Interviews

In an interview scenario, which type of interview is ideal? One that produces concise, direct answers or one that produces detailed answers with reasoning?

Interviews Interviews

Create learning materials about Interviews with our free learning app!

  • Instand access to millions of learning materials
  • Flashcards, notes, mock-exams and more
  • Everything you need to ace your exams
Create a free account
Table of contents

    You'd probably claim that this depends entirely on the interview context. For a job interview, the interviewer would most likely prefer answers that go into detail about the interviewee's background. For a focus group interview, the interviewer might prefer direct answers that help them improve their product or service.

    This is one reason why it is important to consider which type of interview is most suitable for a sociological researcher.

    In this explanation, we will talk about types of interviews in sociology, including structured interviews, semi-structured and group interviews.

    • We'll also consider the advantages and disadvantages of each different type of interview.
    • Then, we will discuss a feminist approach to researching women’s experiences and the role interviews play in them.

    What is an interview?

    Before we study them closer, let's define 'interviews'.

    An interview refers to verbal interactions between an interviewer and one or more respondents. Interviews can be conducted in person, on the phone, or through video chat. But in each case, they are more direct and personal interactions between the interviewer and the respondent than, for example, questionnaires.

    The interview method in sociology

    The interview is one of the primary methods of sociological data collection. They are usually used by sociologists to research more sensitive or complex subjects, and to gain in-depth knowledge of people’s ways of thinking and feeling about a specific topic.

    To conduct them, researchers must create an interview schedule. In the case of structured interviews, this means a pre-prepared list of questions the researcher aims to cover. In the case of unstructured or group interviews, the interview schedule usually consists of a collection of subjects and topics that the respondents are supposed to discuss.

    Interviews, women sitting at table with cups of coffee and laptop, StudySmarterFig. 1 - The interview schedule usually contains a set list of questions around a specific topic.

    After the interview, the researcher has to create a transcript, which means they have to reproduce everything said during the interview in a written format. In order to do this well, researchers usually record their interviews.

    Interview style: The type and/or style of an interview depends on the preferences of the researchers. Some sociologists choose to establish a personal connection with the interviewees based on empathy and trust, while others go the opposite way. Howard Becker (1970) claimed that the aggressive interviewing style works very well in revealing hidden racist biases in people.

    Types of interviews in sociology

    There are a number of interview formats used in sociological research: structured, unstructured, semi-structured, and group interviews.

    Structured interviews

    These are often referred to as formal or standardised interviews. Their main characteristic is that the interviewer has a set list of questions which they ask of all the respondents in the same order, in the same way. This list is essentially a pre-written questionnaire, which the interviewer asks in person to each participant.

    The structured interview is considered to be a quantitative research method since it allows comparison between the respondents. It is usually used for surface-level research into their lives.

    Advantages of structured interviews

    • The discussions are easy to replicate and standardise.

    • Since everyone is asked the same questions, the answers are comparable.

    • Reliable conclusions can be drawn from the groups of respondents and eventually the target population, based on quantitative data.

    • It is conducted verbally, so it tends to provide more detailed answers than a questionnaire.

    • It is very effective in assessing the respondent’s initial thoughts and feelings about a certain subject. Interesting points may arise that can be further discovered through unstructured interviews.

    Disadvantages of structured interviews

    • Can be time-consuming and costly, depending on the number of respondents.

    • Have to be planned in advance.

    • The quality of answers depends on the quality and relevance of the questions asked. The questions cannot be changed over time or from one interviewee to another, so a lot depends on the initial set of questions.

    • Structured interviews rarely provide in-depth information, especially on sensitive topics.

    Examples of structured interviews in sociology

    The research of Young and Willmott (1962) on the importance of the extended family was based on structured interviews. They wanted to focus on the whole of London, so structured interviews were a good choice in terms of time efficiency. Structured interviews also provided high generalisability in their research on the extended family.

