interviewing

Interviews and informal chats generally differ. While an informal chat can (and should) be had prior to the actual research but also during the research, the interview is a form of data collection that is part of the research. When starting an interview, it is perfectly sensible to start with a so-called quasi-normal conversation (see Honer 1993).

Interview whom? What questions can and should be asked?

The research questions, i.e. the aims and objectives of the research, should (be able to) provide information who would be valuable to interview. Where research concerns the theme of housing and/or dwelling, we should approach inhabitants, at best inhabitants of the respective building or project that we are studying. The interview questions conversely shape the data analysis and are meant to help develop an answer to the research question.

Why interviewing?

The interview as a method of data collection is a qualitative method that allows to include in the analysis of the data not only what has been said but also the respective ways how something has been said (connotations, situation), especially if additional methods such as videography and ethnography are being used. The interview serves to collect substantial and solid data, particularly in the context of single case studies. In comparison, survey, questionnaire and Likert Scale serve the quantitative data collection (which of course can also touch on qualities, but only measure how much, how far, how high etc. these qualities are perceived to be).

‘Royal route to social research’

The interview or interrogation, as it can also be called, has been described as the ‘royal route to social research’ more than half a century ago (König 1952). We can do interviews verbally or in written form (including digitally). Social research usually differentiates between fully standardised, semi-structured and non standardised, or open, interviews:

Let’s look into the different degrees of standardisation:

Fully standardised: all questions are precisely articulated, open responses can possibly be given by respondents
Written: Group interview; distribution and return (by post)
Oral: Group interview; individual interview (e.g. over the phone)

Semi-structured: The basic questions are formulated but can be expanded or skipped during an interview depending on the situation.
Written: Expert interview; target group interview
Oral: guided interview, intensive interview, group interview

Open interview: For every interview, we prepare specific questions that differ from questions used in other interviews
Written: Informal conversation with experts or target groups
Oral: Group discussion, narrative interview, situationally flexible interview, expert interview
(see Sturm 2000: 54)

Questions as research instruments

For the interview as a method, questions are the research instruments. It is therefore valuable to consider the different kinds of questions and their qualities. There are suggestive and less suggestive (rhetoric) questions as well as questions containing more or less explicitly assumptions, evaluations, facts, knowledge etc.

Types of questions

Open questions (empty questions): What have you seen? What happened next?
Closed questions (yes/no): Did the man say anything?
Definitive questions: When was that? Who was present?
Choice questions: Was it a man or a woman?

These questions are generally considered ‘minimally suggestive questions’ and are suitable for interviews (although closed questions should be avoided for the sake of their very short responses (yes/no).

Accusing questions (with conditional factors): Did he pocket the stolen money?
Implicitly evaluating and describing questions: How fast did the burglar run, when you saw him flee from the shop?
Incomplete disjunctions in choice questions: Was the care red or black?
Implicit expectations: He must have been happy, right?
Questions including social comparison: They both said so, haven’t you heard it too?
Illocution and figures of speech: Did you hear the penny drop?
Repetitive questions: Are you really sure? Has he not taken the money?
Negative feedback: How thick are you to forget that?
Threats and promises: I will continue asking you until you tell me what he did to you. It will be good to finally say it.

These questions are strongly suggestive questions and therefore to be avoided in interviews.

In order to develop your own interview questions it is important that you are in a position to articulate your own research question clearly – not just in the written proposal, but also verbally, for instance when the interviewee asks you about it. It is also very useful to consider the following meta questions for each single interview question:
Expectation: What do I expect when asking this question? What could be an expected response?
Ideal case: What would I like to hear? How would the interviewee respond in an ideal world?
Worst case scenario: Which response would I like to avoid in all cases? What would lead astray from my question?

An example:
Research question: How are subjectively perceived impressions expressed in the everyday mobility practice?

Possible interview questions:
How would you describe your daily journey (e.g. to work)?
What provides orientation when you take this route? What do you notice?
How do you perceive this journey? How do you feel?
Are there things that you particularly like / dislike along this way?

Expectation: A reasonably detailed description of the daily journey, partly subjective perception, mostly objectivised description of facts

Ideal case: An extremely detailed description of the daily journey that touches on all aspects of my research interest and serves to respond to the research question itself in that it identifies subjective perceptions as such and contextualises the daily mobility practices as being conditioned both by subjective perception and objective (external) conditions and issues.

Worst-case scenario: The response is dry, too short or very short without subjective qualifying, for instance if the respondent only names bus stops or if the interview as a whole thematically drifts off into completely different themes.

