Topic 5: Interviews

  • Created by: Ali682
  • Created on: 12-03-19 22:01
Types of interviews
Sociologists use different types of interview in their research. These range from completely structured to completely unstructured interviews. The difference between them lies in how free the interviewer is to vary the questions.
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Structured or formal interviews
Are very similar to a questionnaire: the interviewer is given strict instructions on how to ask the questions. The interview is conducted in the same standardised way each time asking each interviewee precisely the same questions, word for word.
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Unstructured or informal interviews
Are like a guided conversation. The interviewer has complete freedom to vary the questions, their wording, order and so on from one interview to the next pursuing whatever line of questions seems appropriate at the time, asking follow up questions.
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Semi-structured interviews
Lie in between these two extremes. Each interview has the same set of questions in common, but the interviewer can also probe for more information. For example, Aaron Cicourel and John Kitsuse (1963) always followed up their questions with
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Semi-structured interviews (2)
'How do you mean'? as a way of gaining more information. Additional questions can be asked where the interviewer thinks it relevant.
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Group interviews
Most interviews are one-to-one but some are group interviews with a dozen or so people being interviewed together. Paul Wills (1977) used group interviews as part of his research into the 'lads' and schooling.
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Focus groups
Are a form of group interview in which the researcher asks the group to discuss certain topics and records their views. Group interviews have their own particular strengths and limitations.
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Structured interviews
Are like questionnaires: both involve asking people a set of prepared questions. In both cases, the questions are usually closed-ended with pre-coded answers. The main difference is that in the interview, the questions are read out and the answers
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Structured interviews (2)
filled in by a trained interviewer rather than by the interviewee.
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Structured interviews (3)
This basic similarity between structured interviews and questionnaires means that they share many of the same advantages and disadvantages. Where there are differences, these often come from the fact that structured interviews involve interaction.
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1. Practical issues
Training interviewers is relatively straightforward and inexpensive, since all they are really required to do is follow a set of instructions. However this is more costly than simply posting or emailing questionnaires to people. Surveys that use
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1. Practical issues (2)
structured interviews can cover quite large numbers of people with relatively limited resources because they are quick and fairly cheap to administer. However they still cannot match the potentially huge numbers reached by postal questionnaires.
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1. Practical issues (3)
Structured interviews are suitable for gathering straightforward factual information such as a person's age or job. The results are easily quantified because they use closed-ended questions with coded answers. This makes them suitable for hypotheses.
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2. Response rate
The large numbers who can be surveyed using structured interviews increase the chances of obtaining a representative sample of the population. Although the numbers that can be studied are lower for questionnaires, structured interviews generally
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2. Response rate (2)
have a higher response rate. For example of the 987 people Young and Willmott approached for their main sample, only 54 refused to be interviewed. This may be because people find it harder to turn down a face-to-face request.
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2. Response rate (3)
Response rates can be increased if the interviewer can make several call backs to pursue those who fail to respond initially.However this increases the cost of the survey. High response rates help to produce a more representative result.
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2. Response rate (4)
On the other hand, as with questionnaires those with the time or willingness to be interviewed may be untypical. If so this will produce unrepresentative data and undermine the validity of any generalisations made from the findings.
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3. Reliability
If a method is reliable, another sociologist could repeat the research and get the same results. Structured interviews are seen as reliable because it is easy for the researcher to standardise and control them. They can ensure that each interview is
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3. Reliability (2)
conducted in precisely the same way, with the same questions, with the same wording and tone of voice.
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3. Reliability (3)
If each interviewer conducts every interview in exactly the same way then any other researcher following the same interview procedures should get very similar results. The structured interview provides a 'recipe' for repeating the research.
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4. Validity
A valid method is one that provides a true, authentic picture of the topic being researched. Critics of structured interviews argues that, like questionnaires, they often produce a false picture of the subjects they are trying to study.
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4. Validity (2)
Structured interviews usually use closed-ended questions that restrict interviewees to choosing from a limited number of pre=set answers. If none of these answers fits what the interviewee really wishes to say the data obtained will be invalid.
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4. Validity (3)
Structured interviews give interviewers very little freedom to explain questions or clarify misunderstandings. For example, they may be given one alternative form of words to use if the interviewee doesn't understand the question.
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5. Inflexibility
Like self-completed questionnaires structured interviews suffer from the inflexibility that comes from having to draw up the questions in advance. In doing so the researcher has already decided what it is important.
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5. Inflexibility (2)
As a result the findings may lack validity because they do not reflect the interviewee's concerns and priorities. In particular establishing the questions beforehand and then sticking to them rigidly will make it impossible to pursue any
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5. Inflexibility (3)
interesting leads that emerge in the course of the interviews, thereby losing valuable insights. Also like questionnaires structured interviews are merely snapshots taken at one moment in time.
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6. Feminist criticisms
Hilary Graham (1983) argues that survey methods such as questionnaires and structured interviews are patriarchal and give a distorted, invalid picture of women's experiences.