    Unstructured interviews

    These are also known as informal or discovery interviews. An unstructured interview resembles a guided conversation where both the interviewer and the interviewee can ask various questions about a specific topic, regardless of what the researcher asked other respondents.

    The goal of unstructured interviews is to gain an understanding of the complex behaviour, thoughts, and feelings of the respondent. This makes them very useful for examining sensitive topics.

    Some sociologists claim that unstructured interviews are the most effective when they are combined with participant observation.

    Advantages of unstructured interviews

    • The interviewee is empowered in an unstructured interview through their ability to ask their own questions, guide the conversation, and have the interviewer ask questions the respondent regards as important.

    • At the same time, the interviewer also has the flexibility to change the direction of an interview if it seems to be leading nowhere.

    • Unstructured interviews can be extended. There is space and time for the interviewee to express and explain themselves, and to ask follow-up questions if they didn’t understand something.

    • The informal style allows interviewees to feel at ease, be open and honest, even about sensitive subjects. Joan Smith (1998) used unstructured interviews to gain detailed information on the familial backgrounds of young homeless people.

    • The interviewee is a participant in the research. Feminists regard this as the strongest point of unstructured interviews.

    • They are a relatively fast way of discovering detailed information.

    Disadvantages of unstructured interviews

    • The biggest criticism of unstructured interviews is that they provide unreliable sociological data. Positivists are especially critical of it.

    • Respondents are asked different questions, so it is difficult to compare them, or draw conclusions about the sample group.

    • Interviewer bias weakens the validity of the interview. The interviewer’s body language, ways of phrasing certain questions, and reacting to them might influence the respondents' answers.

    • The class, gender, and ethnicity of the interviewer can affect the answers of the respondents. J. Allan Williams Jr (1971) found that African-Americans were less likely to claim that they supported the civil rights demonstrations in the 1960s when the interviewer was white, and not Black.

    • Unstructured interviews are non-replicable. It is often the trust between the interviewer and interviewee that produces an in-depth conversation, but this trust is very dependent on luck.

    • They are time-consuming and costly.

    • If the researcher lacks interpersonal skills and training, they might find it difficult to conduct successful unstructured interviews.

    • The researcher must be ethical with the personal knowledge they gain. Respondents can be significantly harmed if the information is used unethically.

    Examples of unstructured interviews in sociology

    Dobash and Dobash (1971) researched domestic violence with the help of police reports and unstructured interviews. The unstructured interviews allowed the researchers to create a safer and more comfortable environment for the participants and ask further questions. They discovered important things that the victims did not mention in the police reports.

    Feminism and unstructured interviews

    Feminist sociologists often use unstructured interviews, as they believe this format empowers their respondents and makes sure that their true voices are heard, unlike in the case of traditional, structured interviews.

    Feminists argue that emotions have an important role in the pursuit of truth because feelings are the result of social action. Since emotions can only be studied (or even noticed) in an unstructured, in-depth interview where the interviewees feel at ease, they are preferable.

    In such conversational interviews, the hierarchy between researcher and subject disappears, and the people studied are also less likely to be exploited. According to feminists, women were especially exploited through traditional interviews, because the data collected was then misinterpreted and used against women’s interests.

    The British sociologist Ann Oakley is a big supporter of unstructured interviews. In 1974, she interviewed women before and after they gave birth. The interviews were long and in-depth. She noted that all the women asked her questions during the interviews, which she tried to answer as honestly and extensively as she could.

    This was to create an environment where the interviewees were just as much a part of creating the research as she was. Oakley also found that the women became interested in the research and later called her to share even more information.

    Semi-structured interviews

    Semi-structured interviews are interviews where the researcher has a fixed list of questions, which is the same for each respondent. However, they have a degree of flexibility as researchers can diverge from the questions and ask different ones if the conversation goes in a new direction.

    Interviews, coworkers having a conference or group interview, StudySmarterFig. 2 - In group interviews, the researcher asks questions to multiple respondents at the same time.

