Structured or unstructured interviews

Interview/Descriptive Research

Tracy (2013, p. 132) cites Briggs (1986) for the proposition that “approximately 90 percent of all social science investigations rely on interviews.” The goal of ethnographic interviewing, unlike surveys, is to get participants to tell stories that you can use as data that help you answer your research question. It’s particularly useful to learn how people experience and understand their world. 


Interviews should start with questions that give you context and get your respondents warmed up and comfortable and then build up to questions that go directly to your research question. Some examples of warm-up/context questions include: How would you describe your role here in the firm, What sort of work do you do here, What appeals to you about this type of work, What is there that doesn’t appeal to you about this type of work? (What challenges are there?)

Having warmed up your participant and gotten context, you can next move to questions that go directly to your research question. One way to transition is to say "I'm interested in studying _________. Could you tell me about a time when _________?" Probe as suggested above as necessary to get participants to tell you their story.

Repeat the question-probe cycle as needed to get the participant to tell you more stories.


Because the goal is getting the participants to tell you stories, phrase the questions so they're conversational, using everyday language, and inviting participants to talk.

NOT "What were your instrumental and identity goals?"
BUT How would you describe what you wanted out of this disagreement? How did you want to be seen by [the other person]? What did you do to help [the other person] see you that way?

NOT "Name 5 rules of the org and how you believe they benefit your clients"
BUT "Tell me about some rules of the org that you think benefit the clients"

NOT "whose voice is most prominent in the organization" 
BUT ""whose opinion matters most in the organization"

And of course, be sure you're asking the question you really intend to ask

NOT "what do you wish you could talk more about"
BUT "what do you wish you could talk more about with your boss," if that's what you mean

Asking for a specific instance can be a great way to get participants to tell stories

NOT "If the boss says something you do not agree with, what do you think that can teach you and/or be useful to you in your life?"
BUT "Can you tell me about a time the boss said something you didn't agree with, but you learned something from what (she) said?


Toward helping participants tell you stories, you will likely find yourself probing the answers participants give with questions that aren't on your list (e.g., "can you give me an example," "why," "what happened next")

Expressing interest, as in "that must have been difficult," is a useful way to probe. So is restating or incorporating their words as you probe, as in "what do you mean by ____?"


(Way too) generally speaking, the analysis of interview data involves identifying themes that emerge from your interview transcripts, finding connections among those themes, and comparing what you have found to the pre-existing literature.

Some SOTL Examples

Caulfield & Woods interviewed students 9, 24, or 36 months after taking a class to assess its impact

Caulfield, J., & Woods, T. (2013). Experiential learning: Exploring its long-term impact on socially responsible behavior. Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 13(2), 31-48.

Interviewing can be used to triangulate other research, that is, to use another method to check the results and increase its credibility. Garland and colleagues used the answers to the open-response questions in their survey to develop interview questions. Dole and Bloom used interviews to triangulate data they gathered from course evaluations and discussion board postings.

Garland, D., Vince Garland, K., & Vasquez, E. (2013). Management of classroom behaviors: Perceived readiness of education interns. Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 13(2), 133-147.

Dole, S., & Bloom, L. (2009). Online course design: A case study. International Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 3(1), Article 11.

While interviews are typically conducted face-to-face, they can also be conducted by e-mail, as did Gordon and colleagues.

Gordon, S., Petocz, P, & and Reid, A. (2007). Teachers’ conceptions of teaching service statistics courses, International Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 1(1), Article 10.

Two Excellent Qualitative Research Books

Merriam, S. B. (2009). Qualitative research: A guide to design and implementation. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Tracy, S. J. (2013). Qualitative research methods: Collecting evidence, crafting analysis, communicating impact. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell

Three Excellent Qualitative Interviewing Books

Rubin, H. J., & Rubin, I. S. (1995). Qualitative interviewing: The art of hearing data. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage (Now 3rd ed., 2012).

Seidman, I. (1998). Interviewing as qualitative research: A guide for researchers in education and the social sciences (2nd ed). New York: Teachers College Press.

Weiss, R. S. (1994). Learning from strangers: The art and method of qualitative interview studies. New York : Free Press. Mallin, Mack@FACET, 2014

Mallin, Mack @ FACET, 2014
Other Resources

Descriptions and comparison of structured and unstructured interviews

General information about unstructured interviews: History learning site