Introduction to qualitative interviews

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"Interviewees are given space to expand accounts of their experiences and feelings"

Interviewing is a frequently used method in social research. It is generally distinguished from questionnaire-based interviewing, even if the form of communication, such as face-to face conversation, may be the same.

Some interview styles produce highly structured data on people's opinions on a specific matter, whereas other interviews facilitate a more evocative communication of people's life experiences, activities, emotions and identities.

Qualitative  interviews

In qualitative interviews the interviewees are given space to expand their answers and accounts of their experiences and feelings. Moreover, their answers are not pre-categorised in the interview schedule.

Qualitative interviews are often used in an exploratory manner which seeks to investigate the subjective interpretations of social phenomena. They do not necessarily presume that most of the topics of interest are known in advance.

The aim is often interpretation and understanding of how and why, not 'fact-finding' or getting answers to questions of how much or how many (Warren, 1988).

In qualitative interviewing, the respondent's experience has diverse qualities and meanings and the interview can explore these and their social organisation (Gubrium and Holstein, 2001). It is a valuable research method for exploring "data on understandings, opinions, what people remember doing, attitudes, feelings and the like, that people have in common" (Arksey and Knight, 1999, p.2).

Interview typologies

There are multiple typologies for qualitative interviews but very little consensus among those typologies (Rapley, 2004).

Some interviews aim to gather descriptive data, more typical with many structured or semi-structured interviews, whereas other interviews seek to generate data which probe deeper into the lives of the interviewees.

It is usually possible to identify an interview's form as structured, semi-structured or open-ended by looking at a transcript.

However, other typologies are derived from methodological perspectives and it is not possible unambiguously to classify an interview as, for example, life history, oral history, or narrative, as these approaches can depend on the analytical framework applied to the transcript.

Each style of interview creates different types of data and different forms of knowledge, each requiring a different kind of analysis.

In addition to the different interview types there are also different types of sampling procedures, such as random sampling, purposive/quota, intergenerational, snowball etc., all of which will have implications for the types of analysis and interpretation which are possible from the interviews.

Interview types used in this resource

The UK Data Service has chosen to focus on seven interview types: structured, semi-structured, open-ended, feminist, life story, oral history and psycho-social.

However, it recognises that there is often some degree of overlap between the categories and that an interview may simultaneously reflect more than one approach.

Most structured and some semi-structured interviews are working from the tradition that Seale (1998) calls 'interview data-as-resource', where the assumption is the data being gathered are interviewees' knowledge and experience of the outside world.

In contrast, more flexible interview formats are often informed by a tradition of 'interview data-as-topic', where the interview itself, including its structure, is an object of investigation.

In this view, all participants in the interview are agents and meanings are subjectively 'constructed', not objectively 'found'. The purpose is to explore co-constructed identities and social worlds, not to ascertain facts. This constructionist viewpoint informs many of the interview types described here, such as feminist, life story and psycho-social interviews.

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