Structured, Unstructured, and Postmodern Interviewing Essay

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Interviewing is a flexible methodology to acquire information by asking questions. Interviews are commonly employed in qualitative research: face-to-face meetings, small groups, and by telephone or Internet surveys and chat rooms. The researcher s ontological and epistemological assumptions influence the interviews questions, interpretations and structure.

Structured interviews often take the form of surveys but can include face-to-face dialogue. There must be consistency of measurement for comparison: formally structured questions; the questions order and wording unchanged for each respondent; responses are constrained by pre-defined numerically coded categories. Interviewers assume a position of neutrality; interaction is limited to asking questions in the same way to each respondent.

Unstructured interviews, often used in field research, ethnography, and oral/life history studies, are loosely organized and open-ended: no formal interview schedule; variable questions; no predefined responses. Interviewers emphasize understanding and empathy, respondents determine what is relevant. Each interview is flexible and unique.

Focus group interviews are informal interactive and highly flexible discussions with limited (5-8) participants. Moderators facilitate discussion, focusing on participant perceptions and interpretations. They are ideal for generating information quickly, for interviewing transient populations, the elderly, and children, and for examining sensitive or new research topics.

Postmodern interviews are shaped by postmodern epistemologies, they are reflexive and interactive. Knowledge is created though collaboration with respondents. Questions are produced throughout the interview; the researcher s role is ambiguous with minimal influence over the interview. Emphasis is placed on empowering respondents. Examples of interviews oriented to postmodern sensibilities include the gendered interview (focuses on difference; advocates for oppressed groups), and the active interview (focuses on what is communicated; how knowledge is constructed and revealed).


  1. Berg, B. (2009) Qualitative Research Methods for the Social Sciences. Allyn & Bacon, Boston, MA.
  2. Gubrium, J. and Holstein, J. (eds.) (2003) Postmodern Interviewing. Sage, London.

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