews are more flexible as questions can be adapted and changed depending on the respondents’ answers. The interview can deviate from the interview schedule.
- Unstructured interviews generate qualitative data through the use of open questions. This allows the respondent to talk in some depth, choosing their own words. This helps the researcher develop a real sense of a person’s understanding of a situation.
- They also have increased validity because it gives the interviewer the opportunity to probe for a deeper understanding, ask for clarification & allow the interviewee to steer the direction of the interview, etc. Interviewers have the chance to clarify any questions of participants during the interview.
- It can be time-consuming to conduct an unstructured interview and analyze the qualitative data (using methods such as thematic analysis).
- Employing and training interviewers is expensive and not as cheap as collecting data via questionnaires. For example, certain skills may be needed by the interviewer. These include the ability to establish rapport and knowing when to probe.
- Biased questions so to elicit ‘fabricated’ answers. Interviewers may bias the respondents’ answers, but interviewees may develop demand characteristics and social desirability issues.
Focus Group Interview
Focus group interview is a qualitative approach where a group of respondents are interviewed together, used to gain an in‐depth understanding of social issues.
This type of interview is often referred to as a focus group because the job of the interviewer (or moderator) is to bring the group to focus on the issue at hand. Initially, the goal was to reach a consensus among the group, but with the development of techniques for analyzing group qualitative data, there is less emphasis on consensus building.
The method aims to obtain data from a purposely selected group of individuals rather than from a statistically representative sample of a broader population.
The role of the interview moderator is to make sure the group interacts with each other and do not drift off-topic. Ideally, the moderator will be similar to the participants in terms of appearance, have adequate knowledge of the topic being discussed, and exercise mild unobtrusive control over dominant talkers and shy participants.
A researcher must be highly skilled to conduct a focus group interview. For example, the moderator may need certain skills, including the ability to establish rapport and know when to probe.
- Group interviews generate qualitative narrative data through the use of open questions. This allows the respondents to talk in some depth, choosing their own words. This helps the researcher develop a real sense of a person’s understanding of a situation. Qualitative data also includes observational data, such as body language and facial expressions.
- They also have increased validity because some participants may feel more comfortable being with others as they are used to talking in groups in real life (i.e., it’s more natural).
- Focus groups are a type of group interview method used in market research and consumer psychology that are cost–effective for gathering the views of consumers.
- The researcher must ensure that they keep all the interviewees” details confidential and respect their privacy. This is difficult when using a group interview. For example, the researcher cannot guarantee that the other people in the group will keep information private.
- Group interviews are less reliable as they use open questions and may deviate from the interview schedule, making them difficult to repeat.
- It is important to note that there are some potential pitfalls of focus groups, such as conformity, social desirability, and oppositional behavior, that can reduce the usefulness of the data collected.
For example, group interviews may sometimes lack validity as participants may lie to impress the other group members. They may conform to peer pressure and give false answers.
To avoid these pitfalls, it is important for the interviewer to have a good understanding of how people function in groups as well as how to lead the group in a productive discussion.
The Interviewer Effect
Face-to-face interviews raise methodological problems. These stem from the fact that interviewers are themselves role players, and their perceived status may influence the replies of the respondent.
Because an interview is a social interaction, the interviewer’s appearance or behavior may influence the respondent’s answers. This is a problem as it can bias the results of the study and make them invalid.
For example, the gender, ethnicity, body language, age, and social status of the interview can all create an interviewer effect. If there is a perceived status disparity between the interviewer and the interviewee, the results of interviews have to be interpreted with care. This is pertinent for sensitive topics such as health.
For example, if a researcher was investigating sexism amongst males, would a female interview be preferable to a male? It is possible that if a female interviewer was used, male participants might lie (i.e., pretend they are not sexist) to impress the interviewer, thus creating an interviewer effect.
First, you must choose whether to use a structured or non-structured interview.
Next, you must consider who will be the interviewer, and this will depend on what type of person is being interviewed. There are several variables to consider:
- Gender and age: This can greatly affect respondents’ answers, particularly on personal issues.
- Personal characteristics: Some people are easier to get on with than others. Also, the accent and appearance (e.g., clothing) of the interviewer can have an effect on the rapport between the interviewer and interviewee.
- Also, the language the interviewer uses should be appropriate to the vocabulary of the group of people being studied. For example, the researcher must change the language of questions to match the social background of respondents” age / educational level / social class/ethnicity, etc.
- The interviewer must ensure that they take special care when interviewing vulnerable groups, such as children. For example, children have a limited attention span, so lengthy interviews should be avoided.
- Ethnicity: People may have difficulty interviewing people from different ethnic groups.