Assess the strengths and weaknesses of interviews, as a research method

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Ayshe Caluda

Assess the strengths and weaknesses of interviews, as a research method

Interviews are a face to face conversation (generally between two people), usually involving a set of questions. There are two extreme types of interviews; unstructured and structured. However, between the two, there is a third known as a semi-structured interview.

Structured interviews involve the interviewer following a set of questions, without the addition of anything that isn’t written down. The interviewer is given strict instructions and is told to complete each interview in the same order, word for word. The practical advantages for this type of interview are that it is quick and fairly cheap. This is because the interviewer is not allowed to ask any of their own questions and each interview should last about the same length of time. Also, training interviewers is straight-forward and inexpensive, as all they are required to do is follow a set of instructions. Additionally, the results are easily quantified because structured interviews use close-ended questions with coded answers. The practical disadvantages for structured interviews are that it may be time-consuming and may require a lot of money to employ dozens of interviewers and data-inputting staff.

Structured interviews are preferred by Positivists, such as Marxists and Functionalists. This is because the response is easy to categorise, as it gives you quantitative data. However, Feminists and Interpretivists may prefer to use unstructured interviews, as they would rather get a deeper meaning response and ask more questions relating to the interviewee’s response. An ethical advantage of a structured interview is that it is reliable. For example, another sociologist could repeat the research and obtain the same results. This is because the interview is structured, with a set of questions the interviewer has to follow. Alternatively, this may lead to the response being invalid. The interviewee might lie or exaggerate to ‘look good’ or because they are embarrassed or sensitive about a particular topic. This is known as the Hawthorne effect.

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On the other hand, unstructured interviews are like a guided conversation. For example, the interviewer has complete freedom to vary the questions and ask why. They can use questions which they feel are appropriate to ask and which give a deeper meaning response. A practical advantage for unstructured interviews is that because there are no set questions, it allows the interviewer more opportunity to ask questions about the topics they think are important. Also, unstructured interviews are widely seen as a way of gathering valid data and enabling researchers to get a deeper understanding of the interviewee’s world. A practical ...

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