How to... conduct interviews

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Features of the interview

The interview has become one of the most prevalent genres of the second half of the twentieth century, and its popularity shows no sign of waning. Whether it is the views of politicians, the lives of celebrities, or suitability for a job (to name but a very few of its uses), it has become a favourite method to gain information, whilst in psychoanalysis a varient of the interview has come to be used as a method to help people tell their stories.

It is therefore hardly surprising that it has become a popular research method in the social and management sciences. As early as 1886, Charles Booth used interviews to triangulate his research on the social and economic conditions of the people of London, whilst it was also used in the First World War for psychological testing; George Gallup in 1935 launched its use for opinion polling with the foundation of the American Institute of Public Opinion.

An interview is a verbal interaction between two or more people where one (or occasionally more than one) person implicitly directs the flow of information (although this usage has been criticized by some particularly feminist researchers who dislike the implied inequality between interviewer and participant). It thus differs from a conversation, which is more free flowing: the person conducting the interview "stage manages" the dialogue with a view to obtaining information to meet a particular purpose, such as the collection of data to answer a research question.

Stuart Hannabus draws on the work of M.Q Patton (Qualitative Evaluation and Research Methods, Sage Publications, 1990)

"The purpose of interviewing has been defined by Patton as being "to find out what is on someone's mind…. We interview people to find out from them those things we cannot directly observe"....We want the respondents' own perspective to emerge, explore the ways in which people working together share common understandings, get insight into particular experiences, find out motives behind decisions, get a view of informal procedures, consider apparent contradictions between attitudes and behaviour, and allow respondents time to provide their answers."

"Research Interviews", New Library World, vol. 97 no. 5

Interviews as a qualitative technique

Interviews, as distinct from focus groups, can be used as either a quantitative or a qualitative technique, although here we shall be mainly concerned with its use in qualitative research. Qualitative research posits knowledge which is not "out there" and given but which is constructed and negotiated, and is heavily dependent on human experience and social interaction: it observes humans as actors and creators of knowledge. This perspective makes it particularly suitable for looking at such issues as culture, change, attitudes and consumer behaviour.

In a skillfully conducted qualitative interview, the interviewer nurtures the participant to reveal rich and varied data based on his or her understanding of the world, and is thus a partner in the creating of knowledge and data, as opposed to a mere observer.

Characteristics of interviews

The form of the interview will vary according to the research methodology used and whether it is conducted face to face, by telephone or by email, but here are some general characteristics:

Structure combined with flexibility
The researcher will have particular issues to explore which will have been determined in advance, but will also allow freedom for the interviewee to bring up issues important to him or her.

Data is generated by interaction between the participant and the subject.

The interviewer should avoid any intrusion of his or her opinions.

Iterative questioning
Initial questions will be followed by further probing further to get more in-depth answers.

Raw data capture
Tape recording is common.

Generation of new knowledge
The participant may be nudged into thinking about an issue in a new way.

Permission from the subject should be sought and confidentiality guaranteed.

Characteristics of a good interviewer

Interviewing is a skill, as anyone who has watched a politician being interviewed on the BBC or CNN can see. Here are some characteristics of a good research interviewer:

  • warmth, ability to show interest, to put at ease and gain the trust of his or her subjects.

  • calmness and quiet confidence in their own expertise, combined with modesty and the ability not to let their experience or abilities intrude on the interview.
  • a good listener, able to show interest when the participant is talking but also to listen 'actively' and probe for what is being said only implicitly, and also decide how to respond.
  • a good memory, knowing when a point needs to be returned to.
  • curiousity, genuinely interested in what people say, and wanting to know more.
  • thorough, meticulous and capable of very careful preparation.

And perhaps above all:

  • mental agility and the ability to operate on several different mental tracks: to listen, to make sure that all the key points on the research schedule are covered, to relate comments to the research question, to be alert for contradictions, to decide how to respond with the next question, and whether to change the order of questions, to probe and get the subject to open up, to remember certain points which should not be allowed to interrupt the flow of the conversation, but which should be returned to later, and possibly also to take notes while all this is going on.

The response rate

You will have to consider how your interviews relate to your wider research perspective: is it your main technique, or are you including it with other techniques?

If it is your main technique, it is likely that your research focus is on a topic wherein psychological factors play a strong part, such as for example attitudes towards change, leadership, consumer choice etc.

In The contemplative organization, Maia Duerr looked at the extent to which organizations adopted contemplative practice, using as her main method in depth interviews with 97 people. She deliberately focussed on qualitative methods as she felt that these were more appropriate for investigating organizational culture and change.

Journal of Organizational Change Management vol. 17 no. 1

You may however also be using the interview with a number of other techniques in order to triangulate data: for example, you may be conducting a survey and want to explore the issues before formulating survey questions, or you may have a large amount of data which you want to probe further.

Use of the interviewing technique must not be done on a whim but must be part of your overall research design (see How to design your research), chosen because it is the best way of getting at your desired data, or a significant part of your desired data.

For example, you might be doing research on the extent to which companies have an ethics policy in a particular area. On the face of it, a good way of finding this information would be to interview the relevant CEOs. However, you need to think carefully about such issues as what exactly it is you want to find out, whether the CEOs are the best people to interview rather than, or in addition to, Corporate Affairs Managers etc., what other sources of data e.g. company records etc. might be useful.

There are various design issues which you will need to consider, for example:

  • You will probably have a particular issue which relates to one or all of your research questions, and this issue will form the basis of your interview questions.

  • In getting the sample for your interviews you need to consider what is your overall research population and sampling strategy, and within this what is the best method of getting a good sample.

In Shopping with consumers: reflections and innovations, Tina M. Lowrey et al. alternate in-depth interviews with observation of participants shopping to research consumer behaviour. (Qualitative Market Research: An International Journal vol. 8 no. 2).

In A comparison of two alternative interviewing techniques used within an integrated research design: a case study in outshopping using semi-structured and non-directed interviewing techniques (Marketing Intelligence & Planning vol. 14 no. 6), Denise G. Jarratt combines semi-structured and non directive interviews with two lots of quantitative questionnaires, in both cases the interview contributing to the creation of the constructs for the latter. This is represented diagrammatically as follows:

Image: Semi-structured and non directive interviews