Assess the Value of Interviews in Sociological Research

10 October 2016

There are two types of interviews; unstructured and structured. In addition, there are other types of interviews 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 and cannot make any personal judgements.

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The practical advantages for this type of interview are that it is quick and fairly cheap in comparison to an unstructured interview. This is because the interviewer has to remain value free meaning that he/she is not allowed to ask any of their own, personal questions in response to the participant and each interview should last about the same length of time, if it overruns, then it could cost more money and become time consuming. In addition, the results can be easily quantified, as structured interviews use close-ended questions with coded answers.

The practical disadvantage for this type of interview is 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, including Marxists and Functionalists. This is because they believe society can be studied like a science, which means that they attempt to establish cause and effect relationship between the variables involved in this type of interview.

They also favour quantitative data, as structured interviews provide the interviewer with the opportunity to identify the patterns and trends, as they can categorise the answers given to them by the respondent. This in turn allows for generalisations to be made, which could be then true for the entire population. In addition, structured interviews removes the risk of interviewer effect, as the interviewer has a limited role and just asks the questions created on their list, not making up new ones as they respond to what the interviewee has said, which could jeopardise the entire research.

This in turn will help the interviewer to remain value free. Therefore, these factors outlined shows that structured interviews are strong in reliability and representativeness, which explains why positivists favour this type of research. However, there are problems of using this interview. The initial problem is that interviewees have to force their views into the researchers’ categories. Often these categories are too narrow, overlap or are open to interpretation. Sometimes, some of the answers interviewees would like to give are not available.

Therefore, this type of interview can be invalid for this reason. Furthermore, with a set list of fixed response questions and answers, there is still some interviewer effect and how the interviewee perceives the interviewer may well influence their responses. As a result, this could cause psychological harm and this is considered an ethical issue in this type of research that could have an effect on the validity of research. Unstructured interviews do not involve a set list of fixed response questions.

Instead, they are open-ended and free-flowing, which allows the interviewee to respond in their own words and raise issues whenever they feel it’s relevant to the research. There are practical issues of using this type of interview. The initial problem of using this interview is that it is time consuming; each interview can often last up to a few hours, especially if you are studying illiterate criminals or participants who have an impairment, which makes it difficult for them to articulate themselves and hold a normal conversation and it can take a long time to transcribe this data.

In spite of this of setback, this type of interview is rich in qualitative data, which makes the data become valid in comparison to the structured interview. Unstructured interviews are preferred by Interpretivists and Feminists. This is because they believe that the informality of the interview allows rapport to be built up. This means that the participant will build up trust and confidence with the interviewee. As a result, the interviewee is likely to open up to certain areas and this will enhance the validity of the researchers’ findings.

This makes it a good technique for sensitive areas of sociology, such studying those women who are victims of domestic violence. However, an ethical issue of this type of interview is that it can cause psychological harm to either the participant and/or the interviewee. Furthermore, these types of interviews can place anyone involved in danger, especially if you’re studying violent criminals. Therefore, the researcher must plan and make considerations before implementing this type of interview. Additionally, positivists would argue that this type of interview could lack objectivity.

This is because the interviewer usually uptakes a value laden stance in this type of interview. This means that his/her presence and the way questions are asked could affect the results of the research (e. g. leading questions). Furthermore, the interviewer’s facial expressions, body language and voice tone can all have an effect on how answers are given by the respondent. As a result of this, the interviewer may even offer their own opinions which may bias the results completely and bias may also occur during the detailed analysis process.

Therefore, Validity and reliability are lowered because of the amount of bias that is endured throughout this type of research and this is why unstructured interviews are not favoured by positivists. In conclusion, how valuable are interviews in sociological research? It depends on the sociologists’ theoretical position; positivists see the quantitative data generated by formal, structured interviews more valuable. In contrary, Interpretivists see the qualitative data generated by informal, unstructured interviews more valuable.

In spite of this, there are always issues with either type of interviews. Therefore, the best solution to overcome them is to use both structured and unstructured elements as the research situation demands. Structured elements may be very useful in identifying patterns of behaviour whilst informal elements may be more appropriate in uncovering explanations of those patterns. This can be illustrated in Dobash and Dobash’s study on domestic violence, where they used both element s of interviews to research domestic violence.

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