Information about interviewing as part of sociological research methods

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Types of interviews
Structured Interviews As outlined in the previous unit, structured interviews are simply questionnaires
which are read out by the interviewer who then records the respondent's answers. The same questions
are read out in the same order to all respondents.
Semistructured interviews Each interview usually has the same set of questions, but in this case the
interviewer has the freedom to `probe'. Respondents can be asked to clarify their answers, to provide
examples, and to develop what they've said.
Unstructured interviews By comparison, unstructured interviews are more like an everyday
conversation. They are more informal, openended, flexible and freeflowing. Questions are unlikely to
be preset, though researchers usually have certain topics they wish to cover. This gives the interviewer
some structure and direction.
Group interviews The interviews discussed so far involve two people ­ an interviewer and a respondent
or interviewee. Group interviews involve the interviewer and a group of respondents ­ usually between
8 and 10 people. In some group interviews, the respondents answer questions in turn. In others, known
as focus groups, participants are encouraged to talk to each other. They are guided rather than led or
directed by the interviewer ­ for example, they are asked to discuss particular questions or topics.
Structured Interviews ­ advantages and disadvantages
Why use different types of interviews? Each type has it's strengths and weaknesses. Structured
interviews have many of the advantages and disadvantages of questionnaires. They are particularly
suitable for simple, straightforward, `factual' information such as a respondent's age, gender,
educational qualifications and occupation.
Structured interviews are seen as more likely to produce comparable data ­ since all respondents
answer the same questions this should allow researchers to directly compare their responses and
identify similarities and differences. Quantifiable data is more likely since questions can be structured to
provide yes/no answers or choices between given alternatives. And, as structured interviews are more
formal than other types, there may be less chance of interviewer bias.
However, structured interviews can place strict limitations on respondents' answers. This is
particularly true of closed questions which force respondents to choose between preset alternatives.
This prevents respondents from answering in their own words and in their own way.
Semistructured interviewsadvantages and disadvantages
This type of interview has many of the advantages of the structured interview. In addition, it allows the
interviewer to probe ­ to jog respondents' memories, and ask them to clarify, spell out and give
examples of particular points. This can add depth and detail to answers.
However, this gain is accompanied by a loss of standardisation and comparability (May, 2001).
Although the basic questions are preset, probes are not, which results in nonstandard interviews. This
means that each interview is somewhat different. As a result, the data is not strictly comparable since, to
some extent, interviewees are responding to different questions.
Group interviews ­ advantages and disadvantages
Focus groups are becoming increasingly common in sociological research. They have been used to
study the effects of longterm imprisonment, victims of crime, conflicts within organisations and
changes in working practices among steel workers (May, 2001 Walklate, 2000).
The results of the focus group interviews are sometimes different from those of individual interviews.
This does not mean that one is `right' and the other is `wrong'. Interaction within groups affects
people's opinions. Since much of our lives is spent in groups, it is important to obtain data from this
source (May, 2001).
Some researchers find focus groups provide a rich source of qualitative dat. In her study of victims of
crime, Sandra Walklate (2000) claims that without the use of focus groups, many of the shades of
meaning and subtleties of people's views would be lost.
Unstructured interviews ­ advantages

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Unstructured interviews are often seen to have the following advantages:
Sensitive groups some groups are less likely than others to provide information for the researchers.
They might be suspicious of outsiders, hostile towards them, afraid of them or simply uncomfortable in
their presence. An unstructured interview can allay these feelings as it provides an opportunity for
understanding and trust to develop between interviewer and interviewee. This can be seen form the
following example.…read more

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As noted in the previous unit, Episcopalians in the USA tend to exaggerate the frequency
of their attendance at church in order to appear upright and respectable.
Respondents tend to be open about and even exaggerate aspects of their behaviour which they see
as socially desirable, and to conceal or minimise aspects seen as undesirable.…read more

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