Unstructured Questionnaires are usually formulated around open questions. Open questions may give more valid data, as respondents can say what is important to them and express it in their own words. However, the data is difficult to measure, and understanding is required when using the data. Coding of the answers (putting them into categories) alters the actual replies given by respondents by linking responses that are not identical. Open questionnaires are used by Anti-Positivists. Anti-Positivists prefer to use open questionnaires because they produce qualitative data. Qualitative relates to or is based on the quality or character of something, often as opposed to its size or quantity.


How valid are unstructured questionnaires?


Supporters of qualitative methods often argue that quantitative methods lack validity e.g. a questionnaire may produce neat, tidy quantitative data. But the process of completing a questionnaire is a long way from people normal everyday behavior. As a result, this research method and the data it produces may lack ecological validity.


Quantitative methods are seen as to lack the depth to describe accurately the meanings and motives that form the basis of social action. They use categories imposed on the social world by sociologists-categories that may have little meaning or relevance to other members of society. They are therefore lacking in measurement validity.


How reliable are unstructured questionnaires?


Quantitative methods are seen to provide greater reliability. They usually produce standardized data in a statistical form the research can be repeated and the results checked. Questionnaires can be used to test precise hypotheses which the researcher has divided.


Qualitative methods are often criticized for failing to meet the same standards of reliability. Such methods may be seen as unreliable because the procedures used to collect data can be unsystematic, the results are rarely quantified, and there is no way of replicating a qualitative study and checking the reliability of its findings.


The use of unstructured questionnaires is preferred by feminist researchers who have dismissed what they call ‘malestream research’ by men as being too patriarchal and sexist. The claim that there can be distinctive feminist research methods-this approach argues that the more conventional ‘scientific’ methods used by men are not particularly good at helping the researcher to understand social reality; particularly, though not exclusively, the reality of women. They claim that feminism can reveal a distinctive epistemology, or theory of knowledge, which is superior to other epistemologies.


In 1981, Ann Oakley found the following when interviews were done by men:


She discovered a masculine approach to interviewing which had the following characteristics:


  1. The interviewers maintained their distance with respondents



  1. There was no emotional involvement between the interviewer and respondent.


  1. Interviews were manipulated as ‘objects of study/sources of data’


  1. Those being interviewed always had a passive role and were never allowed to shape the interview.


  1. The interviewers made it clear that he was there to ask questions and not to answer them.


  1. The interviewers avoided expressing any opinion of their own.


Oakley drew upon her own experience of interviewing women about becoming mothers. She conducted 178 interviews, with most women being interviewed twice before the birth of their child and twice afterwards. She found that the women often wanted to ask her questions. Instead of avoiding answering them, Oakley decided to answer their questions as openly and honestly as she could. She wanted the women to become collaborators and friends. Oakley claims “the women were reacting to my own evident wish for a relatively intimate and non-hierarchical relationship”.


Oakley adopted this approach not just to give some help to the women and to avoid exploiting them, in return for their participation. She also believed it improved the quality of the research. It allowed her to get closer to the subjective viewpoints of the women being studied. It also played some role in trying to change and improve the experience of becoming a mother for the women involved.


Oakley concluded that interviewing that breaks down the barriers between researchers and their subject is preferable to masculine, ‘scientific’ interviewing.


The advantages of an unstructured approach are said to be:


The respondent can answer in any way that they wish; therefore they can lead the interview; they are the better means of finding out ‘true’ opinion and identifying how strongly attitudes are held e.g. Ann Oakley’s 178 interviews; for positivists the statistical patterns revealed can be used to develop new theories; and questionnaires can be devised to test existing theories. This can be known as triangulation. Feminist methodology is less male dominated/exploitative than conventional research methods.


The disadvantages of an unstructured approach are said to be:


The coding of open questionnaires data distorts the distinct answers given by individuals; they require more thought and time on the part of respondent. This reduces the number of questions that can realistically be asked; the cost will be fairly expensive due to coding; it is more difficult to even out opinion across a sample of questionnaires using open questions; respondents may answer in unhelpful ways as they may not take it seriously like the census; respondents may have trouble expressing themselves accurately and the Halo effect.


The ‘Halo Effect’ refers to a common bias, in the impression people form of others, by which attributes are often generalized. Implicitly nice people, for example, are assumed to have all nice attributes. This can lead to misleading judgements: for example, clever people may falsely be assumed to be knowledgeable about everything. This can be a disadvantage when using open questionnaires due to making assumptions.

Courtesy of Lee Bryant, Director of Sixth Form, Anglo-European School, Ingatestone, Essex