9.2 Qualitative interviews

Learning Objectives

  • Define interviews from the social scientific perspective
  • Identify when it is appropriate to employ interviews as a data-collection strategy
  • Identify the primary aim of in-depth interviews
  • Describe what makes qualitative interview techniques unique
  • Define the term interview guide and describe how to construct an interview guide
  • Outline the guidelines for constructing good qualitative interview questions
  • Describe how writing field notes and journaling function in qualitative research
  • Identify the strengths and weaknesses of interviews

Knowing how to create and conduct a good interview is an essential skill. Interviews are used by market researchers to learn how to sell their products, and journalists use interviews to get information from a whole host of people from VIPs to random people on the street. Police use interviews to investigate crimes.

In social science,  interviews are a method of data collection that involves two or more people exchanging information through a series of questions and answers. The questions are designed by the researcher to elicit information from interview participants on a specific topic or set of topics. These topics are informed by the research questions. Typically, interviews involve an in-person meeting between two people—an interviewer and an interviewee — but interviews need not be limited to two people, nor must they occur in-person.

The question of when to conduct an interview might be on your mind. Interviews are an excellent way to gather detailed information. They also have an advantage over surveys—they can change as you learn more information. In a survey, you cannot change what questions you ask if a participant’s response sparks some follow-up question in your mind. All participants must get the same questions. The questions you decided to put on your survey during the design stage determine what data you get. In an interview, however, you can follow up on new and unexpected topics that emerge during the conversation. Trusting in emergence and learning from participants are hallmarks of qualitative research. In this way, interviews are a useful method to use when you want to know the story behind the responses you might receive in a written survey.

Interviews are also useful when the topic you are studying is rather complex, requires lengthy explanation, or needs a dialogue between two people to thoroughly investigate. Also, if people will describe the process by which a phenomenon occurs, like how a person makes a decision, then interviews may be the best method for you. For example, you could use interviews to gather data about how people reach the decision not to have children and how others in their lives have responded to that decision. To understand these “how’s” you would need to have some back-and-forth dialogue with respondents. When they begin to tell you their story, inevitably new questions that hadn’t occurred to you from prior interviews would come up because each person’s story is unique. Also, because the process of choosing not to have children is complex for many people, describing that process by responding to closed-ended questions on a survey wouldn’t work particularly well.

Interview research is especially useful when:

  • You wish to gather very detailed information
  • You anticipate wanting to ask respondents follow-up questions based on their responses
  • You plan to ask questions that require lengthy explanation
  • You are studying a complex or potentially confusing topic to respondents
  • You are studying processes, such as how people make decisions

Qualitative interviews are sometimes called intensive or in-depth interviews. These interviews are semi-structured; the researcher has a particular topic about which she would like to hear from the respondent, but questions are open-ended and may not be asked in exactly the same way or in exactly the same order to each and every respondent. For in-depth interviews, the primary aim is to hear from respondents about what they think is important about the topic at hand and to hear it in their own words. In this section, we’ll take a look at how to conduct qualitative interviews, analyze interview data, and identify some of the strengths and weaknesses of this method.

Constructing an interview guide

Qualitative interviews might feel more like a conversation than an interview to respondents, but the researcher is in fact usually guiding the conversation with the goal in mind of gathering specific information from a respondent. Qualitative interviews use open-ended questions, which are questions that a researcher poses but does not provide answer options for. Open-ended questions are more demanding of participants than closed-ended questions because they require participants to come up with their own words, phrases, or sentences to respond.


In a qualitative interview, the researcher usually develops an interview guide in advance to refer to during the interview (or memorizes in advance of the interview). An interview guide is a list of questions or topics that the interviewer hopes to cover during the course of an interview. It is called a guide because it is simply that—it is used to guide the interviewer, but it is not set in stone. Think of an interview guide like an agenda for the day or a to-do list—both probably contain all the items you hope to check off or accomplish, though it probably won’t be the end of the world if you don’t accomplish everything on the list or if you don’t accomplish it in the exact order that you have it written down. Perhaps new events will come up that cause you to rearrange your schedule just a bit, or perhaps you simply won’t get to everything on the list.

Interview guides should outline issues that a researcher feels are likely to be important. Because participants are asked to provide answers in their own words and to raise points they believe are important, each interview is likely to flow a little differently. While the opening question in an in-depth interview may be the same across all interviews, from that point on, what the participant says will shape how the interview proceeds. Sometimes participants answer a question on the interview guide before it is asked. When the interviewer comes to that question later on in the interview, it’s a good idea to acknowledge that they already addressed part of this question and ask them if they have anything to add to their response.  All of this uncertainty can make in-depth interviewing exciting and rather challenging. It takes a skilled interviewer to be able to ask questions; listen to respondents; and pick up on cues about when to follow up, when to move on, and when to simply let the participant speak without guidance or interruption.

