Three Types of Interviews

Discuss the three different types of interviews and when they would be used: Structured, Semi-structured, Unstructured.

Interviews are a powerful and useful method of research. They can be the focus of research or done in conjunction with surveys or participatory action. Different types of interviews will be appropriate in different contexts. We will look at three types of interviews: structured, semi-structured, and unstructured. We will use examples from a potential MSc dissertation project.

Interviews are often associated with case studies and utilized to go more in-depth than a wider survey collection, and are often associated with more complex topics. This allows for research about: opinions, feelings, emotions, experiences, sensitive issues, and privileged information. In pursuing interviews it's important to consider if access will be available to those needed to be interviewed, and the budget, time, and logistic constraints of doing the interviews themselves. (Denscombe, 2010, pg 174)

Structured interviews are much like questionnaires used in a survey, just done through an interview process. Because the questions are structured in wording, order, and potential answers, it allows for quantitative analysis. However, it seems that it would unnecessarily add to both the time and budget when a questionnaire delivered in-person, through the mail, or through email would do just as well in accomplishing the mission of the same data collection.

Considering a MSc dissertation originally designed as a 28 question survey for local elected officials in Muskegon County, Michigan, this could be done as structured interviews. I may not have the ability, primarily due to time and scheduling constraints, to collect as much data. It would be from a total of about 180 elected officials in the county. With a questionnaire only some percentage of them would participate. Let's say I write a fairly convincing opening letter and send it with the questionnaire and garner a response rate of 50 percent, that's 90 questionnaires. To schedule and conduct 90 separate interviews would be a massive undertaking and generate significant logistical difficulties, even though it's in a relatively minor geographical area. Seeing that there is a large downside and almost no advantage, in choosing between a survey questionnaire and gathering the same information through interviews it makes sense to go with the former rather than the latter.

Semi-structured interviews still have a framework that is being worked within, but with open-ended questions where the order can be changed and adjusted as seen fit in the situation, while still moving through certain key points that have been planned. This is common in interview formats as it would be odd to have almost no plan, but having the flexibility is also important to gain the advantage of in-depth exploration in interviews that questionnaires often lack. Here too is an important point of difference as we move away from the structured interview. A structured interview is more useful if a theory has been worked out and is attempting to be supported or falsified. A less structured interview allows for more exploration and discovery on and around the subject material. This encounter with the unknown can lead down unexpected avenues of research.

In our case each area of motivation, meaning, and deception would have key items that we're going to hit on in the interview. But, instead of giving the participant options for answers, I would let them answer for themselves. This could allow me to branch off of their answers with some questions that I hadn't prepared, and then come back to my next area of focus. This type of data is much harder to quantify, but it gives qualitative data that is not attainable through closed-questioned surveys or interviews. (Denscombe, 2010, pg 175)

An unstructured interview takes this process one step further by adding little to no structure. I could introduce the topic and say I'm looking at the changes that the official has experienced in their motivation, experience of meaning, and encounters with deception before and after taking office. Then, we would have a conversation that goes where it goes. This is the most exploratory with a large potential to produce unique discovery of the unknown, and a large potential to yield little in the way of results as well. (Denscombe, 2010, pg 175-176)

Another thing to consider is the style of interview used. It could be: one-to-one, group, or focus group. Each also has advantages and disadvantages. Cross-ideation in a group interview or cross-discussion in a focus group could yield results that the researcher wouldn't even think to pursue. Both of those methods also give leverage in that they involve more than one person so there could be a larger number of participants over the same amount of time. (Denscombe, 2010, pg 176-177)

If I were to utilize interviews for the dissertation project on meaning, motivation, and deception in local municipal politics I would shift to a case study focus utilizing semi-structured interviews. This would allow me to stay focused on a topic and make sure that the handful of participants that I worked with would cover the same subject areas so that I could cross-reference the research data, while also allowing me to explore interesting avenues of inquiry that are generated and may prove beneficial for unique and opportune insights within the unique context of the situation.

Interviews are an important method of research. They can be conducted in a range from structured, to semi-structured, to unstructured. Each approach has it's own unique advantages and challenges. Practical issues of logistics should be considered including the time, budget, access, and scheduling. It's important to think about and know the type of data that is being pursued and the types of questions that you are seeking to answer so that the best method can be chosen and enacted.

Reference List

Denscombe, Martyn (2010) The Good Research Guide. Fourth Edition. Maidenhead, Berkshire, England: Open University Press, McGraw-Hill Education



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