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Institute of Management Sciences

Advanced Qualitative Research Methods

Research Interviews I: Data Collection

This session will consider questions such as:

1. What are research interviews, and what role do they play in qualitative research?
2. Why do interviews? What are their main benefits and limitations?
3. How do they work in practice? How do we collect interview data?
4. What ethical issues do interviews raise?

The aim of this session is to outline and evaluate the various stages and practices involved in
conducting research interviews in qualitative research. In doing so, it aims to encourage a confident,
considerate, ethical and reflexive approach to organising and conducting research interviews with
individual and group-interview participants.

“Interviewing is a basic form of human activity, in which language is used between two human
beings in the pursuit of cooperative inquiry”.

Types of interviews:

1. Questionnaires – either self- or interviewer-administered (tend to be used only in

quantitative or mixed-methods research).
2. Structured interviews.
3. Semi-structured interviews.
4. Un-structured (sometimes also called conversational) interviews.
5. Narrative interviews (or anti-narrative interviews?).
6. Group interviews (commonly called focus groups).

Stages in the semi-structured/group interview process:

1. Who is to be interviewed, and why? Select sample/participants. How many?

2. Negotiate access (consider issues relating to self-selection and snowballing).
3. Devise and pilot an interview schedule.
4. Decide how data will be recorded and analysed – consider recording and note-taking.
5. Organise interviews – allowing time for preparation and interim analysis.
6. If possible, conduct interviews in ‘batches’ or phases to allow simultaneous collection and
analysis of data, and to amend the interview schedule and/or sample.
7. Phase data collection into data analysis. Towards the end of data collection analysis becomes
more sustained and in-depth, and more ‘detached’ from data collection.
8. Whilst undertaking analysis, find ways to remain ‘embedded’ in the field/setting (collate
visual and other sensory data).
9. Consider ways of disseminating emergent findings with different audiences, while further
data collection is still a possibility (see 6, above).

Developing an interview schedule:

 Schedules are used to guide interviews, based largely on research questions/aims.
 ‘Translate’ research questions into interview topics/themes.
 Keep them simple (as a guide: the equivalent of no more than one side of A4).
 Topics/questions may not all be covered, and not necessarily in a consistent order.
 The enable an interview to stay relatively focused, and for issues not to be overlooked.
 BUT there is a risk of ‘over-structuring’ the discussion.
 Schedules can be devised based on data generated using other methods, and can be adapted
depending on emergent themes and findings.

Follow-on Exercise:

 Draw up a list of 5 questions that should help you to devise a schedule you might use to
guide a semi-structured interview with a key informant in your own research.
 What would be the main benefits of interviewing this person?
 What might be the main limitations?
 What other methods could you combine interviewing with to elicit in-depth data?

Accessing interview participants:

Begin by reviewing and evaluating potential interviewees (in case-study research this is relatively
easy, less so in studies of particular sectors, settings, occupations or work groups, or when studying
particular incidents or broader phenomena). Key informants can help considerably. Interviewees
may be inside and/or outside the organizational setting being studied. How you introduce yourself
and the research is vital to the success of this process.

Media (print and virtual, such as social networking ICTs) can be used to recruit participants. As with
any other ‘advert’, the aim is to attract attention, arouse interest, develop interest and stimulate
action. Consider what the incentive will be to participate in the study – incentives such as rewards or
‘voice’/representation raise ethical issues.

Remember practical details like: what you are doing, when, where you are doing it, why, with whom,
when you need people to make contact by etc.

Carrying out an interview:

Get the basics right: issues such as timing and setting are vital. Individual and group interviews raise
different issues. In the case of the latter, it is particularly useful to have more than one
researcher/assistant present. Consider the relative merits and limitations of conducting interviews in
situ (see Tyler, 2011 ). Different methods and roles can merge into one another.

‘Data collection is much more than a technical matter ... how you conceive and resolve practical
research problems is always shaped by your model of how the social world works’ (Silverman, 2010:

A good research interview is shaped like a funnel or an hour-glass ...

Begin with a general introduction to:

 Develop rapport between the researcher(s) and the participant(s),

 Introduce the topic and the focus of the study,

 Discuss confidentiality and anonymity, as well as data collection (recording, transcription),
 Gain consent to future interviews/discussion etc, and
 Establish the parameters of the interview.

