Feminists are said to support the use of unstructured interviews as a research technique as opposed to structured interviews. Semi and unstructured interviews are methods widely used in feminist research as they are claimed to “convey a deeper feeling for or more emotional closeness to the persons studied” (Jayaratne 1983). Feminist researchers, greatly influenced by the work of Ann Oakley, make every effort to conduct interviews in a way that does not further oppress the participant. They try to actively involve the participant in the research process as much as possible.
The feminist view is that it is wrong to exclude emotions in the pursuit of rationality. Emotional responses are a cause of social action. Emotions and sensitive issues are picked up particularly by the use of unstructured interviews.
Ann Oakley argued that a close and equal relationship to the researched can actually lead to an achievement of more fruitful and significant data. Howard Becker (1971) suggested that interviews should be more conversational in nature, and feminists such as Ann Oakley have argued that this is particularly relevant when interviewing women. She argues that traditional guidelines contradict the aims of feminist research and that for a feminist interviewing women, the “use of prescribed interviewing practice is morally indefensible (and) general and irreconcilable contradictions at the heart of the textbook are exposed”.
By giving them more control of the interview and the range of topics that are covered, the researcher gains greater in-depth material. In research methods terms this means that these kinds of interviews provide greater internal validity.
Unstructured Interviews can also be used to determine a respondent’s grasp on the actual question, using questions which can be explained and the answer to the questions can be easily interpreted helps to obtain the answers you require.
It allows the respondent to respond freely and in depth. Interpretivists claim a number of strengths for this method: trust can be developed, which may generate more qualitative information; they are flexible because the conversation is not constrained by fixed questions. This may generate more valid information (especially if the respondent can see their input is being valued) and they provide more opportunity for respondents to say what they want rather than what the interviewer expects.
However, positivists see this method as unscientific because it isn’t standardised and doesn’t produce quantifiable data. It depends upon a unique relationship between interviewer and interviewee and is therefore difficult to replicate.
Another disadvantage of unstructured interviews is the lack or reliability because: the researcher is able only to interview a few people; these people are unlikely to be a random sample; they may give responses which are so individual that other researchers are unlikely to be able to replicate the survey and these answers are much more complex to analyse.
In research methods terms this means that these interviews have less external validity and reliability than research based on a set of uncontrolled questions that are more easily analysed and based on a wide and random sample.
Although unstructured interviews provide a less formal environment the interviewee will still know it is an interview so there answers may reflect this knowledge, the interview is an artificial environment unlike a practical observation in a classroom.
Answers may also be adversely affected by status differences between the interviewer and the person being interviews, e.g. social class, gender, ethnicity and age.
Unstructured interviews are most useful when you want to gain an in-depth understanding of a particular event within a particular cultural context.
It is useful to allow the interview/conversation to be mutually shaped by you and the interviewee. Imposing too much structure on the interview will hinder the interviewee’s responses and you are likely to come away with only an incomplete understanding of the event of interest.
Courtesy of Lee Bryant, Director of Sixth Form, Anglo-European School, Ingatestone, Essex