There are several methods for collecting qualitative data.
In this module we will cover interviews, field research, focus groups, and archival research. There are many other methods, such as process tracing, but we will not cover them here.


Why Interview Research?

Today’s young men are delaying their entry into adulthood. That’s a nice way of saying they are “totally confused”; “cannot commit to their relationships, work, or lives”; and are “obsessed with never wanting to grow up.”[1]. But don’t take my word for it. Take sociologist Michael Kimmel’s word. He interviewed 400 young men, ages 16 to 26, over the course of 4 years across the US, to learn how they made the transition from adolescence into adulthood. Since the results of Kimmel’s research were published in 2008[2] his book has made quite a splash. Featured in news reports, on blogs, and in many book reviews, some claim Kimmel’s research “could save the humanity of many young men,” As written by Gloria Steinem on the website dedicated to Kimmel’s book. Others suggest that its conclusions can only be applied to “fraternity guys and jocks”. Whatever you think of Kimmel’s research, one thing seems clear: We surely would not know nearly as much as we now do about the lives of many young American men were it not for interview research.

Interview Research: What Is It and When Should It Be Used?

Creating and conducting a good interview are useful skills in almost any field in life. Interviews are used by market researchers to learn how to sell their products, journalists use interviews to get information from people like VIPs, experts or random people on the street. Talk-show hosts use interviews to help television viewers get to know guests on their shows, and employers use them to make decisions about job offers.

From the social scientific perspective, interviews are a method of data collection that involves two or more people exchanging information through a series of questions and answers. The questions are designed by a researcher to elicit information from interview participant(s) on a specific topic or set of topics. Typically interviews involve an in-person meeting between two people, an interviewer and an interviewee. This is not always the case: we will soon see that interviews do not have to be limited to two people, nor must they occur in person.

When to conduct an interview? Interviews are an excellent way to gather detailed information. They also have an advantage over surveys; with a survey, if a participant’s response sparks some follow-up question in your mind, you generally do not have an opportunity to ask for more information. In an interview, however, because you are actually talking with your study participants in real time, you can ask that follow-up question. Thus interviews are a useful method to use when you want to know the story behind responses you might receive in a written survey.

Interviews are also useful when the topic you are studying is rather complex, when whatever you plan to ask requires lengthy explanation, or when your topic or answers to your questions may not be immediately clear to participants who may need some time or dialogue with others in order to work through their responses to your questions. Also, if your research topic is one about which people will likely have a lot to say or will want to provide some explanation or describe some process, interviews may be the best method for you. For example, if you want to hear people’s views on what first-world countries should do about climate change, and why, you may need more than just a multiple choice question. To understand these “why’s” you will need to have some back-and-forth dialogue with respondents. When they begin to state their opinion, inevitably new questions that were not evident in prior interviews come up because each person’s views are unique. Also, because the views on climate change and climate change action are complex, describing them by responding to closed-ended questions on a survey would not work particularly well.

In sum, interview research is especially useful when the following are true:

  1. You wish to gather very detailed information
  2. You anticipate wanting to ask respondents for more information about their responses
  3. You plan to ask questions that require lengthy explanation
  4. The topic you are studying is complex or may be confusing to respondents
  5. Your topic involves studying processes

Key Takeaways

  • Understanding how to design and conduct interview research is a useful skill to have.
  • In a social scientific interview, two or more people exchange information through a series of questions and answers.
  • Interview research is often used when detailed information is required and when a researcher wishes to examine processes.

Qualitative Interview Techniques and Considerations

Learning Objectives

  1. Identify the primary aim of in-depth interviews.
  2. Describe what makes qualitative interview techniques unique.
  3. Define the term interview guide and describe how to construct an interview guide.
  4. Outline the guidelines for constructing good qualitative interview questions.
  5. Define the term focus group and identify one benefit of focus groups.
  6. Identify and describe the various stages of qualitative interview data analysis.
  7. Identify the strengths and weaknesses of qualitative interviews.

