Interviews in Social Research: Advantages and Disadvantages

The strengths of unstructured interviews are that they are respondent led, flexible, allow empathy and can be empowering, the limitations are poor reliability due to interviewer characteristics and bias, time, and low representativeness.

Last Updated on September 11, 2023 by Karl Thompson

An interview involves an interviewer asking questions verbally to a respondent. Interviews involve a more direct interaction between the researcher and the respondent than questionnaires. Interviews can either be conducted face to face, via phone, video link or social media.

This post has primarily been written for students studying the Research Methods aspect of A-level sociology, but it should also be useful for students studying methods for psychology, business studies and maybe other subjects too!

Types of interview

Structured or formal interviews are those in which the interviewer asks the interviewee the same questions in the same way to different respondents. This will typically involve reading out questions from a pre-written and pre-coded structured questionnaire, which forms the interview schedule. The most familiar form of this is with market research, where you may have been stopped on the street with a researcher ticking boxes based on your responses.

Unstructured or Informal interviews (also called discovery interviews) are more like a guided conversation. Here the interviewer has a list of topics they want the respondent to talk about, but the interviewer has complete freedom to vary the specific questions from respondent to respondent, so they can follow whatever lines of enquiry they think are most appropriated, depending on the responses given by each respondent.

Semi-Structured interviews are those in which respondents have a list of questions, but they are free to ask further, differentiated questions based on the responses given. This allows more flexibility that the structured interview yet more structure than the informal interview.

Group interviews – Interviews can be conducted either one to one (individual interviews) or in a a group, in which the interviewer interviews two or more respondents at a time. Group discussions among respondents may lead to deeper insight than just interviewing people along, as respondents ‘encourage’ each other.

Focus groups are a type of group interview in which respondents are asked to discuss certain topics.

Interviews: key terms

The Interview Schedule – A list of questions or topic areas the interviewer wishes to ask or cover in the course of the interview. The more structured the interview, the more rigid the interiew schedule will be. Before conducting an interview it is usual for the reseracher to know something about the topic area and the respondents themselves, and so they will have at least some idea of the questions they are likely to ask: even if they are doing ‘unstructred interviews’ an interviewer will have some kind of interview schedule, even if it is just a list of broad topic areas to discuss, or an opening question.

Transcription of interviews -Transcription is the process of writing down (or typing up) what respondents say in an interview. In order to be able to transcribe effectively interviews will need to be recorded.

The problem of Leading Questions – In Unstructured Interviews, the interviewer should aim to avoid asking leading questions.

The Strengths and Limitations of Unstructured Interviews 

Unstructured Interviews Mind Map

The strengths of unstructured interviews

The key strength of unstructured interviews is good validity, but for this to happen questioning should be as open ended as possible to gain genuine, spontaneous information rather than ‘rehearsed responses’ and questioning needs to be sufficient enough to elicit in-depth answers rather than glib, easy answers.

Respondent led – unstructured interviews are ‘respondent led’ – this is because the researcher listens to what the respondent says and then asks further questions based on what the respondent says. This should allow respondents to express themselves and explain their views more fully than with structured interviews.

Flexibility – the researcher can change his or her mind about what the most important questions are as the interview develops. Unstructured Interviews thus avoid the imposition problem – respondents are less constrained than with structured interviews or questionnaires in which the questions are written in advance by the researcher. This is especially advantageous in group interviews, where interaction between respondents can spark conversations that the interviewer hadn’t thought would of happened in advance, which could then be probed further with an unstructured methodology.

Rapport and empathy – unstructured interviews encourage a good rapport between interviewee and interviewer. Because of their informal nature, like guided conversations, unstructured interviews are more likely to make respondents feel at ease than with the more formal setting of a structured questionnaire or experiment. This should encourage openness, trust and empathy.

Checking understanding – unstructured interviews also allow the interviewer to check understanding. If an interviewee doesn’t understand a question, the interviewer is free to rephrase it, or to ask follow up questions to clarify aspects of answers that were not clear in the first instance.

Unstructured interviews are good for sensitive topics because they are more likely to make respondents feel at ease with the interviewer. They also allow the interviewer to show more sympathy (if required) than with the colder more mechanical quantitative methods.

They are good for finding out why respondents do not do certain things. For example postal surveys asking why people do not claim benefits have very low response rates, but informal interviews are perfect for researching people who may have low literacy skills.

Empowerment for respondents – the researcher and respondents are on a more equal footing than with more quantitative methods. The researcher doesn’t assume they know best. This empowers the respondents. Feminists researchers in particular believe that the unstructured interview can neutralise the hierarchical, exploitative power relations that they believe to be inherent in the more traditional interview structure. They see the traditional interview as a site for the exploitation and subordination of women, with the interviewers potentially creating outcomes against their interviewees’ interests. In traditional interview formats the interviewer directs the questioning and takes ownership of the material; in the feminist (unstructured) interview method the woman would recount her experiences in her own words with the interviewer serving only as a guide to the account.

