Assess the strengths and weaknesses of interviews, as a research method
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 disadvantage for unstructured interviews is that they take a long time to conduct as they are all in-depth explorations. In addition to this, the interviewer may not have the personal and characteristic skills needed. For example, if an interviewer does not have the right skills needed, they find it more difficult to establish a relationship of empathy and trust with the interviewee. Unstructured interviews also have ethical issues. The ethical advantages are that unstructured interviews are particularly useful when researching sensitive topics. This will help the interviewee to feel comfortable discussing difficult or personal subjects, such as abuse, as there are no set answers and discussing topics in an informal manor forms more of a relationship between the interviewer and interviewee. Alternatively, the interviewee may not answer truthfully, if they are embarrassed about their response. This is an ethical disadvantage. Another ethical disadvantage is that the interviewee may respond in a way they believe they are meant to. This is called demand characteristics. Interviewers also should keep personal information concerning research participants confidential. Finally, the theoretical advantage for unstructured interviews is that they are highly flexible, which means they are not restricted to a set of questions, making them valid. However, a disadvantage is that unstructured interviews are not reliable as each interview is unique, meaning they are not standardised. This also leads to the answers being more complex, which makes it harder to analyse.
Unstructured interviews are preferred by feminists and interpretivists as the response is mainly qualitative data. Feminists prefer analysing qualitative data, as it lets the interviewer understand the world of the interviewee and gives a deeper meaning to the response.
Furthermore, a semi-structured interview uses part of both unstructured and structured interviews. For example, it is a flexible method, as it allows new questions to be brought up during the interview as a result of what the interviewee says/responds. This type of interview generally has a framework of themes to be explored. A semi-structured interview uses a combination of both closed and open-ended questions. The practical advantage of a semi-structured interview is that because there are no set questions, only topics, it allows the interviewer more opportunity to ask questions about those they think are important. On the other hand, this would mean that all interviewers would need to be trained to gain the skills needed to construct questions, using only a framework of themes.
Semi-structured interviews are practical because there are no set questions to follow, just topics needed to be explored. This allows the interviewer more opportunity to ask questions about those that they think are important. However, this would mean that the interviewers would need to be trained to be able to construct questions, using only a framework of themes. An advantage of using a semi-structured interview is that the interviewer and interviewee can form a good relationship, as they are having an open discussion. The interviewer can gain a true and genuine picture into what something is really like, as semi-structured interviews allows the researcher to get close to the truth by asking a variety of their own questions. On the other hand, it may be hard to produce a replica of this interview because the interviewer focuses on their own questions. Additionally, the interviewer may lie to the interviewee about what the research is about to gain specific information, and the interviewee may lie themselves because they are embarrassed about their social life.
Interviews can be used in society to find out information in a more detailed way. For example, a police officer may arrest someone and then interview then to find out the details of the crime. Using interviews in education is not always a way of obtaining data. This is because power and status inequalities can affect the outcome of interviews. Interviewers are usually adults and children may see them as authority figures. For example, if interviewees have less power than the interviewer, they may see it as being in their own interests to lie or exaggerate when answering questions. They may also be less self-confident and their responses less articulate. This will all reduce the validity of the data. Furthermore, parental permission may also be required to interview the children and the amount of parents to allow their child to be interviewed, varies on the subjects being researched.
In conclusion, comparing interviews to another research method, many sociologists prefer using this method of research, as it allows the researcher to understand the feelings about the subject being researched. It allows the interviewer to ask in-depth questions and gain a better understanding into the interviewee’s life. Although, it may not be the quickest and cheapest way of collecting data, as questionnaires do not require employing dozens of interviewers. This is why some sociologists prefer using questionnaires to gain information, as the participant just has to complete a form of questions. On the other hand, many sociologists prefer using interviews as it allows them to make sure they collect all the data, as many participants may not complete and return a questionnaire, whether it is too long or too complicated. Therefore, asking questions face-to-face allows to you make sure you get a response to analyse.