Qualitative interviews are sometimes called intensive or in-depth interviews. These interviews are semi-structured, which means some questions are predefined, and no answers usually are. In such interviews, the researcher has a particular topic about which they would like to hear from the respondent, but questions are open ended and may not be asked in exactly the same way or in exactly the same order to each and every respondent. In in-depth interviews, the primary aim is to hear from respondents about what they think is important about the topic at hand and to hear it in their own words. In this section, we will learn how to conduct interviews that are specifically qualitative in nature, analyse qualitative interview data, and use some of the strengths and weaknesses of this method. In the section “Issues to Consider for All Interview Types” below, we return to several considerations that are relevant to both qualitative and quantitative interviewing.

Conducting Qualitative Interviews

Qualitative interviews might feel more like a conversation than an interview to respondents, but the researcher is in fact usually guiding the conversation with the goal in mind of gathering information from a respondent. A key difference between qualitative and quantitative interviewing is that qualitative interviews contain open-ended questions, which means that a researcher poses the questions but does not provide answer options for them. Open-ended questions are more demanding of participants than closed-ended questions, because they require participants to come up with their own words, phrases, or sentences to respond.

In a qualitative interview, the researcher usually develops a guide in advance, to refers to during the interview (or memorises in advance of the interview). An interview guide is a list of topics or questions that the interviewer hopes to cover during the course of an interview. It is called a guide because it is simply used to guide the interviewer, but it is not set in stone. Think of an interview guide like your agenda for the day or your to-do list. Both probably contain all the items you hope to check off or accomplish, though it probably will be OK if you do not accomplish everything on the list, or if you do not accomplish it in the exact order that you have it written down. Perhaps new events will come up that cause you to rearrange your schedule just a bit, or perhaps you simply will not get to everything on the list.

Interview guides should outline issues that a researcher feels are likely to be important, but because participants are asked to provide answers in their own words, and to raise points that they believe are important, each interview is likely to flow a little differently. Although the opening question in an in-depth interview may be the same across all interviews, afterwards what the participant says will shape how the interview proceeds. This can make in-depth interviewing very exciting, but it can also makes in-depth interviewing rather challenging to conduct. It takes a skilled interviewer to be able to ask questions; actually listen to respondents; and pick up on cues about when to follow up, when to move on, and when to simply let the participant speak without guidance or interruption.

Interview guides can list topics or questions, and the specific format of an interview guide might depend on the researcher’s style, experience, and comfort level as an interviewer or with the topic. A guide can be topic based: it can have few specific questions, and an outline of topics to cover (hopefully), listed in an order that make sense to participants. The guide could also contain questions rather than brief topics. One reason to take this approach is if the researcher is less familiar with the topic. Another reason may be that the topic studied evokes strong personal feelings. In that case, it is best to make sure that the questions are phrased in a way that does not appear biased to respondents, or bias their responses. Written questions, as well as accumulation of interviews experience and literature exposure, the researcher can become more confident that they can ask open-ended, non-biased questions about the topic without the guide. Still, it is always good to have some specific questions written down at the start of the data collection process certainly helped.


As you might have guessed, interview guides do not appear out of thin air. They are the result of thoughtful and careful work on the part of a researcher. As you can see in both of the preceding guides, the topics and questions have been organized thematically and in the order in which they are likely to proceed (though keep in mind that the flow of a qualitative interview is in part determined by what a respondent has to say). Sometimes qualitative interviewers may create two versions of the interview guide: one version contains a very brief outline of the interview, perhaps with just topic headings, and another version contains detailed questions underneath each topic heading. In this case, the researcher might use the very detailed guide to prepare and practice in advance of actually conducting interviews and then just bring the brief outline to the interview. Bringing an outline, as opposed to a very long list of detailed questions, to an interview encourages the researcher to actually listen to what a participant is telling her. An overly detailed interview guide will be difficult to navigate through during an interview and could give respondents the misimpression that the interviewer is more interested in her questions than in the participant’s answers.

