A structured interview, or a standardised interview is a quantitative research method commonly used in survey research. The aim of this approach is to confirm that each interview is offered with exactly the same questions in the same order. This guarantees that answers can be reliably collected and that comparisons can be made with confidence between sample subgroups or between different survey periods.
The strengths of a structured interview are that:
• It enables the researcher to examine the level of understanding a respondent has about a specific topic – usually a lot more depth than with a postal questionnaire.
• All respondents are asked the same questions in the same manner. This makes it easy to replicate the discussion. In other words, this type of research method is easy to regulate or standardise.
• It can be used as an influential form of formative assessment. It can be used to discover how a respondent feels about a specific topic before using a second method (such as in-depth interviewing or observation) to collect a superior depth of information. Structured interviews can also be used to recognize respondents whose views you may want to discover in more detail (through the use of focused interviews).
• If it’s possible to quickly and easily apply this method to a large, representative sample of people it should also be fairly easy to simplify your findings from the sample to the general / target population.
The weaknesses of a structured interview are that:
• Can be time consuming if a sample group is very large (this is because the researcher or their representative needs to be present for each structured interview).
• The quality and convenience of the information is vastly dependent on the quality of the questions asked. The interviewer cannot change the questions, they must all stay the same.
• An extensive amount of pre-planning is necessary.
• The format of questionnaire design makes it tricky for the researcher to examine intricate issues and opinions. Even where open-ended questions are used, the depth of answers the respondent can provide often are more limited than with almost any other method.
How reliable are structured interviews?
• This method is usually quite reliable (an interview can be easily repeated, for example).
• However, this will depend on the nature and delivery of the sample used.
How valid are they?
• Validity is usually not very high – it’s not easy to get a great depth of information because there’s not much scope for the interviewer to ask highly detailed, complex questions. The respondent also tends to be restricted in terms of the depth of answers they can give (Hawthorne effect). As the questions are pre-planned (decided in advance of the interview) the researcher and the respondent can’t diverge significantly from the questions asked. This means that potentially significant areas / topics that had not been considered by the researcher cannot be simply searched.
Interviews can be used to collect facts, eg: information about people’s place of work, age, etc., but such questions are usually no more than opening items which precede the main substance. The bulk of interview questions seek to elicit information about attitudes and opinions, perspectives and meanings, the very stuff of much of both psychology and sociology. Interviews are also in common used as a means of selection – for entry to school or college, getting a job or obtaining promotion. They are widely used because they are a powerful means of both obtaining information and gaining insights. We use them because they give us an idea of ‘what makes people tick’, of the personality and the motivations of the interviewee.
Interviews are available in a range of styles, some of which are pre-packed and mass marketed so they can be more or less picked off the shelf. If you have ever been stopped in the high street to be quizzed about your use of toiletries, you’ll know what a closed-ended, structured interview feels like on the receiving end. Social scientists make similar use of tightly controlled pre-set interviews which have been piloted on sample groups to test their efficiency and accuracy before being tried out on larger populations.
Structured interviews are questionnaires administered by a researcher. Unstructured interviews do not have pre-set questions and are more like a conversation.
Most interviews in the work force are partly structured, with some pre-set questions, or the researcher has a list of topics to cover. An important factor in interviewing is ensuring they are non-directive meaning they try to avoid influencing the interviewee, in order to increase the objectivity of the research.
Interviewing within education is a practical and flexible method of research. Interviews can examine past, present or future behaviour, subjective states, opinions, attitudes or simple factual qualifications and information. They can be as in-depth or as superficial as the researcher wants.
For feminists, interviews have theoretical advantages since they provide space for critical reflection and interaction between interviewer and interviewee.
Within education, structured interviews are normally the main form in which interviews take place. The interviewer will have some pre-set questions and aim to find out more about the interviewee in general conversational terms as well as usually wanting to see their interaction with others in a classroom for example.
The negative of this is that the presence of the researcher may influence answers. Labov (1973) found that the race of the interviewer affected young black children in speech tests. Interviewers might consciously or unconsciously lead respondents towards preferred answers. Personal beliefs could alter the integrity of the interview; sexism or racism are often examples of this.
Social factors such as ethnicity may influence the sort of answers members of different social groups are willing to give.
Which form of interviewing is better?
Becker (1970) suggests that more aggressive interviewing is useful for some topics – for example, hidden racist feelings may be revealed through confrontation.
Some feminists believe that interviewees should be collaborators in the research.
Group interviews are sometimes used to put respondents at ease or to make respondents more reflective and more likely to open up as a result of interaction between others. Quantitative researchers prefer interviews to participant observation because larger samples can be used; statistical data can be produced with the coding of questions; the research can be replicated to increase reliability.
Qualitative researchers prefer interviews to questionnaires because concepts can be clarified; there is more opportunity for respondents to express ideas in their own way, say what is important to them and explore issues in depth.
Despite their imperfections, the practicality and flexibility of interviews makes them attractive to researchers using different theoretical perspectives, and they are widely used. Hammersley & Gomm (2004) believe that interview data should be handled carefully but that interviewing remains useful when combined with other methods.
Courtesy of Lee Bryant, Director of Sixth Form, Anglo-European School, Ingatestone, Essex