Always loop back to establish depth and clarify meaning (and demonstrate attentive listening).
Always ask for explanation, reflection, clarification, and illustration. The 4 main stages in an interview

1. Introductions and opening.

2. Working through each question, topic or theme in the schedule (consider and reflect on the
order of these).
3. Responding to the interview during each section, and teasing out connecting themes.
4. Concluding, and broadening the discussion out.

Interviews as ‘active listening’ – interviewers must listen carefully ‘so as to hear the meaning’ of what
is being said (Rubin and Rubin, 2005: 7).

Poor interviews are: unfocused, lack validity (recognition), have poor reliability, take too much for
granted (rely on the interviewer’s interpretation/assumptions rather than the account of the
interviewee), elicit superficial or irrelevant data lacking detail and depth.

Effective interviews: develop the research in unanticipated but interesting directions (that can feed
into interim analysis), allowing the research process to adapt, are guided by precise questions/aims
reflected in a carefully designed and piloted interview schedule, elicit in-depth and detailed data,
help to build analysis, use a consistent but flexible approach, achieve a high level of validity
(recognition) – consider asking interviewees to read and comment on their transcripts (and any notes
you make). This is essential in developing narrative interviews.

Do: prepare in advance, start and finish on time (or be clear about what the expectations are), listen
carefully, show interest, encourage the participant to talk, take brief notes (or ask someone else to
take notes for you?), guide (but don’t dominate) the discussion, be courteous and friendly, stay
focused, probe where necessary (tease out gaps, inconsistencies – see below).

Don’t: Reveal impressions, prejudices or irrelevant, personal issues (be reflexive and respectful),
allow interviewees to ‘gloss over’ issues that are important to the research (unless they are clearly
uncomfortable), jumpy to conclusions or make assumptions, worry about sounding ‘innocent’ or ill-
informed (they are the expert!), talk too much, or be afraid of silence (less the participant think), ask
personal questions not relevant to the interview (unless the participant clearly wants to talk).

Types of interview questions:

Open (tell me about ... how did you ...?)

Closed (when did you .... how many ...?)

Illustrative (can you give me an example? The last time that happened, can you describe it ...?)

Hypothetical (if ... what would you ...?)

Reflective (why did you decide to .... how did that make you feel?)

Multiple (so if ... what would you ... why?)

Confirming understanding (have I got this right ... if ....?)

Probing (can you tell me a bit more about ... you said ... what does that mean to you?)

Prompting (okay, but what if ... would it be this? OR a few people have mentioned ...?)

Behavioural (can you describe how you would ...?)

Linking (so earlier, you mentioned ... how did that impact on ...?)

Vignettes: ‘ask readers to relive the experience through the writer’s or performer’s eyes’ (Denzin and
Lincoln, 2000: 905). They can act as aids to interview participants, giving them a ‘way in’ to the
themes. These can be generated by participants, they can be factual or fictitious (written by the
researcher). Other prompts include material artefacts, visual material etc (see Tyler and Cohen,

The hour-glass also applies to individual questions/sections in an interview:

 Explore a general issue/perception/experience.

 Focus on a particular aspect of it.
 Probe for information/detail/examples.
 Clarify points of understanding.
 Broaden out to consider relationship to other themes/issues.
 Summarise connections and understanding and move on to next theme/question.

Group exercise:

Reflect and build on our previous work …

Research question: How are social spaces on a University campus used?

Research design: Case-study (nomothetic) approach, focusing on the University of Essex.

Secondary research, followed by primary research: Observation (how), interviews (why).

 Draw up an interview schedule exploring themes emerging from observational research.

 Conduct a group interview exploring how and why the spaces are used in the way they are.

Further Reading

Bryman, A. and Bell, E. (2011) Business Research Methods. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Denzin, N. and Lincoln, Y.S. (2000) ‘The Policies and Practices of Interpretation’, in N. Denzin and Y.
Lincoln (eds) Handbook of Qualitative Research. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Rubin, H. And Rubin, I. (2005) Qualitative Interviewing: The Art of Hearing Data. London: Sage.

Silverman, D. (2010) Doing Qualitative Research. London: Sage.