When beginning to construct an interview guide, brainstorming is usually the first step. There are no rules at the brainstorming stage—simply list all the topics and questions that come to mind when you think about your research question. Once you’ve got a pretty good list, you can begin to pare it down by cutting questions and topics that seem redundant and group like questions and topics together. If you haven’t done so yet, you may also want to come up with question and topic headings for your grouped categories. You should also consult the scholarly literature to find out what kinds of questions other interviewers have asked in studies of similar topics. As with quantitative survey research, it is best not to place very sensitive or potentially controversial questions at the very beginning of your qualitative interview guide. You need to give participants the opportunity to warm up to the interview and to feel comfortable talking with you. Finally, get some feedback on your interview guide. Ask your friends, family members, and your professors for some guidance and suggestions once you’ve come up with what you think is a pretty strong guide. Chances are they’ll catch a few things you hadn’t noticed.

In terms of the specific questions you include on your guide, there are a few guidelines worth noting. First, try to avoid questions that can be answered with a simple yes or no, or if you do choose to include such questions, be sure to include follow-up questions. Remember, one of the benefits of qualitative interviews is that you can ask participants for more information—be sure to do so. While it is a good idea to ask follow-up questions, try to avoid asking “why” as your follow-up question, as this particular question can come off as confrontational, even if that is not how you intend it. Often people won’t know how to respond to “why,” perhaps because they don’t even know why themselves. Instead of “why,” I recommend that you say something like, “Could you tell me a little more about that?” This allows participants to explain themselves further without feeling that they’re being doubted or questioned in a hostile way.

Also, try to avoid phrasing your questions in a leading way. For example, rather than asking, “Don’t you think that most people who don’t want kids are selfish?” you could ask, “What comes to mind for you when you hear that someone doesn’t want kids?” Or rather than asking, “What do you think about juvenile delinquents who drink and drive?” you could ask, “How do you feel about underage drinking?” or “What do you think about drinking and driving?” Finally, as noted earlier in this section, remember to keep most, if not all, of your questions open ended. The key to a successful qualitative interview is giving participants the opportunity to share information in their own words and in their own way.

Even after the interview guide is constructed, the interviewer is not yet ready to begin conducting interviews. The researcher next has to decide how to collect and maintain the information that is provided by participants. It is probably most common for qualitative interviewers to take audio recordings of the interviews they conduct.

Recording interviews allows the researcher to focus on her or his interaction with the interview participant rather than being distracted by trying to take notes. Of course, not all participants will feel comfortable being recorded and sometimes even the interviewer may feel that the subject is so sensitive that recording would be inappropriate. If this is the case, it is up to the researcher to balance excellent note-taking with exceptional question asking and even better listening. I don’t think I can understate the difficulty of managing all these feats simultaneously. Whether you will be recording your interviews or not (and especially if not), practicing the interview in advance is crucial. Ideally, you’ll find a friend or two willing to participate in a couple of trial runs with you. Even better, you’ll find a friend or two who are similar in at least some ways to your sample. They can give you the best feedback on your questions and your interview demeanor.

All interviewers should be aware of, give some thought to, and plan for several additional factors, such as where to conduct an interview and how to make participants as comfortable as possible during an interview. Because these factors should be considered by both qualitative and quantitative interviewers, we will return to them in the section “Issues to Consider for All Interview Types” after we’ve had a chance to look at some of the unique features of each approach to interviewing.

Although our focus here has been on interviews for which there is one interviewer and one respondent, this is certainly not the only way to conduct a qualitative interview. Sometimes there may be multiple respondents present, and occasionally more than one interviewer may be present as well. When multiple respondents participate in an interview at the same time, this is referred to as a focus group. Focus groups can be an excellent way to gather information because topics or questions that hadn’t occurred to the researcher may be brought up by other participants in the group. Having respondents talk with and ask questions of one another can be an excellent way of learning about a topic; not only might respondents ask questions that hadn’t occurred to the researcher, but the researcher can also learn from respondents’ body language around and interactions with one another. Of course, there are some unique ethical concerns associated with collecting data in a group setting.