    Group interviews

    Group interviews are interviews where the researcher asks questions from more than one respondent at the same place and time. They tend to be unstructured, and their success is highly dependent on the dynamics of the group. This means that they are especially difficult to replicate.

    Examples of group interviews in sociology

    Wright et al. (2005) conducted research on the educational experience of African-Caribbean boys. They used group interviews. The students felt more comfortable among their friends and gave fuller answers to the questions. Wright et al. found out that the boys felt excluded and discriminated against in school.

    Interviews - Key takeaways

    • An interview is a series of verbal interactions between an interviewer and one or more respondents.
    • In a structured interview, the interviewer establishes a set list of questions, which they ask of all the respondents in the same order, in the same way.
    • An unstructured interview resembles a guided conversation, where both the interviewer and the interviewee can ask various questions about a specific topic, regardless of what exactly the research was talking about with other respondents.
    • Semi-structured interviews are interviews where the researcher has a set list of questions, which is the same for each respondent. However, they can diverge from the questions and ask different ones if the conversation goes in a new direction.
    • Group interviews are interviews where the researcher asks questions from more than one respondent at the same place and time.
    Interviews Interviews
    Learn with 15 Interviews flashcards in the free StudySmarter app

    We have 14,000 flashcards about Dynamic Landscapes.

    Sign up with Email

    Already have an account? Log in

    Frequently Asked Questions about Interviews

    What are the different types of interviews?

    • Structured interviews
    • Unstructured interviews
    • Semi-structured interviews
    • Group interviews

    What is a structured interview?

    The main characteristic of a structured interview is that the interviewer has a set list of questions, which they ask of all the respondents in the same order, in the same way. The question list is essentially a pre-written questionnaire, which the interviewer asks each and every participant.

    What is semi structured interview?

    Semi-structured interviews are interviews where the researcher has a fixed list of questions, which is the same for each respondent. However, they have a degree of flexibility as researchers can diverge from the questions and ask different ones if the conversation goes in a new direction.

    What is an unstructured interview?

    An unstructured interview resembles a guided conversation where both the interviewer and the interviewee are able to ask various questions about a specific topic, regardless of what the researcher asked other respondents. The goal of unstructured interviews is to gain an understanding of the complex behaviour, thoughts, and feelings of the respondent. This makes them very useful for examining sensitive topics.

    What is the interview method in sociology?

    The interview is one of the primary methods of sociological data collection. They are usually used by sociologists to research more sensitive or complex subjects and to gain in-depth knowledge of people’s ways of thinking and feeling about a specific topic. 

    First, researchers must create an interview schedule. After the interview, the researcher has to create a transcript, which means they have to reproduce everything said during the interview in a written format. In order to do this well, researchers usually record their interviews. 

    1
    About StudySmarter

    StudySmarter is a globally recognized educational technology company, offering a holistic learning platform designed for students of all ages and educational levels. Our platform provides learning support for a wide range of subjects, including STEM, Social Sciences, and Languages and also helps students to successfully master various tests and exams worldwide, such as GCSE, A Level, SAT, ACT, Abitur, and more. We offer an extensive library of learning materials, including interactive flashcards, comprehensive textbook solutions, and detailed explanations. The cutting-edge technology and tools we provide help students create their own learning materials. StudySmarter’s content is not only expert-verified but also regularly updated to ensure accuracy and relevance.

    Learn more
    StudySmarter Editorial Team

    Team Interviews Teachers

    • 10 minutes reading time
    • Checked by StudySmarter Editorial Team
    Save Explanation

    Study anywhere. Anytime.Across all devices.

    Sign-up for free

    Sign up to highlight and take notes. It’s 100% free.

    Join over 22 million students in learning with our StudySmarter App

    The first learning app that truly has everything you need to ace your exams in one place

    • Flashcards & Quizzes
    • AI Study Assistant
    • Study Planner
    • Mock-Exams
    • Smart Note-Taking
    Join over 22 million students in learning with our StudySmarter App