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Interviewing and Questioning. Hugh Willmott Research Professor in Organizational Analysis Cardiff Business School Home Page :

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interviewing and questioning

Interviewing and Questioning

Hugh Willmott

Research Professor in Organizational Analysis

Cardiff Business School

Home Page :

`If there is one thing that distinguishes the social sciences from natural science, it is that while both rely on questions to guide inquiry, only social scientists ask questions in order to produce data. We may want to know about atoms and molecules but asking them how and why they behave as they do is not an option’ (Thomas, 2004: 151, emphasis added)

outline of session
Outline of Session
  • Questioning
  • Interviewing
  • Acquiring Data
the importance of questioning
The Importance of Questioning
  • Questioning is central to the research process
    • Questioning of self
    • Questioning of texts
    • Questioning of `authorities’
    • Questioning of research subjects or `informants’ (and of course question-naires!)
    • Questioning of data – reliability, validity, interpretations, etc.
  • Can you think of any other kinds of questioning?
what are questions 1
What are Questions? (1)

What is the ontology of a question posed in a questionnaire or by an interviewer?

Possible answers:

1. Question as a consistent stimulus

  • Differences of response are wholly attributable to respondents or conditions in which they are asked
  • Great care over wording of questions, their ordering and their presentation. Aspiration to standardize questions and interviewer behaviour (Thomas, 2004: 151)


what are questions 2
What are Questions? (2)

2. Question as a meaningful utterance

  • Differences of response are attributable to the meaning ascribed to the question by the respondent

`What matters is not the that same words are used, or that questions are presented in the same order, but that the questioner and questioned share the same frame of reference and understand the meanings of their communication in the same ways’ (Thomas, 2004: 151)

Exercise: How likely is it that `the questioner and questioned share the same frame of reference and understand the meanings of their communication in the same ways’?

What are the likely barriers? How might these barriers be lowered? How does one know when a shared understanding has (genuinely) been reached?

some limitations of question naires
Some Limitations of Question(naires)
  • Respondents interpret the questions using their own frame of reference or agendas (presentation of self)
  • Respondents answer questions regardless of how well informed they are
  • Small changes in wording can produce big changes in the distribution of responses
  • Answers to earlier questions can affect answers to later questions; changes in the order of questions can affect responses
  • Relationship between (i) what respondents say they do and (ii) what observers record of their behaviour is not necessarily strong
  • Attitudes, beliefs, opinions, etc. may be much coloured by recent experiences and are not necessarily stable

Adapted from Thomas, 2004, p 151

These kinds of limitations, which are compounded by the use of closed-ended questionnaires - where respondents are required to use the researcher’s categories and scales of evaluation rather than their own – lead researchers to favour other (e.g. interviews) ways of asking or exploring questions.

relevance and contribution of interviewing
Relevance and Contribution of Interviewing

Interviewing, especially more open-ended methods, is valuable for

  • Gaining insights into people’s understandings of events, issues and changes – their social world and their frame of reference, including their priorities and preconceptions
  • Studying the use of language to make (constitute?) sense of, and convey sense to others about, their experiences and their interpretations of events, etc.
  • Accumulating background information that can be of considerable assistance in interpreting interviewees’ responses and developing further probes
types of interview questions
Types of Interview Questions
  • Structured (oral questionnaires)
    • Standardised, closed ended format
    • Very similar to questionnaires but with personal touch
    • Most relevant for surveys
  • Semi-structured (more conversational)
    • List of topics and sub-topics but flexibility of wording for different respondents. More `natural’ than the structured approach
    • Most use where a study has some comparatively standardised elements (e.g. asking all respondents questions about the same topic – such as how they assess a recent change initiative)
  • Open-ended (conversational)
    • Assumes that the social world is highly complex and that this can be grasped on through methods that dig deeper than is possible using questionnaires or even more structured interviews.
    • More informal and conversational
    • Focus and scope depends upon the specifics of the interviewee and what s/he, not just the researcher, deems relevant or wants to explore
    • More open to the possibility of an on-going relationship
example of planning and preparation of qualitative interviews 1

Adapted from J. Mason (2002), Qualitative Researching, London: Sage, pp 69-70

Example of Planning and Preparation of Qualitative Interviews (1)


1. Identification of big research question(s), such as:

a. How do families handle issues of inheritance?

