The structured interview
The structured or formal interview involves the researcher working through a questionnaire or interview schedule as part of a social survey.
Like the postal questionnaire, all respondents are exposed to the same set of questions.
Positivists like this type of interview because:
- They produce large amounts of factual information very cheaply and quickly compared with the unstructured interview and observation.
- An interviewer can explain the questionnaire, thus reducing the possibility of non-response and ask for clarification of vague responses.
- An interviewer can observe the social context in which answers are given, e.g. the facial expression, tone of voice, body language, status, etc., of the respondent.
The unstructured interview
Interpretivists argue that research should focus on the respondent’s view of the world through the use of unstructured interviews (sometimes known as ‘guided conversations’). This method involves the interviewer informally asking open-ended questions about a topic and allowing the respondent to respond freely and in depth.
Interpretivists claim a number of strengths for this method:
- Trust can be developed, which may generate more qualitative information about the respondent’s interpretation of the world.
- They are flexible because the conversation is not constrained by fixed questions. This may generate more valid information (especially if the respondent can see their input is valued) and allows for probing of deeper meanings.
- They provide more opportunity for respondents to say what they want rather than what the interviewer expects.
However, positivists see this method as unscientific because it isn’t standardised and doesn’t produce quantifiable data. It depends upon a unique relationship between interviewer and interviewee and is therefore difficult to replicate.
Both structured and unstructured interviews share similar potential problems. The major problem is interview bias or effect. People may not act naturally in interviews because all interviews are interaction situations and may be adversely affected by status differences between the interviewer and interviewee, e.g. social class, gender, ethnicity and age. Bias may be caused by the interviewer’s facial expression or tone of voice, leading the interviewee to a response that reflects the interviewer’s own opinions. A social desirability effect may occur in that the interviewee may wish to please the interviewer.
Interviews only provide a snapshot of social life whereas other methods such as observation may better capture everyday life. Interviews may be ineffective if people are unaware of behaving in the way they do.