As we’ve discussed, interview guides can list topics or questions. The specific format of an interview guide might depend on your style, experience, and comfort level as an interviewer or with your topic. Figure 9.1 provides an example of an interview guide for a study of how young people experience workplace sexual harassment. The guide is topic-based, rather than a list of specific questions. The ordering of the topics is important, though how each comes up during the interview may vary.


interview guide using topics, not questions
Figure 9.1 Interview guide displaying topics rather than questions.

For interview guides that use questions, there can also be specific words or phrases for follow-up in case the participant does not mention those topics in their responses. These probes, as well as the questions are written out in the interview guide, but may not always be used. Figure 9.2 provides an example of an interview guide that uses questions rather than topics.


interview guide using questions rather than topic
Figure 9.2 Interview guide displaying questions rather than topics

As you might have guessed, interview guides do not appear out of thin air. They are the result of thoughtful and careful work on the part of a researcher. As you can see in both of the preceding guides, the topics and questions have been organized thematically and in the order in which they are likely to proceed (though keep in mind that the flow of a qualitative interview is in part determined by what a respondent has to say). Sometimes qualitative interviewers may create two versions of the interview guide: one version contains a very brief outline of the interview, perhaps with just topic headings, and another version contains detailed questions underneath each topic heading. In this case, the researcher might use the very detailed guide to prepare and practice in advance of actually conducting interviews and then just bring the brief outline to the interview. Bringing an outline, as opposed to a very long list of detailed questions, to an interview encourages the researcher to actually listen to what a participant is saying. An overly detailed interview guide can be difficult to navigate during an interview and could give respondents the mis-impression the interviewer is more interested in the questions than in the participant’s answers.

Constructing an interview guide often begins with brainstorming. There are no rules at the brainstorming stage—simply list all the topics and questions that come to mind when you think about your research question. Once you’ve got a pretty good list, you can begin to pare it down by cutting questions and topics that seem redundant and group similar questions and topics together. If you haven’t done so yet, you may also want to come up with question and topic headings for your grouped categories. You should also consult the scholarly literature to find out what kinds of questions other interviewers have asked in studies of similar topics and what theory indicates might be important. As with quantitative survey research, it is best not to place very sensitive or potentially controversial questions at the very beginning of your qualitative interview guide. You need to give participants the opportunity to warm up to the interview and to feel comfortable talking with you. Finally, get some feedback on your interview guide. Ask your friends, other researchers, and your professors for some guidance and suggestions once you’ve come up with what you think is a strong guide. Chances are they’ll catch a few things you hadn’t noticed. Once you begin your interviews, your participants may also suggest revisions or improvements.

In terms of the specific questions you include in your guide, there are a few guidelines worth noting. First, avoid questions that can be answered with a simple yes or no. Try to rephrase your questions in a way that invites longer responses from your interviewees. If you choose to include yes or no questions, be sure to include follow-up questions. Remember, one of the benefits of qualitative interviews is that you can ask participants for more information—be sure to do so. While it is a good idea to ask follow-up questions, try to avoid asking “why” as your follow-up question, as this particular question can come off as confrontational, even if that is not your intent. Often people won’t know how to respond to “why,” perhaps because they don’t even know why themselves. Instead of asking “why,” you say something like, “Could you tell me a little more about that?” This allows participants to explain themselves further without feeling that they’re being doubted or questioned in a hostile way.

Also, try to avoid phrasing your questions in a leading way. For example, rather than asking, “Don’t you think most people who don’t want to have children are selfish?” you could ask, “What comes to mind for you when you hear someone doesn’t want to have children?” Finally, remember to keep most, if not all, of your questions open-ended. The key to a successful qualitative interview is giving participants the opportunity to share information in their own words and in their own way. Documenting the decisions made along the way regarding which questions are used, thrown out, or revised can help a researcher remember the thought process behind the interview guide when she is analyzing the data. Additionally, it promotes the rigor of the qualitative project as a whole, ensuring the researcher is proceeding in a reflective and deliberate manner that can be checked by others reviewing her study.

Recording qualitative data

Even after the interview guide is constructed, the interviewer is not yet ready to begin conducting interviews. The researcher has to decide how to collect and maintain the information that is provided by participants. Researchers keep field notes or written recordings produced by the researcher during the data collection process.  Field notes can be taken before, during, or after interviews. Field notes help researchers document what they observe, and in so doing, they form the first step of data analysis. Field notes may contain many things—observations of body language or environment, reflections on whether interview questions are working well, and connections between ideas that participants share.


Unfortunately, even the most diligent researcher cannot write down everything that is seen or heard during an interview. In particular, it is difficult for a researcher to be truly present and observant if she is also writing down everything the participant is saying. For this reason, it is quite common for interviewers to create audio recordings of the interviews they conduct. Recording interviews allows the researcher to focus on the interaction with the interview participant.

