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Using interviews to research education

Interviews are one of the most commonly used qualitative research methods in the sociology of education. In this post I consider some of the strengths and limitations of using interviews to research education, focussing mainly on unstructured interviews.

This post is primarily designed to get students thinking about methods in context, or ‘applied research methods’. Before reading through this students might like to brush up on methods in context by reading this introductory post. Links to other methods in context advice posts can be found at the bottom of the research methods page (link above!)

Practical issues with interviews  

Gaining access may be a problem as schools are hierarchical institutions and the lower down the hierarchy an individual is, the more permissions the interviewer will require to gain access to interview them. For example, you might require the headmaster’s permission to interview a teacher, while to interview pupils you’ll require the headmasters and their parent’s permission.

However, if you can gain consent, and get the headmaster onside, the hierarchy may make doing interviews more efficient – the headmaster can instruct teachers to release pupils from lessons to do the interviews, for example.

Interviews tend to take more time than questionnaires, and so finding the time to do the interviews may be a problem – teachers are unlikely to want to give up lesson time for interviews, and pupils are unlikely to want spend their free time in breaks or after school taking part in interviews. Where teachers are concerned, they do tend to be quite busy, so they may be reluctant to give up time in their day to do interviews.

However, if the topic is especially relevant or interesting, this will be less of a problem, and the interviewer could use incentives (rewards) to encourage respondents to take part. Group interviews would also be more time efficient.

Younger respondents tend to have more difficulty in keeping to the point, and they often pick up on unexpected details in questions, which can make interviews take longer.

Younger respondents may have a shorter attention span than adults, which means that interviews need to be kept short.

Validity issues

Students may see the interviewer as the ‘teacher in disguise’ – they may see them as part of the hierarchical structure of the institution, which could distort their responses. This could make pupils give socially desirable responses. With questions about homework, for example, students may tell the interviewer they are doing the number of hours that the school tells them they should be doing, rather than the actual number of hours they spend doing homework.

To overcome this the teacher might consider conducting interviews away from school premises and ensure that confidentiality is guaranteed.

Young people’s intellectual and linguistic skills are less developed that adults and the interviewer needs to keep in mind that:

  • They may not understand longer words or more complex sentences.
  • They may lack the language to be able to express themselves clearly
  • They may have a shorter attention span than adults
  • They may read body language different to adults

Having said all of that, younger people are probably going to be more comfortable speaking rather than reading and writing if they have poor communication skills, which means interviews are nearly always going to be a better choice than questionnaires where younger pupils are concerned.

To ensure greater validity in interviews, researchers should try to do the following:

  • Avoid using leading questions as young people are more suggestible than adults.
  • Use open ended questions
  • Not interrupt students’ responses
  • Learn to tolerate pauses while students think.
  • Avoid repeating questions, which makes students change their first answer as they think it was wrong.

Unstructured interviews may thus be more suitable than structured interviews, because they make it easier for the researcher to rephrase questions if necessary.

The location may affect the validity of responses – if a student associates school with authority, and the interview takes place in a school, then they are probably more likely to give socially desirable answers.

If the researcher is conducting interviews over several days, later respondents may get wind of the topics/ questions which may influence the responses they give.

Ethical issues

Schools and parents may object to students being interviewed about sensitive topics such as drugs or sexuality, so they may not give consent.

To overcome this the researcher might consider doing interviews with the school alongside their PSHE programme.

Interviews may be unsettling for some students – they are, after all, artificial situations. This could be especially true of group interviews, depending on who is making up the groups.

Group interviews

Peer group interviews may well be a good a choice for researchers studying topics within the sociology of education.

Advantages 

  • Group interviews can create a safe environment for pupils
  • Peer-group discussion should be something pupils are familiar with from lessons
  • Peer-support can reduce the power imbalance between interviewer and students
  • The free-flowing nature of the group interview could allow for more information to come forth.
  • The group interview also allows the researcher to observe group dynamics.
  • They are more time efficient than one on one interviews.

Disadvantages

  • Peer pressure may mean students are reluctant to be honest for fear of ridicule
  • Students may also encourage each other to exaggerate or lie for laffs.
  • Group interviews are unpredictable, and very difficult to standardise and repeat which mean they are low in validity.
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Interviews in Social Research: Advantages and Disadvantages

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.

Types of interview, and key terms

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.

Unstructured or Informal interviews (also called discovery interviews) are more like a guided conversation. The interviewer has complete freedom to vary the 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.

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 interviews have their own unique strengths and limitations which we”ll return to later.

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

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

The advantages of unstructured interviews

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.

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!).

Disadvantages 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.

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.

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.

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.

Related Posts 

Participant Observation –  detailed class notes on overt and covert participant observation.