2. Specification of mini-research questions that are subcategories of the big question(s), such as:

a. Are negotiations about inheritance treated as part of a wider set of negotiations about support in families or are they treated separately?

b. Do people in any way take into account the possibility of inheritance when formulating their own life plans?

3. Articulation of specific topics and questions that could address 2), such as:

a. What happened in practice in relation to specific events?

b. Do people have life plans? Have people thought about inheritance in relation to such plans?


example of planning and preparation of qualitative interviews 2

Adapted from J. Mason (2002), Qualitative Researching, London: Sage, pp 69-70

Example of Planning and Preparation of Qualitative Interviews (2)

4.Check that the topics and questions really do address the big question(s)

5. Develop a loose and flexible structure for the interviews that covers the topics in a logical manner.

6. Refine the structure through doing some `pilot’ interviews.

Mason prepared (i) an index card containing a flow chart of a possible interview structure (see 2002, p. 71) and a series of index cards containing notes/issues on specific topics. For example, one topic card was titled `Experience’. It included the following key terms or memory joggers: `personal/others – as testator, beneficiary, executor; patterns characteristic of own family; how many generations; experience of legal procedures and services; expected and unexpected; experience of will making; when and why….’ (Mason, 2002:71)

semi structured and open ended interviews some tips 1
Semi-Structured and Open Ended Interviews – Some Tips (1)
  • Familiarise yourself with the context (e.g. if it is an organization, do some basic background research)
  • Avoid the use of jargon. Ask questions employing everyday language
  • At an early stage, and perhaps before the interview itself, assure the interviewee of confidentiality (it will go no further) and anonymity (it will not be possible to identify the respondent). Offer a brief account of what your research is about, why it is being conducted and how long the interview will take. Be prepared to answer other questions that the interviewee may have (e.g. what will be done with the results?)
  • Begin perhaps with a straightforward biographical question that is relevant to your enquiry and will help to establish rapport and relax your interviewee (e.g. how long have you been in this job?). Leave more challenging questions for later in the interview. Your purpose is to establish a degree of trust and sense of competence as a basis for being `taken seriously’.


semi structured and open ended interviews some tips 2
Semi-Structured and Open Ended Interviews – Some Tips (2)
  • Show that you are interested in what your interviewee has to say in order to put him/her at their ease and encourage them to provide fuller responses to your questions
  • Avoid leading questions that invite the interviewee to respond in a particular way
  • Don’t interrupt. Draw the interviewee back to the question if s/he begins to ramble in an unhelpful way (sometimes rambling can be illuminating) (e.g. `I wonder if I could bring us back, for a moment, to the issue of…’)
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for clarification or to check your understanding. But avoid making any comment or giving your opinions unless asked or you believe it will be helpful in `opening up’ the interview
  • Keep an eye on the clock. Maintain pace so that you cover the key questions or issues.


semi structured and open ended interviews some tips 3
Semi-Structured and Open Ended Interviews – Some Tips (3)
  • If an interviewer is `stone walling’ and it is impossible to gain any useful data, bring the interview to a close in a diplomatic way rather than waste any more of your time. Don’t assume that it is your failure but review how you handled the interview and see what you can learn from it. Could you have done something to increase the chance of a more meaningful or productive exchange?
  • Finish either with a question that clearly signals that you are drawing to a close (e.g. `Finally, can I just check with you that…’ perhaps returning to a point that was unclear or which you did not follow up on earlier) or ask a questionthat leaves open the possibility of contacting the interviewee in the future (e.g. `Thank you for your help with my work. Would it be possible for me to contact you if I need to clarify my understanding of some particular point’?)
  • Make notes immediately after the interview to record your impressions of its progress/success; how the interviewee responded to questions; issues that might usefully be probed with subsequent interviewees, etc, etc.
  • If you have taped the interview, ensure that you listen to the tape or at least read through your notes (see also later slide) as soon as possible after the interview. These will give you important feedback on your interview technique and spur you to refine your approach
interviewee selection

Acknowledgement: Adapted from Sarah Jenkins’ notes

Interviewee Selection
  • Be attentive to, and explicit about, how interviewees are selected or `sampled’.