Practical advantages – there are few practical advantages with this method, but compared to full-blown participant observation, they are a relatively quick method for gaining in-depth data. They are also a good method to combine with overt participant observation in order to get respondents to further explain the meanings behind their actions. So in short, they are impractical, unless you’re in the middle of a year long Participant Observation study (it’s all relative!).

The Limitations of unstructured interviews

The main theoretical disadvantage is the lack of reliability – unstructured Interviews lack reliability because each interview is unique – a variety of different questions are asked and phrased in a variety of different ways to different respondents.

They are also difficult to repeat, because the success of the interview depends on the bond of trust between the researcher and the respondent – another researcher who does not relate to the respondent may thus get different answers. Group interviews are especially difficult to repeat, given that the dynamics of the interview are influenced not just by the values of the researcher, but also by group dynamics. One person can change the dynamic of a group of three or four people enormously.

Validity can be undermined in several ways:

  • respondents might prefer to give rational responses rather than fuller emotional ones (it’s harder to talk frankly about emotions with strangers)
  • respondents may not reveal their true thoughts and feelings because they do not coincide with their own self-image, so they simply withhold information
  • respondents may give answers they think the interviewer wants to hear, in attempt to please them!

We also need to keep in mind that interviews can only tap into what people SAY about their values, beliefs and actions, we don’t actually get to see these in action, like we would do with observational studies such as Participant Observation. This has been a particular problem with self-report studies of criminal behaviour. These have been tested using polygraphs, and follow up studies of school and criminal records and responses found to be lacking in validity, so much so that victim-surveys have become the standard method for measuring crime rather than self-report studies.

Interviewer bias might undermine the validity of unstructured interviews – this is where the values of the researcher interfere with the results. The researcher may give away whether they approve or disapprove of certain responses in their body language or tone of voice (or wording of probing questions) and this in turn might encourage or discourage respondents from being honest.

The characteristics of the interviewer might also bias the results and undermine the validity – how honest the respondent is in the course of an hour long interview might depend on the class, gender, or ethnicity of the interviewer.

Sudman and Bradburn (1974) conducted a review of literature and found that responses varied depending on the relative demographics of the interviewer and respondent. For example white interviewers received more socially acceptable responses from black respondents than they did from white respondents. Similar findings have been found with different ethnicities, age, social class and religion.

Unstructured interviews also lack representativeness – because they are time consuming, it is difficult to get a large enough sample to be representative of large populations.

It is difficult to quantify data, compare answers and find stats and trends because the data gained is qualitative.

Practical disadvantages – unstructured Interviews may take a relatively long time to conduct. Some interviews can take hours. They also need to be taped and transcribed, and in the analysis phase there may be a lot of information that is not directly relevant to one’s research topic that needs to be sifted through.

Interpersonal skills and training – A further practical problem is that some researchers may lack the interpersonal skills required to conduct informal unstructured interviews. Training might need to be more thorough for researchers undertaking unstructured interviews – to avoid the problem of interviewer bias.

Shapiro and Eberhart (1947) showed that interviewers who were more prepared to probe received fuller answers, and both response rate and extensiveness of response are greater for more experienced interviewers.

There are few ethical problems, assuming that informed consent is gained and confidentially ensured. Although having said this, the fact that the researcher is getting more in-depth data, more of an insight into who the person really is, does offer the potential for the information to do more harm to the respondent if it got into the wrong hands (but this in turn depends on the topics discussed and the exact content of the interviews.

Sociological perspectives on interviews

Interviews of any kind are not a preferred method for positivists because there is no guarantee that responses aren’t artefacts of the interview situation, rather than a reflection of underlying social reality.

If interviews must be used, Positivists prefer structured interviews that follow a standardised schedule, with each question asked to each respondent in the same way. Interviewers should be neutral, show no emotion, avoid suggesting replies, and not skip questions.

For Interactionists, interviews are based on mutual participant observation. The context of the interview is intrinsic to understanding responses and no distinction between research interviews and other social interaction is recognised. Data are valid when mutual understanding between interviewer and respondent is agreed.

Interactionists prefer non-standardised interviews because they allow respondents to shape the interview according to their own world view.

Denzin (2009) goes as far as to argue that what positivists might perceive as problems with interviews are not problems, just part of the process and thus as valid as the data collected. Thus issues of self-presentation, the power relations between interviewer and respondent and opportunities for fabrication are all part of the context and part of the valid-reality that we are trying to get to.

Related Posts

For more posts on research methods please see my research methods page.

Examples of studies using interviews – Using Interviews to research education.

Participant Observation –  A related qualitative research method – detailed class notes on overt and covert participant observation. 

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Recommended further reading: Gilbert and Stoneman (2016) Researching Social Life

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