What is the research interviews?
One of the most popular and frequently used methods of gathering information from people about anything is by interviewing them. It is also the most popular method used within the social sciences. There is a continuum of formality around interviewing and it covers a multitude of techniques, from informal “chats” maybe arranged as “vox-pops” right through to highly structured, formal interviews, taped and transcribed.
The different types and styles of interview elicit very different types of information. Conducting interviews is an interpersonal process and as an investigator you must be very aware of your own behaviours and assumptions in the context. Interviews are not “neutral” social spaces and you must be respectful and maintain appropriate boundaries at all times.
What do I need to consider?
Interviews are a qualitative method of research often used to obtain the interviewees’ perceptions and attitudes to the issues. The key issue
with interviewing is making decisions about who are the key people to talk to and what type of interview are you going to use.
There are three clearly identifiable styles of interview- structured, semistructured and unstructured:
Structured – Follows a set of specific questions, which are worked through systematically. This type of interview is used when the researcher wishes to acquire information where the responses are directly comparable.
Semi-structured – This is a more commonly used interview technique that follows a framework in order to address key themes rather than specific questions. At the same time it allows a certain degree of flexibility for the researcher to respond to the answers of the interviewee and therefore develop the themes and issues as they arise.
Unstructured – This method of interview does not follow any predetermined pattern of questions or themes. Rather, the interviewer will address the issues as they emerge in the interview. The method is useful when the researcher wishes to explore the full breadth of a topic.
These are some of the types of interviews:
Fact finder – This type of interview is used to obtain specific information from an interviewee and usually includes structured or standardised interview questions (the wording of the questions and the order in which they are asked is the same). It is used when some information is already known and there is a need to gain a more in-depth insight. An example of when a fact finder interview would be appropriate is when interviewing a project officer as part of an evaluation of their project. Quantitative (or ‘hard’) information is usually already known (such as outputs and funding data), therefore the interview could be used to discover qualitative information that the hard data cannot portray, such as the ‘softer’ outcomes of the project.
Idea generator – In many respects, this type of interview is the opposite of the fact finder interview. It is used when the interviewer has no preconceptions about what might be discovered over the course of the interview and results can be used to set the parameters or framework for the study. Interview questions are loosely structured allowing maximum flexibility to explore a range of issues. Idea generator interviews are usually applied at the start of a research project in order to discover and explore issues from a particular group or community. For example, in order to develop a community cohesion strategy, idea generator interviews may be used to find out what community cohesion means to different groups in the community.
Exploratory – These are the most frequently used type of interview as they are relevant to most types of research project. They are usually conducted with representatives that have a strategic role to play in the research. These types of interview require some degree of prior knowledge about the research subject as they are about testing hypotheses, making connections between other elements of the research, ensuring the strategic fit and progressing the findings of the research forward (e.g. senior officials from a local authority may be interviewed using this method in order to find out future plans and priorities and how they fit in with others’ plans and priorities).
Experiential – This type of interview aims to draw out people’s feelings, perceptions and experiences over a specific period of time (e.g. the duration of a regeneration programme or project). This provides rich, in-depth material about how the subject under investigation has affected an individual’s life on a personal level. Experiential interviews may be used to elicit information from people who have benefited from a community project or who live in an area that has received regeneration monies. Therefore these interviews can map the feelings and impressions that any changes have made and add a ‘story’ to the quantitative or ‘hard’ data.
When should I use this method?
Interviews are typically used when seeking the views and opinions of people with a specific perspective. They can be conducted by phone or face to face. They offer particular advantages in terms of acquiring information, which might not otherwise be shared in a group setting.
What type of data is produced?
The nature of the data will vary depending on the specific type of interview undertaken by the researcher. Some people prefer to take their own notes, others prefer to tape and transcribe verbatim, a lot depends on the preference of the interviewer.
How can I analyse and use the data?
The information obtained from interviews can be used in two key ways:
Thematic generation – identifying and drawing upon common themes across the interviews;
Citation – directly quoting parts of the interview in the main body of the report.
Quotes have to be referenced properly. For example, you may wish to refer to the title of the interviewee in identifying who made the quote (eg project manager). Remember that some information provided during interviews may be confidential. In such cases, you should only refer to the broad theme or argument being made rather than identifying who said it.
Top tips for interviewing – Research Observatory, University of the West of England