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 (used by sociologists and other social scientists) in which the researcher asks open-ended questions orally. This research method is useful for collecting data that reveal the values, perspectives, experiences and worldviews of the population under study. Interviewing is often paired with other research methods including survey research, focus groups, and ethnographic observation.

Key Takeaways: Research Interviews in Sociology

  • Sociologists sometimes conduct in-depth interviews, which involve asking open-ended questions.
  • One advantage of in-depth interviews is that they are flexible, and the researcher can ask follow-up questions to the respondent’s answers.
  • The steps necessary for conducting an in-depth interview include preparing for data collection, conducting the interviews, transcribing and analyzing the data, and disseminating the study results.

Overview

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 more flexible.

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. However, it is not necessary for the interviewer to stick to predetermined questions, nor is it necessary to ask questions in a particular order. The interviewer must, however, be fully familiar with the subject in order to have an idea of potential questions to ask, and must 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 should shape the subsequent questions. The interviewer needs to be able to listen, think, and talk almost simultaneously.

Steps of the Interviewing Process

Although in-depth interviews are more flexible than survey studies, it is important for researchers to follow particular steps in order to ensure that useful data is collected. Below, we’ll review the steps of preparing for and conducting in-depth interviews, and for using the data.

Determining the Topic

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.

Planning Interview Logistics

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.

Conducting Interviews

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. Typically interviews are conducted face-to-face, but they can also be done via telephone or video chat. Each interview should be recorded. Researchers sometimes take notes by hand, but more commonly a digital audio recording device is used.

Transcribing Interview Data

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 a cumbersome 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.

Data Analysis

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 these findings should not be discounted even though they may not relate to the initial research question.

Validating the Data

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.

Sharing Research Results

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