Of course, not all participants will feel comfortable being recorded and sometimes even the interviewer may feel that the subject is so sensitive that recording would be inappropriate. If this is the case, it is up to the researcher to balance excellent note-taking with exceptional question-asking and even better listening.

Whether you will be recording your interviews or not (and especially if not), practicing the interview in advance is crucial. Ideally, you’ll find a friend or two willing to participate in a couple of trial runs with you. Even better, find a friend or two who are similar in at least some ways to your sample. They can give you the best feedback on your questions and your interview demeanor.

Another issue interviewers face is documenting the decisions made during the data collection process. Qualitative research is open to new ideas that emerge through the data collection process. For example, a participant might suggest a new concept you hadn’t thought of before or define a concept in a new way. This may lead you to create new questions or ask questions in a different way to future participants. These processes should be documented in a process called journaling or memoing. Journal entries are notes to yourself about reflections or methodological decisions that emerge during the data collection process. Documenting these are important, as you’d be surprised how quickly you can forget what happened. Journaling makes sure that when it comes time to analyze your data, you remember how, when, and why certain changes were made. The discipline of journaling in qualitative research helps to ensure the rigor of the research process—that is its trustworthiness and authenticity which we will discuss later in this chapter.

Strengths and weaknesses of qualitative interviews

As we’ve mentioned in this section, qualitative interviews are an excellent way to gather detailed information. Any topic can be explored in much more depth with interviews than with almost any other method. Not only are participants given the opportunity to elaborate in a way that is not possible with other methods such as survey research, but they also are able share information with researchers in their own words and from their own perspectives. Whereas, quantitative research asks participants to fit their perspectives into the limited response options provided by the researcher. And because qualitative interviews are designed to elicit detailed information, they are especially useful when a researcher’s aim is to study social processes or the “how” of various phenomena. Yet another, and sometimes overlooked, benefit of in-person qualitative interviews is that researchers can make observations beyond those that a respondent is orally reporting. A respondent’s body language, and even their choice of time and location for the interview, might provide a researcher with useful data.

Of course, all these benefits come with some drawbacks. As with quantitative survey research, qualitative interviews rely on respondents’ ability to accurately and honestly recall specific details about their lives, circumstances, thoughts, opinions, or behaviors. Further, as you may have already guessed, qualitative interviewing is time-intensive and can be quite expensive. Creating an interview guide, identifying a sample, and conducting interviews are just the beginning. Writing out what was said in interviews and analyzing the qualitative interview data are time consuming processes. Keep in mind you are also asking for more of participants’ time than if you’d simply mailed them a questionnaire containing closed-ended questions. Conducting qualitative interviews is not only labor-intensive but can also be emotionally taxing. Seeing and hearing the impact that social problems have on respondents is difficult. Researchers embarking on a qualitative interview project should keep in mind their own abilities to receive stories that may be difficult to hear.


Key Takeaways

  • Understanding how to design and conduct interview research is a useful skill to have.
  • In a social scientific interview, two or more people exchange information through a series of questions and answers.
  • Interview research is often used when detailed information is required and when a researcher wishes to examine processes.
  • In-depth interviews are semi-structured interviews where the researcher has topics and questions in mind to ask, but questions are open-ended and flow according to how the participant responds to each.
  • Interview guides can vary in format but should contain some outline of the topics you hope to cover during the course of an interview.
  • Qualitative interviews allow respondents to share information in their own words and are useful for gathering detailed information and understanding social processes.
  • Field notes and journaling are ways to document thoughts and decisions about the research process
  • Drawbacks of qualitative interviews include reliance on respondents’ accuracy and their intensity in terms of time, expense, and possible emotional strain.



  • Field notes- written notes produced by the researcher during the data collection process
  • In-depth interviews- interviews in which researchers hear from respondents about what they think is important about the topic at hand in the respondent’s own words
  • Interviews- a method of data collection that involves two or more people exchanging information through a series of questions and answers
  • Interview guide- a list of questions or topics that the interviewer hopes to cover during the course of an interview
  • Journaling- making notes of emerging issues and changes during the research process
  • Semi-structured interviews- questions are open ended and may not be asked in exactly the same way or in exactly the same order to each and every respondent


Image attributions

interview restaurant a pair by alda2 CC-0

questions by geralt CC-0

Figure 9.1 is copied from Blackstone, A. (2012) Principles of sociological inquiry: Qualitative and quantitative methods. Saylor Foundation. Retrieved from: https://saylordotorg.github.io/text_principles-of-sociological-inquiry-qualitative-and-quantitative-methods/ Shared under CC-BY-NC-SA 3.0 License

writing by StockSnap CC-0



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Foundations of Social Work Research Copyright © 2020 by Rebecca L. Mauldin is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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