Analysis of Qualitative Interview Data

Analysis of qualitative interview data typically begins with a set of transcripts of the interviews conducted. Obtaining said transcripts requires having either taken exceptionally good notes during an interview or, preferably, recorded the interview and then transcribed it. Transcribing interviews is usually the first step toward analyzing qualitative interview data. To transcribe an interview means that you create, or someone whom you’ve hired creates, a complete, written copy of the recorded interview by playing the recording back and typing in each word that is spoken on the recording, noting who spoke which words. In general, it is best to aim for a verbatim transcription, one that reports word for word exactly what was said in the recorded interview. If possible, it is also best to include nonverbals in an interview’s written transcription. Gestures made by respondents should be noted, as should the tone of voice and notes about when, where, and how spoken words may have been emphasized by respondents.

If you have the time (or if you lack the resources to hire others), I think it is best to transcribe your interviews yourself. I never cease to be amazed by the things I recall from an interview when I transcribe it myself. If the researcher who conducted the interview transcribes it himself or herself, that person will also be able to make a note of nonverbal behaviors and interactions that may be relevant to analysis but that could not be picked up by audio recording. I’ve seen interviewees roll their eyes, wipe tears from their face, and even make obscene gestures that spoke volumes about their feelings but that could not have been recorded had I not remembered to include these details in their transcribed interviews.

The goal of analysis is to reach some inferences, lessons, or conclusions by condensing large amounts of data into relatively smaller, more manageable bits of understandable information. Analysis of qualitative interview data often works inductively (Glaser & Strauss, 1967; Charmaz, 2006).For an additional reminder about what an inductive approach to analysis means, see Chapter 2 “Linking Methods With Theory”. If you would like to learn more about inductive qualitative data analysis, I recommend two titles: Glaser, B. G., & Strauss, A. L. (1967). The discovery of grounded theory: Strategies for qualitative research. Chicago, IL: Aldine; Charmaz, K. (2006). Constructing grounded theory: A practical guide through qualitative analysis. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage. To move from the specific observations an interviewer collects to identifying patterns across those observations, qualitative interviewers will often begin by reading through transcripts of their interviews and trying to identify codes. A code is a shorthand representation of some more complex set of issues or ideas. In this usage, the word code is a noun. But it can also be a verb. The process of identifying codes in one’s qualitative data is often referred to as coding. Coding involves identifying themes across interview data by reading and rereading (and rereading again) interview transcripts until the researcher has a clear idea about what sorts of themes come up across the interviews.

Qualitative researcher and textbook author Kristin Esterberg (2002)Esterberg, K. G. (2002). Qualitative methods in social research. Boston, MA: McGraw-Hill. describes coding as a multistage process. Esterberg suggests that there are two types of coding: open coding and focused coding. To analyze qualitative interview data, one can begin by open coding transcripts. This means that you read through each transcript, line by line, and make a note of whatever categories or themes seem to jump out to you. At this stage, it is important that you not let your original research question or expectations about what you think you might find cloud your ability to see categories or themes. It’s called open coding for a reason—keep an open mind. Open coding will probably require multiple go-rounds. As you read through your transcripts, it is likely that you’ll begin to see some commonalities across the categories or themes that you’ve jotted down. Once you do, you might begin focused coding.

Focused coding involves collapsing or narrowing themes and categories identified in open coding by reading through the notes you made while conducting open coding. Identify themes or categories that seem to be related, perhaps merging some. Then give each collapsed/merged theme or category a name (or code), and identify passages of data that fit each named category or theme. To identify passages of data that represent your emerging codes, you’ll need to read through your transcripts yet again (and probably again). You might also write up brief definitions or descriptions of each code. Defining codes is a way of making meaning of your data and of developing a way to talk about your findings and what your data mean. Guess what? You are officially analyzing data!

