ARTICLE 77: Research Methods for Ph. D. and Master’s Degree studies: Data Collection Methods: Interviewing Part 1 of 4 Parts

Written by Dr. Hannes Nel

Interviewing is one of the most popular data collection methods in almost any research, therefore it deserves special attention. It involves questioning and discussing issues with people and can be a useful technique for collecting data which would likely not be accessible using techniques such as observation.

I discuss the following types of interviewing in this article:

  1. One-to-one interviewing.
  2. Structured interviewing.
  3. Unstructured interviewing.
  4. Non-directive interviewing.
  5. Focused interviewing.
  6. In-depth interviewing.

One-to-one interviewing. One-to-one interviewing should be treated as a narrative between two individuals. According to Holstein and Gubrium this can be achieved by approaching the interview as follows:

1.         The interviewee and interviewer should co-operate to obtain relevant and current information.

2.         Utilise open communication to gather logical information that will contribute to the achievement of the research purpose. This will require communicating in the context of the research environment.

3.         Carefully consider what is communicated to ensure that the information provided by the interviewee is relevant to the research context and problem statement, question or hypothesis.

4.         Guard against cognitive dissonance. Be objective and make sure that you interpret what the interviewee communicates correctly.

5.         Listen and observe more widely than just the interviewee. Take note of external cues that might influence the meanings of what is communicated, for example body language, tone of voice, the venue where the interview takes place, etc.

6.         Be alert to differences in interpretation of what is communicated between you and the interviewee. Ask questions to ensure that you understand what the interviewee means.

7.         Keep the environment in which the interview takes place in mind. External factors can also cloud the true meaning of the communication between the interviewer and the interviewee, and these should be eliminated if possible.

Structured interviewing. The structured interview is one in which the content and procedures are organised in advance. Organising the content and procedures in advance implies proper planning and includes determining the sequence and wording of the questions by means of a schedule. You, as the interviewer, should not modify your questions or schedule unnecessarily. This should not be necessary if you planned well. There will be direct verbal interaction between you and the subject. You should provide for a measure of flexibility even though the interviewing plan is structured and, by implication, relatively rigid. A structured interview is, therefore, a closed situation.

A structured interview is, thus an oral, in-person asking of a standard set of questions that is prepared in advance. The questions usually invite selected- or semi-structured responses. When asked a selected-response question, the subject selects the response from alternatives provided by the interviewer. Semi-structured questions are phrased to allow unique responses for each subject. Regardless of the type of question, the responses are coded, tabulated and summarised numerically.

Unstructured interviewing. The unstructured interview is an open situation, allowing greater freedom and more flexibility than in the case of the structured interview. You will need to plan and develop the questions to be asked, their content, sequence and wording, keeping the purpose of the interview in mind. Although relatively casual, the unstructured interview needs to be carefully planned.

The unstructured interview has been variously described as naturalistic, autobiographical, in-depth, narrative or non-directive. Whatever the label used, the informal interview is modelled on the conversation and, like the conversation, is a social event with, in this instance, two participants. The interactional rules may be explicit and easy to recognise by the two participants in the interview, namely you and the subject. In addition to its generally social character, there are several ways in which the interview constitutes a learning process. At the level of its process, participants can discover, uncover or generate the rules by which they are involved in the research process, be it as researcher or target group. You, as the interviewer, can become more adept at interviewing, in general, in terms of the strategies which are appropriate for eliciting responses, and in enabling people to talk about the sensitive issues.

Non-directive interviewing. According to Cohen, Manion and Morrison, the non-directive interview derives from the therapeutic or psychiatric interview. The non-directive interview will typically be free flowing with little, if any direction by you. The respondent must express his or her subjective feelings as fully and as spontaneously as he or she chooses or is able to. The respondent should, furthermore, be encouraged to talk about the subject being researched and to be free to guide the interview, with few set questions or pre-figured framework. You should prompt and probe, pressing for clarity and elucidation, rephrasing and summarising where necessary and checking for confirmation of this, particularly if the issues are complex or vague.

Focused interviewing. The focused interview is characterised by more interviewer control than in the case of a non-directive situation. This will enable you to use the data from the interview to substantiate or reject previously formulated hypotheses. You can place explicit verbal cues to the stimulus pattern or even represent it, thereby encouraging more concrete responses by interviewees.             

In-depth interviewing. An in-depth interview is mostly also a structured interview. In an in-depth interview you will fully explain the nature of the research project and the potential risks and benefits at the beginning of the interview. Once the interviewee has been briefed, you should ask him or her if he or she understands the information and is still willing to take part in the interview.

An in-depth interview is often characterised as a conversation with a goal. You may use a general interview guide or protocol but not a set of specific questions worded precisely the same for every interview. Rather, there are a few general questions, with considerable latitude to pursue a wide range of topics. The interviewee can shape the content of the interview by focusing on topics of importance or interest. In fact, you should encourage the interviewee to talk in detail about areas of interest. In-depth interviews typically last an hour or more. You will probably make an electronic recording of the interview to analyse common themes from descriptions of experiences. The benefit of this form of implied consent is the elimination of any record of the interviewee’s name. Confidentiality, however, is necessary for most types of interviews.

Interviewing can be used to collect data for most research methods and topics.

One-to-one interviewing is like a narrative between two people with the intention of collecting data for research.

It requires:

  1. Co-operation.
  2. Open communication.
  3. Careful consideration for relevance.
  4. Avoidance of cognitive dissonance.
  5. Taking note of external cues.
  6. Alertness.
  7. Taking external factors into consideration.

In structured interviewing the content of and procedure for the interview are organised in advance.

Although a structured interview is a closed situation, a measure of flexibility should be allowed.

The unstructured interview allows greater freedom and flexibility than the structured interview.

Although the unstructured interview is modelled on the conversation, it needs to be carefully planned.

The non-directive interview will be free flowing with little, if any, direction by the researcher.

The respondent can express his or her personal feelings spontaneously.

In the case of a focused interview the researcher will have more control over the process than in a non-directive situation.

The data gathered through a focused interview can be used to test a hypothesis.

An in-depth interview is mostly also a structured interview.

In an in-depth interview the interviewee is briefed in advance about the procedure, purpose and possible consequences of the interview.

You should introduce the in-depth interview with some general questions followed by impromptu questions on a wider range of topics.

The questions must still be relevant to your research, though.


Interviewing is an interesting way to collect data.

Most people are open and honest when they are interviewed about academic topics.

Even so, you should corroborate the data that you collect through interviewing.

Natural scientists are sometimes sceptical about data collected through interviewing.

However, they are often eager to discuss their research projects with other scientists who are experts in the same field.

And that is also a form of interviewing.

You should rather not use interviewing to collect data if you follow an ethnomethodological paradigmatic approach.

Ethnomethodology rejects interviewing as a data collection method.

Enjoy your studies.

Thank you.

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