Further questions that are important for interview questions:

  • What do I want to find out? And what can this person probably tell me about it?
  • How do I have to articulate the question in order to receive as substantial an answer as possible?
  • How much do I know about the person? How do I know that they can respond to my questions?
  • What ‘language’ does the person speak? How can I prepare for this ‘language’ (expert knowledge, jargon)?
  • What is for which reasons relevant to this person?
    (Honer 1993: 70)

3 phases of the interview following Honer (1993)

Generally: Interviews are a relatively difficult, principally asymmetrical form of communication that is produced by all those involved (cf. in contrast to the everyday chat). What is being said is data – as well as how it is being said (e.g. specific emphasis, intonation).

First phase: quasi-normal conversation: ‘The question [...] should be as open as possible so that the interviewee can structure the communication themselves as far as possible and therefore gets the chance to document whether the question is of interest to them at all; if it has a place in their life world, also called system of relevance, and if so, in which way it has meaning for them.’ (Bohnsack 1991: 19, own translation)

Second phase: The aim is for instance a biographical narration. Anne Honer herself takes orientation from Fritz Schütz’s conversation process: ‘This process is based on the premise that people, by way of a suitable starting question, have an evocable, class-independent and transcultural human faculty to tell stories and that such narrations are able to represent adequately past experiences because they are subject to so to say natural impulses that lead to the articulation of “cognitively complex and/or risky or even potentially exposing matters for the informant” (Schütze 1977: 51).’ (HONER 1993: 77)

Third phase: homogenising (final) interrogation following the focused interview that summarises and condenses ‘the quasi-normal conversation’ (first phase) and the narration (second phase): Already articulated themes or aspects of them can be further explored in more depth.

Why an explorative interview?

For many research projects, in particular small and open-ended ones, the standardised interview with its previously developed catalogue of questions may not suffice or even restrict unforeseen, yet in terms of the research process exciting and important aspects in unnecessary ways. Anne Honer also critiques the standardised interview: ‘The standardised interview not only prescribes an external system of relevance. By way of the schematic protocol it also produces a completely artificial, i.e. often filtered and (re)interpreted text independent of the interviewee’s trail of thoughts, even before what is called data collection can be processed.’ (Honer 1993: 81) Spittler (2001) criticises the ‘artificial interview situation’ even more profoundly and refers to ethnologist Diawara who compares the French method vocabulary of the sciences with police language: “enquête, investigation, recherche, vérification, documentation, etc.” (Spittler 2001: 8; Diawara 2001) In order to avoid the artificial interview situation, ‘we must concentrate a lot more on natural conversational situations. Yet these require participatory observation. You can’t imitate such conversational situations arbitrarily, you have to wait for suitable opportunities.’ (Spittler 2001: 8)

Exploratively interviewing in all its various articulations, including the three-phase interview, ‘is therefore concerned with deferring the necessarily pre-decided schema of question - response of the conventional interview so as to use the possibilities of normal conversation as much for data generation as the techniques of generating narrations and zoom ins’ (Spittler 2001: 8). The explorative interview allows to stress the interactive structures of the interview as a communicative genre. This goes hand in hand with calling for flexibly reacting to the specific situation and paying attention to it when analysing the interview (transcription style, including context). A further advantage for research based on exploration is that the codes and analytical categories are developed when sifting through the material rather than using predefined ones.

For the house and housing biographies explorative interviews have potential as they allow to flexibly react to the relatively sensitive situation that emerges when an inhabitant responds to questions regarding their life in their house or flat.

Especially in combination with a house tour, an exactly scheduled questionnaire or catalogue of questions could unnecessarily restrict the conversation overall and the emerging themes. Yet it is advisable to think of particular thematic complexes that could and should be raised if they aren’t brought up by the interviewee. In our research project we have prepared three groups of questions that can be used according to Honer’s first phase, the quasi-normal conversation. The interviews followed a relatively simple scheme that conversely allows for the greatest possible openness:

First phase:
entrance into the house / the flat, greetings and explanation of the research interest in your own words, handing out the informed consent, clarifying any questions before and regarding the interview
Second phase: three thematic fields
Past / what happened so far: When did you move in? With whom have you lived here then? How did you find the house / the flat, and in what condition? What have you changed yourself in the past or commissioned to change? What brought you to this area?
Present / current use of the house / flat: How do you live here today? With whom do you live here today? How do you use the house / flat? How ‘far’ does your home reach (into the neighbourhood, community, way to work…)?
Future / plans for the future: Do you have plans for living in this house / flat? Are there changes you’d like to implement? Are there opportunities for your own initiative in these four walls?

Third phase: Synthesis of the first and second phases, summarising the central aspects, possibly zooming in on particularly important aspects or further questions that only emerged during the interview.

Licence: CC BY-NC-SA

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