Interviewing in Social Science Research Projects Part 1 – Some Basic Principles

Standard

Interviewing is a very common method to collect qualitative data in social science research projects. Interviewing is a very time consuming but very fruitful method to use and much can be said about it. Due to this reason I will split this topic into two posts. In this first post I will cover some of the basic principles you should adhere to when interviewing; in the second post I will discuss some personal experiences and pitfalls I have come across or fallen into in the dozens of interviews I have conducted to date and I will explain how I tried to solve some of these situations.

Type of interviews

There are 3 types of interviews that are used:

  1. Unstructured: You only have an idea of what you want to talk about, but you have not prepared a set of questions you plan to ask. Instead it feels as if you are having more of a conversation than a formal interview.
  2. Semi-structured: You have prepared a set of questions and you have a clear idea of what topics you want to cover. You can still deviate from your questions and talk about new things that come up, but generally you aim to cover the same questions in all your interviews.
  3. Structured: You have a clear set of questions, often with yes and no answers. This is a very formal way of interviewing and most often used in survey research. It is less commonly used to collect qualitative data that aims to uncover meanings, experiences and stories of the interviewees.

Most typically interviews for qualitative studies are semi-structured, so the remainder of this blog will be based on the assumption that you conduct semi-structured interviews.

Preparation

  1. Define topic of interview: What do you want to find out?
  2. Who to interview and how to access them: Once you know what your topic will be, it is important to ask yourself who you want to interview and how you want to access them. If you want to find out about a certain subject that only a specific group of people know about, it is of crucial importance to find one first contact who can help you identify more interviewees who he/she thinks would be good candidates. From these new contacts you can then identify even more candidates and so on. This method is called snowballing and is often used in interview studies. While it may be difficult to get that first contact, in my experience, once I had it I have often found it very easy to get access to more interviewees.
  3. Topic guide: Before you start with your interviews you need to develop a topic guide. In this guide you should include all questions that you want to ask, grouped by theme or topic. You should also make sure that you have a logical order in which you want to ask your questions, though this order may need to be adjusted during the interview.
  4. How to interview (virtual, in person, telephone): During the time you seek access, you also need to think about how to interview. Will you be able to meet everybody in person for a face-to-face interview, can you call them by phone, can you do a video call with them e.g. through Skype? I have used all three of them on many occasions and while face-to-face is probably the best way to establish rapport between you and the interviewee, it is not always possible. In such cases Skype can be of great help and can also allow you to save significant amounts of money, if you don’t have to travel physically.
  5. Obtaining consent: Once you are clear on the above points, you should draft an informed consent form that details the aims and objectives of your research, the methods you use, the confidentiality procedures you have put in place and what will happen after the interview. Often universities provide examples of consent forms that you can adjust to your needs.
  6. Bring equipment e.g. recorder, pen & paper: In times of smartphones you usually carry your recorder with you, but you should still make sure that you know how it works and how good the quality is. If the interview is online you can download apps that record the interview for you e.g. “MP3 Skype recorder”.
  7. Location of interview: If the interview is face-to-face think about where you can interview in confidence and quiet without interruptions. Cafes may be a good meeting point but are not a good option due to noise and distractions. If the interview is online you should still make sure that you and your interviewees sit in a quiet room so that nobody will interrupt or overhear your conversation.
  8. Bring/Provide “thank yous” as incentive: It is always a good idea to let interviewees know upfront that you are grateful for the time they give you, due to which you will provide e.g. snacks, drinks, cookies, chocolates. Depending on budget, other incentives can be useful as well such as a small amount of money to thank them for their time. It is not necessary but often appreciated. If the interview is online, the least you can do is to offer the interviewees a summary of the results at the end of your study.

Conducting the interview

  1. Speak slowly and clearly: This will make the transcription afterwards easier and will also make it easier for your interviewees to follow your questions and understand them fully.
  2. Introduce yourself: This may sound obvious but especially when it is an online interview, it is easy to forget this. It is important that your interviewees know who you are so that they can establish some initial trust.
  3. Clarify objectives: Make sure the interviewees are clear on what this project is all about and give them the opportunity to ask questions.
  4. Start interview with fairly easy questions: This is very important as you don’t want to be too demanding at the beginning and you need to slowly work your way towards more complicated and/or personal questions.
  5. Try to build up trust and rapport between you and your interviewee e.g. by telling them something about yourself: This has often worked for me. I ask them about something personal and I make it easier for them to answer by providing a personal story of my own.
  6. Ask more difficult questions later on: Once the trust is there it is much easier to ask delicate questions.
  7. Be sensitive: Not everybody is always willing to talk about all the things you will want to talk about. Respect this and stop pushing, if it is clear that they don’t want to go there.
  8. Probe for more details if something interesting comes up: For instance, ask “can you be more specific”, “do you have a concrete example”.
  9. Clarify complicated statements by rewording them and by asking if you understood this correctly: Ask them “Did you mean…” or “To sum up, I understood this…”
  10. Complete interview and tell the interviewee what happens next: Once the interview is done, be clear about it, tell them how you will proceed and how long you estimate it will take before you can provide them with a summary of the results.
  11. Thank them for their participation and time
  12. Possibly ask for contact detailsg. email address so that you can provide the interviewees with the results of your study, should they be interested.

After the interview

  1. Reflect on the interview: What has gone well and what hasn’t? How can you improve next time?
  2. Develop topic guide further: Possibly new issues or themes have come up in one interview that you hadn’t thought about previously. In such cases I have often extended or modified my topic guide to include these new issues for the remaining interviews.
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