Unstructured interviews are the opposite to structured interviews. Unstructured interviews are more like an everyday conversation. They tend to be more informal, open ended, flexible and free flowing. Questions are not pre-set, although there are usually certain topics that the researchers wish to cover. This gives the interview some structure and direction. An unstructured interview is “an interview without any set format but in which the interviewer may have some key questions formulated in advance. Unstructured interviews allow questions based on an interviewee's responses and proceeds like a friendly, non-threatening conversation. However, because each interviewee is asked a different series of questions, this style can lack the reliability and precision of a structured interview. Unstructured interviews are also called non-directive interview.” The definitions of unstructured interview are various. Minichiello (1990) defines unstructured interviews as interviews in which neither the question nor the answer categories are predetermined. They rely on social interaction between the researcher and informant to extract information.
Unstructured interview technique was originated in anthropology and sociology as a method to bring out people’s social realities. Definitions of unstructured interviews change. Minichiello (1990) defined unstructured interview as interviews in which neither the question nor the answer categories are predetermined. They rely on social interaction between the researcher and informant to bring out information. Punch (1998) described unstructured interviews as a way to understand the complex behaviour of people without invading their space, which might limit the field of inquiry.
Patton (1990) regarded unstructured interview a natural extension of participant observation. He defined that the unstructured interview relies entirely on the spontaneous generation of questions in the natural flow of an interaction, typically an interview that occurs as part of on-going participant observation fieldwork.
In 1974, Ann Oakley Interviewed women twice before the birth of their children and then twice afterwards. Each woman was interviewed for nine hours on average. Oakley found that the women asked her questions during these interviews and rather than avoiding answering them she replied as openly and honestly as she could. She wanted the respondents to be collaborators in her research rather than passive respondents. She also found that the women became interested in the research and phoned her with important information.
Advantages of unstructured interviews:
Respondents may be more likely to discuss sensitive and painful experiences if they feel the interviewer is sympathetic and understanding. Joan Smith’s (1998) study about the family's back ground of homeless young people produced detailed and in- depth information using constructive interviews.
They give respondents time and opportunities to develop their answers. They give the respondent the opportunity to take control, to define properties and direct the interview into areas which they see as interesting and significant. This can lead to new and important insights for the researcher.
If respondent feels at ease in the interview they are more likely to open up and say what they really mean. There more likely to provide valid data. Gives the interview more chance to pursue a topic, to explore with any further questions, and ask the respondent to qualify and develop their answers. The data therefore will have a lot more depth.
These interviews can really explore the person’s interests, beliefs and onions without the limitation of pre-set questions. However not everyone agrees this is the only way, The British Social Attitudes Survey uses a detailed structured interview and a self- completion questionnaire to discover attitudes on a range of issues.
Disadvantages of unstructured interviews:
Interviewer bias is unavoidable. To some extent the interviewer will affect the responses of the interviewee. J .Allan Williams Jr (1971) claims that the greater the status difference between the interviewer and the respondent, the less likely respondents are to express their true feelings. He found that African- Americans in the 1960’s were more likely to say they approved of civil rights demonstrations if the interviewer was black rather than white.
Unstructured interviews can develop in all sorts of directions. This makes comparison between data from different interviews different.
People like to present themselves in a favourable light. Respondents tend to be open about and even exaggerate aspects of their behaviour which they see as socially desirable, and to conceal or minimise aspects seen as undesirable.
Respondents have the opportunity to tell lies. Episcopalians in the USA tend to exaggerate the frequency of their attendance at church in order to seem respectful.
Unstructured interviews can take up a great amount of time and cost for the interviews to take place.
Courtesy of Lee Bryant, Director of Sixth Form, Anglo-European School, Ingatestone, Essex