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Graham argues that....
The researcher not the female interviewee is in control of the interview and decides the line of questioning to be followed. This mirrors women's subordination in wider society. Survey methods treat women as isolated individuals rather than seeing
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Graham argues that.... (2)
them in the context of the power relationships that oppresses them. Surveys impose the researcher's categories on women, making it difficult for them to express their experiences of oppression, thus concealing the unequal power relationships.
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6. Feminist criticisms (2)
These feminist criticisms are similar to those put forward by interpretivist sociologists, who argue that structured interviews fail to reveal how the interviewee sees their situation. Graham argues that sociologists need to use methods that allow
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6. Feminist criticisms (3)
the researcher to understand women's behaviour, attitude and meanings. She therefore advocates the use of indirect observation instead of structured interviews. Other feminists favour unstructured interviews, which enable the researcher to build a
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6. Feminist criticisms (4)
more equal and collaborative relationship based on trust, empathy and support.
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Unstructured interviews
Whereas a structured interview follows a standardised format, in an unstructured interview the interviewer has complete freedom to vary the interview. Supporters argue that this brings a number of important advantages.
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Advantages of unstructured interviews
While structured interviews are criticised for their lack of validity, unstructured interviews are widely seen as a way of gathering valid data, enabling researchers to get a deeper understanding of the interviewee's world.
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1. Rapport and sensitivity
The informality of unstructured interviews allows the interviewer to develop a rapport with the interviewee. This is more likely to put the interviewee at ease and encourage them to open up than a formal structured interview.
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1. Rapport and sensitivity (2)
A good example of this is the work of William Labov (1973). When using a formal interview technique to study the language of black American children, Labov found that they appeared to be tongue-tied and 'linguistically deprived', However adopting a
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1. Rapport and sensitivity (3)
more relaxed, informal style-the interviewer sitting on the floor, the child allowed to have a friend present- brought a completely different response. The children opened up and spoke freely showing that they were competent speakers.
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1. Rapport and sensitivity (4)
Unstructured interviews are particularly useful when researching sensitive topics. For example Dobash and Dobash used them to study domestic violence. The empathy and encouragement of the interviewer will help the interviewee to feel comfortable.
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2. The interviewee's view
Because there are no set questions, unstructured interviews allow the interviewee more opportunity to speak about those things they think are important. This contrasts with the structured interviews when the researcher decides in advance the question
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2. The interviewee's view (2)
are worth asking and limits the interviewees to a fixed range of possible answers. By allowing them greater freedom to express their views, an unstructured interview is more likely to produce fresh insights and valid data.
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2. The interviewee's view (3)
In their study of claimants' experiences of unemployment, Hartley Dean and Peter Taylor-Gooby (1992) used unstructured tape-recorded interviews lasting up to 90 minutes with 85 claimants. In their words 'questions were not put in a set order;
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2. The interviewee's view (4)
the wording of questions was adapted to fit the circumstances of the respondent and/or the interview situation;questions which were evidently inappropriate were omitted altogether.'
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3. Checking the understanding
In structured interviews there is a danger that the interviewee misunderstands the question, or the interviewer misunderstands the answer. A major advantage of unstructured interviews is that they make it much easier to interviewer and interviewee
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3. Checking the understanding (2)
to check each other's meanings. If the interviewee doesn't understand the a question it can be explained. Similarly if the interviewer is unsure what the interviewee's question means, follow up questions can be put to clarify matters.
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4. Flexibility
Unstructured interviews are highly flexible. The interviewer is not restricted to a fixed set of questions in advance, but can explore whatever seems interesting or relevant. The researcher can formulate new ideas and hypotheses and then put them to
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4. Flexibility (2)
the test as they arise during the course of the interview. There is no need to go away and draw up a new interview schedule, as there would be if using structured interviews.
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5. Exploring unfamiliar topics
With structured interviews, researchers need to have some knowledge of the subject and also a clear hypothesis before they start interviewing otherwise they will have little idea of what questions to ask.
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5. Exploring unfamiliar topics (2)
However where the subject is one that we don't yet know much about, unstructured interviews may be more useful precisely because they are open-ended. As with an ordinary conversation we can start out knowing nothing and by asking questions learn as
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5. Exploring unfamiliar topics (3)
we go along. Some sociologists use unstructured interviews as a starting point to develop their initial ideas about a topic before going on to use more structured methods of investigation such as questionnaires.
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Disadvantages of unstructured interviews
Despite their strengths using unstructured interviews as a method of collecting data has a number of disadvantages.
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1. Practical problems
Time and sample size. Being in depth explorations, unstructured interviews take a long time to conduct. This limits the number that can be carried out and means that the researcher will have a relatively small sample compared with the larger numbers.
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1. Practical problems (2)
Training also needs to be more thorough than for someone conducting structured interviews. The interviewer needs to have a background in sociology so they can recognise when the interviewee has made a sociologically important point.
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1. Practical problems (3)
Interpersonal skills. interviewers also need good interpersonal skills so they can establish the rapport that is essential if interviewees are to answer fully and honestly.
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2. Representativeness
