At first sight, a scientific interview resembles a common conversation, a qualitative interview even more so than a standardized one. Unlike a day-to-day conversation, however, such an interview takes place in an artificial situation, follows specific rules, and is conducted to reach a predefined goal. An open-ended interview can be conducted for two different reasons. It may be explorative, which means that it is used to gather a first understanding of a topic, a deeper insight into the relevant dimensions in question, and an idea of the terms used in describing these dimensions. An explorative interview is only the first in a series of other, usually standardized, research steps. A qualitative interview, on the other hand, is a method of inquiry in its own right. It is theoretically rooted in symbolic interactionism and Max Weber’s verstehender Soziologie. The great value of open-ended interviews lies in the fact that respondents are allowed to tell it “their way” with a minimum of direction, thus offering their understanding of the topic in question in the context of and from their social position.
The Interview Situation
In an interview both participants actively construct some version of the world. Hermanns (2005) describes the interview as a stand-up “interpersonal drama” consisting of three dilemmas: first, the dilemma of vagueness: the interview has to contribute to answering the research question although its structure is and has to be quite vague; second, the dilemma of fairness: the interviewer must try to find out as much about the interviewee as possible without becoming disrespectful; and third, the dilemma of self-presentation: the situation must be as natural as possible although the interviewer is enacting a specific naïve role without disclosing his or her own self. To enact a successful drama, the interviewer has to create a situational frame by briefing the interviewee about the purpose of the interview and its rules. Furthermore, he or she must establish a rapport, creating space for the interviewee to open up and let the “drama” develop itself. As the interview situation is hardly standardized, the interviewer has to be familiar with the study’s aims and research questions. Furthermore, he or she has to be trained in the field of interviewing.
Types Of Interviews
The rules of interviewing, noted above, vary from one type of interview to another. A fundamental difference exists between individual and group interviews.
Individual interviews can be differentiated in terms of standardization. A classical standardized interview imposes a certain structure on the situation as it selects the theme and the topics of conversation, question order, and question wording. Although qualitative interviews never follow a strict question–answer scheme, there are semi-structured and unstructured types of interviews. The former select a theme and certain topics without a strict order and specific wording. The latter do nothing like that, which leads to a more interviewee-controlled situation. All forms, however, have one thing in common: the essence of a qualitative interview is that it seeks to discover what may account for certain kinds of behavior. It seeks deeper understanding of factors, sometimes covert, that influence behavior, media use or certain attitudes. It is an intrinsically subjective technique. It cannot and does not seek to produce statistical evidence but it is able to provide unique insights into the motives and aims of a certain kind of behavior or the foundation of a specific attitude. Qualitative interviews, especially individual ones, offer the possibility of retrieving unconscious motives, attitudes, and goals. In talking, the interviewee may give himself or herself certain cues that elicit comments or statements that would not have surfaced in a standardized interview. Types of semi-structured interview are the topic-guide interview and the problem-centered interview, a mix of topic-guide questions and narrative episodes. Interviews with experts usually use a topic guide as well and can thus be subsumed under this point. Merton and Kendall’s focus interview is semi-standardized as well. As it is used as a group technique more often today, it will be discussed under that heading, below. Unstructured, openended interviews aim at understanding the respondent’s notions and attitudes. They are also called in-depth interviews, a term that derives from clinical interviewing. There are several types of in-depth interviews. Narrative interviews, for instance, reconstruct social events as first-hand experience via storytelling. The underlying notion is that stories are rather based on actions and plots and less influenced by ex post rationalizations. Biographic interviews aim at understanding people’s lives, and ethnographic interviews are usually integrated into studies of participant observation to provide so called “thick descriptions” of the complexities of everyday life.
