How to Conduct a Sociology Research Interview

A researcher conduction an in-depth interview with a subject

Getty Images / Eric Audras / ONOKY

Interviewing is a method of qualitative research in which the researcher asks open-ended questions orally and records the respondent’s answers, sometimes by hand, but more commonly with a digital audio recording device. This research method is useful for collecting data that reveal the values, perspectives, experiences and worldviews of the population under study, and is often paired with other research methods including survey research, focus groups, and ethnographic observation. Typically interviews are conducted face-to-face, but they can also be done via telephone or video chat.


Interviews, or in-depth interviews, are different from survey interviews in that they are less structured. In survey interviews, the questionnaires are rigidly structured—the questions must all be asked in the same order, in the same way, and only the pre-defined answer choices can be given. In-depth qualitative interviews, on the other hand, are flexible and continuous.

In an in-depth interview, the interviewer has a general plan of inquiry, and may also have a specific set of questions or topics to discuss, but this is not always necessary, nor is asking them in a particular order. The interviewer must, however, be fully familiar with the subject, potential questions, and plan so that things proceed smoothly and naturally. Ideally, the respondent does most of the talking while the interviewer listens, takes notes, and guides the conversation in the direction it needs to go. In such a scenario, the respondent’s answers to the initial questions that should shape the subsequent questions. The interviewer needs to be able to listen, think, and talk almost simultaneously.

Now, let's review the steps of preparing for and conducting in-depth interviews, and for using the data.

Steps of the Interviewing Process

1. First, it's necessary that the researcher decides on the purpose of the interviews and the topics that should be discussed in order to meet that purpose. Are you interested in a population's experience of a life event, set of circumstances, a place, or their relationships with other people? Are you interested in their identity and how their social surroundings and experiences influence it? It's the researcher's job to identify which questions to ask and topics to bring up to elucidate data that will address the research question.

2. Next, the researcher must plan the interview process. How many people must you interview? What variety of demographic characteristics should they have? Where will you find your participants and how will you recruit them? Where will interviews take place and who will do the interviewing? Are there any ethical considerations that must be accounted for? A researcher must answer these questions and others before conducting interviews.

3. Now you're ready to conduct your interviews. Meet with your participants and/or assign other researchers to conduct interviews, and work your way through the entire population of research participants.

4. Once you've collected your interview data you must turn it into usable data by transcribing it—creating a written text of the conversations that composed the interview. Some find this to be an oppressive and time-consuming task. Efficiency can be achieved with voice-recognition software, or by hiring a transcription service. However, many researchers find the process of transcription a useful way to become intimately familiar with the data, and may even begin to see patterns within it during this stage.

5. Interview data can be analyzed after it has been transcribed. With in-depth interviews, analysis takes the form of reading through the transcripts to code them for patterns and themes that provide a response to the research question. Sometimes unexpected findings occur, and should not be discounted though they may not relate to the initial research question.

6. Next, depending on the research question and the type of answer sought, a researcher may wish to verify the reliability and validity of the information gathered by checking the data against other sources.

7. Finally, no research is complete until it is reported, whether written, orally presented, or published through other forms of media.