The smaller numbers involved mean it is more likely than the sample interviewed will not be representative. This means that it will be harder to make valid generalisations based on the findings of the interviews.
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3. Reliability
Unstructured interviews are not reliable because they are not standardised. Each interview in unique: interviewers are free to ask different questions in each case if they feel it is relevant to do so. This makes it virtually impossible for another
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3. Reliability (2)
researcher to replicate the interviews and check the findings and compare them with their own.
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4. Quantification
Because unstructured interviews use mainly open-ended questions the answers cannot be pre-coded. This makes it very difficult to count up and quantify the numbers of interviewees giving this or that answer. In turn, the lack of quantitative data
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4. Quantification (2)
makes unstructured interviews less useful for establishing cause-and-effect relationships and hypothesis testing that positivists prefer.
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5. Validity
Unstructured interviews are generally seen as producing valid data. However critics argue that the fact that they involve an interaction between interviewer and interviewee inevitably colours and distorts the information obtained.
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The interview as a social interaction
All interviews structured or unstructured involve a social interaction between interviewer and interviewee. The danger is that the interviewee may be responding not to the questions themselves but to the social situation in which they are asked.
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The interview as a social interaction (2)
Social interaction can threaten the validity in several ways. These ways are interviewer bias, artificiality, status and power inequalities, cultural differences, the social desirability effect and ethical issues.
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1. Interviewer bias
The interviewer may ask leading questions, where the wording tells the interviewee how to answer. Interviewers may consciously influence the answer by their facial expression, body language or tone of voice.
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1. Interviewer bias (2)
Another source of interviewer bias is where the interviewer identifies to closely with the interviewees. For example Ann Oakely (1982) admits that as a mother herself she found it difficult to remain detached and neutral when interviewing other women
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2. Artificiality
Even when the most relaxed of unstructured interviews is still an interview and not a normal conversation both parties know it is an interview, in which one side takes the initiative and asks the questions.
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3. Status and power inequalities
Inequalities between interviewer and interviewee may affect the interviewee's honesty or willingness to answer.In general the bigger the status difference the less valid the data. For example Josephine Rich (1968) shows that when adults interview
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3. Status and power inequalities (2)
children, the child's need to please the interviewer will affect their answers. Similarly gender differences in power can shape the interview, while ethnic inequalities between interviewer and interviewee may make interviewing difficult.
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3. Status and power inequalities (3)
This led John Howard Griffin (1962) to abandon interviewing in favour of using participant observation. While all interviews risk distorting the data as a result of these factors, structured interviews may be less susceptible.
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4. Cultural differences
These may also undermine validity. For example there may be misunderstanding as a result of different meanings being given to the same word. The cultural gap may also mean that interviewers cannot tell when they are being lied to.
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4. Cultural differences (2)
For example Margret Mead's (1943) research on adolescents in Samoa in the Western Pacific has been criticised on the grounds that Mead, who couldn't speak the language was unable to spot that the girls she interviewed had deliberately mislead her.
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5. The social desirability effect
In social interaction, people often seek to win approval. This may be even truer in an interview where interviewees may be on their best behaviour and give answers that present them in a favourable light. They may also wish not to appear ignorant
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5. The social desirability effect (2)
or uninteresting and so, instead of saying that they don't know or don't understand the question, they offer any answer at all rather than none.
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6. Ethical issues
There are relatively few ethical problems with interviews. Nevertheless because the interview is a social interaction, the interviewee may feel under some pressure to answer questions. Researchers should gain interviewees' informed consent,
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6. Ethical issues (2)
guarantee anonymity and make it clear that they have a right to not answer any of the questions that they wish not to. Interviews on sensitive topics or with vulnerable people may also risk causing psychological harm.
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Improving the validity of interviews
Some researchers use techniques to improve the chances of obtaining valid data. For example to reduce the chance of interviewees making up answers or telling lies, Alfred Kinsey's (1953) interviews on sexual behaviour asked questions rapidly, giving
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Improving the validity of interviews (2)
interviewees little time to think and used some questions to check the answers given to others. Follow-up interviews 18 months later were also used as a way of checking earlier answers.
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Improving the validity of interviews (3)
Howard Becker (1971) developed another approach in his interviews with 60 Chicago schoolteachers. He used aggression, disbelief, and 'playing dumb' as ways of extracting sensitive information from them that they might not otherwise have revealed.
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Improving the validity of interviews (4)
Other researchers have overcome the problem of cultural differences by ensuring that interviewers and interviewees are ethically and language-matched. For example the interviews for James Nazroo's (1997) survey of health of Britain's ethnic
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Improving the validity of interviews (5)
minorities were carried out in the language of the interviewee's choice.
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Structured or formal interviews


Are very similar to a questionnaire: the interviewer is given strict instructions on how to ask the questions. The interview is conducted in the same standardised way each time asking each interviewee precisely the same questions, word for word.

Card 3


Unstructured or informal interviews


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Card 4


Semi-structured interviews


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Card 5


Semi-structured interviews (2)


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