Interviewing

Overview

Inerviews are a method of eliciting answers to predetermined questions from one individual at a time. It is used for gathering specific pieces of data or sets of information for analysis. Different formats and types of questions can be used to fit a given situation. Interviewing is one of two basic components in ethnographic research; the other is observation.

There are four major types of interviewing that fall within a continuum of control that is exercised over people's responses:

Informal
Characterized by a lack of structure or control. Researcher recalls conversations and writes these down afterwards. Used by scientists to familiarize themselves with a new environment.

Unstructured
A clear plan is present but minimum control is exercised over responses. This allows interviewees to express themselves in their own terms, at their own pace, uses open-ended questions. Often used in ethnography. Common strategy when time is not a limiting factor.

Semi-structured
Similar to unstructured interviews, but interviews are conducted using introductions and a list of questions in a specific order. Researcher may use a combination of open and close-ended questions. This structure is necessary to acquire reliable, comparable qualitative data when interviews are administered by more than one individual. Used when there are limited opportunities to interview or when multiple simultaneous interviews are required.

Structured
Characterized by the use of identical questions with a range of choices to answer from; close-ended questions. This type of interview requires less experience to administer than the other interview types, can be done in a fixed amount of time, and provides results that are easy to quantify. Structured interviews, however, can only be used if the researcher has a good understanding of the subject and relevant issues.

Strengths

  • Can be inexpensive and convenient

  • Establishes rapport to increase the accuracy and honesty of answers

  • Captures the full range and depth of information

Limitations

  • Can be time consuming and expensive depending on the number of people and whether transcripts of recorded interviews are required

  • Presence of interviewer can bias responses

  • Can be difficult to analyze and compare

  • Translations of recorded interviews may be needed if performed in native language

Expertise Needed

Less structured interview techniques require active listening skills of the interviewer. With added complexity, this technique may require some assistance from skilled interview designers.

Related Tools and Methods

The goal of ethnography is to obtain an in-depth understanding of the history, practices, values, traditions, and circumstances of the individuals, groups, and surrounding natural and cultural resources being studied. Research is focused on interactions within and among the groups. Ethnographic research requires the use of multiple methodologies, including secondary data research to get background information on the individuals or groups being studied, historical research, observation, and interviewing.
Observation is an information-gathering technique based on personal or recorded observation through systematic documentation of visible social activity and behavior.

Related Partners

NOAA is a federal agency focused on the condition of the oceans and the atmosphere. It plays several distinct roles within the Department of Commerce.

Resources: Books and Publications

  • Gubrium, J.F. and J.A. Holstein. 2002. Handbook of Interview Research : Context & Method. Thousand Oaks, California : SAGE Publications.

Resources: Websites