Lunt and Livingstone (1996, 80) describe the group interview method briefly as bringing together a group of subjects to discuss an issue in the presence of a moderator, who ensures that the topic of discussion stays in focus, while eliciting a wide range of opinions on that issue. It is important that he or she does not lead one-to-one conversations but stimulates a dialogue between the group members. The moderator’s role varies depending on the research goals. He or she will intervene less if the discussion is more explorative. Usually group discussions are face-to-face-interviews. Due to technical developments, online discussions are possible as well (chats). It is important to note that a group interview is not an easy way to elicit a range of opinions from different people at the same time and, thus, a means of speeding up social research. Group dynamics will interfere with every single opinion. Group interviews should, therefore, only be conducted if the research topic in question has to do with social interaction (like notions of public opinion). Interview groups can consist of existing social clusters that already share common experiences. Thus, the discussion is more authentic. Groups can be established specifically for the research situation. Such ad hoc groups are usually more flexible in terms of topic. They may be heterogeneous or homogeneous as regards relevant, usually socio-demographic, categories. The former may have different conversation styles, inhibiting the discussion. On the other hand, different perspectives are brought into the discussion. Interview groups usually comprise 6–10 persons and take place in a rather informal setting. The moderator has to monitor “a complex social situation, encourage contributions, and manage disruptions, diversion, and other problematic group dynamics” (Lunt & Livingstone 1996, 82). He or she usually uses a discussion schedule comparable to a topic guide in an individual interview.
Usually each group discussion is conducted once, although one can repeat meetings of the same group if necessary. One should run discussions to the point of theoretical saturation, i.e., until the last group has nothing new to add. The “right” number, therefore, depends on the topic at hand and the productiveness of the groups. The origin of group interviewing lies within the Frankfurt School and their concept of “group opinion.” This opinion is said to be the product of collective interactions rather than the sum of individual beliefs. Group opinions can be made visible in a group interview situation. Two basic approaches can be distinguished. Merton (1987) coined the term “focus group” to describe a method of generating hypotheses and research questions in a group situation. He used a focus, usually a short film or an ad, to concentrate the respondents’ attention on a particular issue or topic. Focus groups, to him, offer the possibility of identifying the salient dimensions of a complex topic to complement further quantitative research (explorative approach). In the realm of the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS; e.g., Morley, Willis), another understanding was established, that of “group discussions.” This approach was based on the notion that meaning is created socially. The interactive nature of a group discussion makes this process both visible and understandable. The groups are representatives of real social entities such as classes, and thus share common interpretative codes that are represented within the discussions. Commonly, group discussions like this are very much open-ended and try to document the rise of certain theoretical aspects with limited interference by the moderator. The main difference between the focus group approach and the group discussion is that the latter enables the representation of results that can thus be generalized.
Analyzing Qualitative Interviews
The interviews, be they individual or group discussions, should be audioor video-taped in an unobtrusive way and later transcribed. The level of detail of the transcript depends on the aim of the study, as well as on the involvement of paralinguistic features like voice tone or pauses. The transcripts are analyzed manually or by using specific software. Two ways of analyzing can be distinguished, theoretical and thematic coding. The latter uses a priori categories; the former works on the material to built categories (open coding; Glaser & Strauss 1967). In both the guiding principle is the exchange between the material and the (emerging) theory in terms of a circle. The main focus varies between interpretative sensitivity and systematic coding (Lunt & Livingstone 1996). The aim is the reduction of complexity and the finding of structures. This method is rooted in Foucault’s theories, and analyzes the dependence between conversational actions and social structures.
Sampling In Qualitative Interviewing
Qualitative studies usually search for the special rather than the general. Therefore sampling does not strive for representativity. As the population is usually not known beforehand, this would be a problem anyway. More relevant sampling criteria are accessibility and typicality, as the aim is not to generalize but to generate variance. Two sampling methods are used in qualitative studies: classic and theoretical sampling. The former uses an a priori matrix based on specific characteristics to choose the subjects. The latter evolves while the research is in progress based on the collected findings. A convenient and therefore frequently used way of sampling is the so-called snowball method, where one research subject gives the names of other possible participants. This method is convenient but often leads to clustered samples.
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