Semi-structured interviewing and unstructured interviewing
Interviewing is the most commonly used method to obtain data within most types of research. In ten minutes up to two hours you sit down with people and ask questions about the subject of research. It is an easy, low key and cheap way of data collection. It is also often combined with other methodologies such as PhotoVoice, village mapping, transect walks and so many more. So, you will find interviews in almost all researches. But how to do it, and how to use it in Participatory Action Research? It may be a weird question to you as it looks pretty simple, but the way you communicate verbally and non-verbally highly determines the quality of your obtained data and during my career I have witnessed many mistakes that are sometimes funny, but too often offensive and rude for the participant. See for example my blog ‘How to avoid these 10 interviewing bloopers’.
|Method||Semi- and unstructured interviewing|
|Goal||Exploring people’s perspectives on a topic|
|Ideally to be used in which stages?||System exploration|
|Level of difficulty||Difficult, training and preparation needed|
|Time investment||On average 1 hour per interview, if you also transcribe: about 4 hours per our of interviewing|
|Costs||None, maybe a drink or small gesture to your respondent|
|To combine with||PhotoVoice, Village Mapping, Seasonal Diagrams, Transect Walks and other (creative) one-on-one methods|
- When you want to explore someone’s personal, deeper perspectives on a certain topic
- When you don’t want to have other’s influence your respondents answers
- When you feel the respondent is more at ease in a one-on-one interview as opposed to a group setting
Roughly we distinguish structured interviewing, semi-structured interviewing and unstructured interviewing. In structured interviewing, you have a list with open (and maybe some closed) questions that you fill in per participant. In semi-structured interviewing you have no list of questions, but rather a list of topics you want to address. This requires already quite some skills in building your questions upon the answers that you get from your participant. Unstructured interviewing goes a step further. You have your topic in mind and maybe a first question to start with, but your notebook is empty. Each interviewing style has its own advantages and disadvantages. Structured interviewing is nice when you are not experienced in interviewing; it is simple as you go from question to question. However, through this type of questioning you may limit your participant to tell you more, so you may miss out on important information. Therefore, I would not recommend structured interviewing in PAR projects. On the other end of the scale -unstructured interviewing- you need be an experienced interviewer who can listen very well and build new questions based on the answers the participant gives. As such you can go more and more in-depth on a subject and both you and your participant have full freedom of talk. In the middle -semi-structured interviewing- has a bit of both and is therefore the most popular interviewing method.
The start, the middle and the end
Although the title suggests something which makes you think ‘duh’, you may be surprised how many people forget about the start and the end. They start the interview without an introduction and walk off immediately after the last question. Let’s not do that for your PAR project. Let’s make sure you do not forget about the things in interviewing that can make a huge difference for the quality of your data, the commitment of your participants and the outcome of your PAR.
By ‘the start’ I do not mean the first question of your interview. I mean the phase before that. How do you introduce yourself? What does the participant need to know before you start your questions? In Table 3 I have listed some of the most important subjects that need to be discussed before you ask your first question.
|Subject||What to say|
|Introduce yourself||Who are you, what are you here for, what is the goal of your PAR|
|Participants opinion||Explain why the opinion of the participant is important to you|
|Explain procedure||What are you going to do with the results of the interview, and the PAR as a whole?|
|No good or bad answers||Explain to the participant that this interview is about their experience and their opinion, so there is never a good or a bad answer.|
|Confidentiality||Assure the participant that their answers are safe with you. How are you going to process their answers without mentioning their names|
|Voluntary participation||Explain that participants join your PAR voluntarily and that they can step out anytime if they wish.|
|Consent||Ask their permission to participate and appreciate if ‘yes’. Only if required, use an informed consent form for him/her to sign.|
|Voice recorder||If required, explain why you need a voice recorder, repeat your confidentiality procedure and ask the participant if it is ok to record the interview.|
|Any questions?||Check whether the participant has any further questions for you before you start the interview.|
|Appreciation||Express appreciation to the participant for their willingness to be interviewed.|
After you have gone through the subjects in this table it is time to start your first interview question. So either you come with a list of topics you want to address -as in semi-structured interviewing- or with just a pen and empty sheet of paper and just one first question in mind -as in unstructured interviewing. I actually always do the latter. I often start with an open, easy to answer and positive formulated question: “What does a normal day in your life look like, what do you usually do in the morning when you get up until when you go to bed again?” The participant then start telling their stories and you often hear the way they focus on a particular issue, where you can zoom into. For example, you get an answer like: “In the morning I get up. The first thing I do when I get up is get dressed and make breakfast, but we do not always have breakfast. The ‘we do not always have breakfast’ is already a first marker. You can often recognize a marker by the way they speak about it. The participant puts emphasis on the word or phrase or non-verbally shows it is something they want to talk about. You can formulate your next question based on this answer, for example: “So there is not always breakfast, can you tell me more about that?” You basically invite the participant to zoom into the underlying layers of causality for this issue, which is very important in PAR as these causal problems are the ones new interventions may arise from. On the other hand, deciding which markers to zoom into is always a trade off between what the participant wants to tell you and your subject of research (and the time you have for the interview). If this first marker has nothing to do with the subject of your research, you may want to skip it, but if it is really something that bothers the participant, I would discuss it -even if it were only for the participant to feel you take their problems serious and for them to express what’s of their concern. At first you may think goes off track, but often you find later on that different levels of causality connect with other problems. If you can present those interconnections in the design phase of your PAR, it is likely it motivates people even more to co-create and realize solutions as they see it also contributes to solving their other problems.
When the layer of causality of this first marker (as well as other markers in the interview) is discussed, I recommend you give a short summary of their information. It serves to check whether you understood them right and gives them the opportunity to fill up any gaps or explain some more where necessary. It also shows -at least if you did it right- that you have heard them which comforts the participant. Last, it serves as a way for the participant to reflect on the answer and offers you the opportunity to ask how they feel about it. Then you can move on to the next question, for example: “what do you do after breakfast?” and so on, until you have reached the end of their day. This is just one way of doing your interview, but depending on the subject of research, your time and the suggestions you get from locals you can choose any structure that’s suitable. Especially in PAR projects, in addition to their current situation -when it is undesired- you also want to know about their desired situation, potential solutions and how these solutions can be realized. In the table below I have listed some example questions that help you for each interview element.
|Interview element||Question suggestions|
|Find out about current situation||
|Find out about former attempts to improve the situation||
|Find out about ideal situation||
|Find out about strengths and opportunities||
|Find out about potential solutions||
|Find out about requirements and conditions to realize solution x or y||
Sometimes the middle bit of the interview can become quite emotional for the participant. Therefore, make sure you end your interview with a final question that you know is going to make the participant feel positive and end with an informal conversation about something positive, a compliment or something that makes the participant feel better without creating false hope. After you have asked your last interview questions, there are a few more things to do to end your interview. I have listed them here in the table below.
|Subject||What to say|
|Check if you have enough information||Shortly summarize the interview and ask if you have forgotten anything that you should know|
|Summarize procedure||Repeat what you have said at the start of the interview: what are you going to with the information and what are your next steps?|
|Questions from the side of the participant||Ask the participant if he/she has any further questions for you.|
|Further participation||Ask the participant if you -if necessary- can approach him/her again in the near future for activity x or y.|
|Appreciation||Thank the participant for their time, effort, openness and any other things you are thankful for. You can offer a small present, but I discourage you to offer any monetary forms appreciation.|