There are numerous possibilities:

  • Convenience – those who are most approachable, accessible, cooperative, etc
  • Snowball – you are referred, or ask to be referred to others
  • Theoretical – you target those whom you believe will best enable you to test/challenge your theory or help you to build your theory
  • Probability – you stratify your sample – for example, you arrange interviews with a predetermined number of people from different categories (e.g. by job title or rank)
  • Purposeful – similar to theoretical but it may be driven more by a concern to cover a wide (or narrow) spectrum of people rather than to interrogate or develop a theory

Whatever the basis of interviewee selection, the number of interviews will be limited by the resources available and/or by an assessment of when there are diminishing returns (or `saturation’). That occurs when you find that little new is emerging from interviews : that is, you appear to have reached `saturation’.

challenges of interviewing
Challenges of Interviewing

Multitasking : listening, interpreting, assessing, reflecting, anticipating, note-taking, etc.

`At any one time you may be:

  • listening to what the interviewee is currently saying and trying to interpret what they mean;
  • trying to work out what they are saying has any bearing on “what your really want to know”;
  • trying to think in new and creative ways about “what you really want to know”;
  • trying to pick up any changes in your interviewee’s demeanour and interpret these…reflecting on something that they said 20 minutes ago;
  • formulating an appropriate response to what they are currently saying; formulating the next question which might involve shifting the interview onto new terrain;
  • keeping an eye on your watch and making decisions about depth and breadth given your time limits…making notes…dealing with distractions…and so on’

(Mason, 2002: 74)

note taking or recording some pros and cons


Unobtrusive, flexible, forces discipline, manageable


Selective collection, distraction during interview, not verbatim

Tape Recording


`Complete’ record, reassuring to interviewee, concentrate on interviewing rather than note-taking


Obtrusive, time-consuming to transcribe, reliance upon technology, data overload

Acknowledgement: Adapted from Sarah Jenkins’ notes

Note-taking or Recording? – Some Pros and Cons

Tip: Even if you decide to use a recorder, take brief notes so that you have a readily accessible summary of key points and a basis for determining which parts of the tape to listen to or to have transcribed, assuming that you have limited time and resources for undertaking transcriptions, much of which will probably never be used.

final thought what makes interviewing appealing
Final Thought : What Makes Interviewing Appealing?

You may choose semi-structured or open-ended interviewing because you…

`conceptualize yourself as active and reflective in the process of data generation, and seek to examine this rather than aspiring to be a neutral data collector. While most qualitative researchers have this kind of aspiration, it is important not to underestimate the reflexive challenge posed by analysing your own role within the research process’ (Mason, 2002, p. 66, emphasis added)

`have a particular view of research ethics and politics which means that you believe interviewees should be given more freedom in, and control of, the interview situation than is permitted with “structured” approaches’ (Mason, 2002, p. 66)

additional recommended reading
Additional Recommended Reading
  • S. Kvale (1996), InterViews: An Introduction to Qualitative Interviewing, London: Sage
  • J. Spradley (1979), The Ethnographic Interview, New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston
  • R. Legard, J. Keegan and K. Ward (2003), In-depth Interviews’ in J. Ritchie and J. Lewis, eds., Qualitative Research Practice, London: Sage
  • H. Arksey and P. Knight (1999), Interviewing for Social Scientists, London: Sage
  • Holstein, J. and Gubrium, J. (1995), The Active Interview, London: Sage