Semi-Structured Interviews

Definition


A series of questions administered by a researcher seeking to understand meanings in an interviewee’s life. It allows all participants the opportunity to be asked the same questions within a flexible framework[1] .

Relevant Characteristics


The semi--structured interview is used when qualitative information about motivation, behavior and perceptions is required. The process is flexible, allowing new questions to be brought to interview as a result of what the interviewee says[2] .
The interviewer uses an interview guide describing a framework of themes to be covered, however, the specific questions are based on the respondent’s answers. This requires skill on the researcher’s part not only to establish rapport, but control the interview by asking follow--upon questions eliciting the desired information. While a semi--structured interview allows for in-depth examination of perceptions, motivations and behaviors, and is dependent on the interviewer skills, care must be taken to avoid introducing bias. Bias comes in many forms; power dynamics within the interviewer, unconscious cues that lead the respondent to desired answers, insufficiently large or random interviewee sample. Care must be taken in the research design and much depends on the skill of the interviewer to address possible biasing issues[3] .

“Method Made Easy”


Semi--structured interviews require that the interviewers and interviewees meet in person. Scheduling a time and quiet place to conduct the interview are important preliminary aspects to be considered. The interview guide is a template outlining the specific topic areas to be covered. Be specific about what qualitative information is needed; the motivations, perceptions or behavior under study. The interviewer will use this guide during the process to insure the required information is gathered.

Advantages


The strength of the semi--structured interview comes from combining both structure and flexibility. Using an interview guide ensures topical areas are covered, but the less--structured nature allows the interviewer to respond to non--verbal clues, unclear or related topics the respondent feels strongly about. This format explores in depth the perceptions, motivations and behaviors of respondents, allowing for a thicker understanding of a theme. When qualitative, descriptive information is sufficient for decisionmaking. When there is a need to understand motivation, behavior, and perspectives. When preliminary information is needed to design a comprehensive quantitative study.

Limitations


Not appropriate if quantitative data are needed. May be biased if informants are not carefully selected. Is susceptible to interviewer biases. Depends on interviewer’s skills. May be difficult to prove the reliability or validity of findings. This is due to several factors. It is difficult to repeatedly administer the same interview to different respondents, the respondent may answer the same question differently based on factors outside the control of the interviewer, i.e. how they feel or power dynamics with the interviewer. The interviewer may give unconscious signals guiding the respondent towards expected answers, or the respondent may lie or have imperfect recall, both of which cannot be verified by the interviewer.

Analysis


The interview can be transcribed and the coded by the researcher. Coding assigns groups of text to groups of themes, which can then be analyzed by commercially available software programs such as ATLAS.ti. Grouping themes and then analyzing those from multiple interviews provides a qualitative and thicker understanding of motivations, and behaviors, and provides quantifiable data as well.

Online Resources


Wageningen UR (University & Research centre). Participatory Planning Monitoring and Evaluation (PPME) resource portal --Semi-structured interviews: http://portals.wi.wur.nl/ppme/?page=1124

Sociology.org has resources addressing semi-structured interviews strengths, limitations, biasing and processes at: http://www.sociology.org.uk/methfi.pdf

Further Reading


Kvale, Steinar.
1996. Interviews: An introduction to Qualitative Research Interviewing. Sage Publications.

References



  1. ^

    Dearnley, C.
    2005. A reflection on the use of semi-structured interviews. Nurse researcher. 13(1):19-28.
  2. ^

    DiCicco-Bloom, Barbara with Benjamin F. Crabtree.
    2006. The qualitative research interview. Medical Education 40:314–321.doi:10.1111/j.1365-2929.2006.02418.x
  3. ^
    Russell, Bernard.
    2011. Research methods in anthropology: qualitative and quantitative approaches. 5th edition. 665 pp. Lanham, MD : AltaMira.