As tedious and laborious as it might seem to read through hundreds of pages of transcripts multiple times, sometimes getting started with the coding process is actually the hardest part. If you find yourself struggling to identify themes at the open coding stage, ask yourself some questions about your data. The answers should give you a clue about what sorts of themes or categories you are reading. In their text on analyzing qualitative data, Lofland and Lofland (1995)Lofland, J., & Lofland, L. H. (1995). Analyzing social settings: A guide to qualitative observation and analysis (3rd ed.) Belmont, CA: Wadsworth. identify a set of questions that I find very useful when coding qualitative data. They suggest asking the following:

  1. Of what topic, unit, or aspect is this an instance?
  2. What question about a topic does this item of data suggest?
  3. What sort of answer to a question about a topic does this item of data suggest (i.e., what proposition is suggested)?

Asking yourself these questions about the passages of data that you’re reading can help you begin to identify and name potential themes and categories.

Still feeling uncertain about how this process works? Sometimes it helps to see how interview passages translate into codes. In the table below, “Interview Coding Example”, I present two codes that emerged from the inductive analysis of transcripts from my interviews with child-free adults. I also include a brief description of each code and a few (of many) interview excerpts from which each code was developed.

Using computer software to manage and manipulate all your data

As you might imagine, wading through all these data is quite a process. Just as quantitative researchers rely on the assistance of special computer programs designed to help with sorting through and analyzing their data, so, too, do qualitative researchers. Where quantitative researchers have SPSS and MicroCase (and many others), qualitative researchers have programs such as NVivo ( and Atlasti ( These are programs specifically designed to assist qualitative researchers with organizing, managing, sorting, and analyzing large amounts of qualitative data. The programs work by allowing researchers to import interview transcripts contained in an electronic file and then label or code passages, cut and paste passages, search for various words or phrases, and organize complex interrelationships among passages and codes.

In sum, the following excerpt, from a paper analyzing the workplace sexual harassment interview data I have mentioned previously, summarizes how the process of analyzing qualitative interview data often works:

All interviews were tape recorded and then transcribed and imported into the computer program NVivo. NVivo is designed to assist researchers with organizing, managing, interpreting, and analyzing non-numerical, qualitative data. Once the transcripts, ranging from 20 to 60 pages each, were imported into NVivo, we first coded the data according to the themes outlined in our interview guide. We then closely reviewed each transcript again, looking for common themes across interviews and coding like categories of data together. These passages, referred to as codes or “meaning units” (Weiss, 2004),Weiss, R. S. (2004). In their own words: Making the most of qualitative interviews. Contexts, 3, 44–51. were then labeled and given a name intended to succinctly portray the themes present in the code. For this paper, we coded every quote that had something to do with the labeling of harassment. After reviewing passages within the “labeling” code, we placed quotes that seemed related together, creating several sub-codes. These sub-codes were named and are represented by the three subtitles within the findings section of this paper.Our three subcodes were the following: (a) “It’s different because you’re in high school”: Sociability and socialization at work; (b) Looking back: “It was sexual harassment; I just didn’t know it at the time”; and (c) Looking ahead: New images of self as worker and of workplace interactions. Once our sub-codes were labeled, we re-examined the interview transcripts, coding additional quotes that fit the theme of each sub-code. (Blackstone, Houle, & Uggen, 2006)Blackstone, A., Houle, J., & Uggen, C. “At the time, I thought it was great”: Age, experience, and workers’ perceptions of sexual harassment. Presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association, Montreal, QC, August 2006. Currently under review.

Strengths and Weaknesses of Qualitative Interviews

As the preceding sections have suggested, qualitative interviews are an excellent way to gather detailed information. Whatever topic is of interest to the researcher employing this method can be explored in much more depth than with almost any other method. Not only are participants given the opportunity to elaborate in a way that is not possible with other methods such as survey research, but they also are able share information with researchers in their own words and from their own perspectives rather than being asked to fit those perspectives into the perhaps limited response options provided by the researcher. And because qualitative interviews are designed to elicit detailed information, they are especially useful when a researcher’s aim is to study social processes, or the “how” of various phenomena. Yet another, and sometimes overlooked, benefit of qualitative interviews that occurs in person is that researchers can make observations beyond those that a respondent is orally reporting. A respondent’s body language, and even her or his choice of time and location for the interview, might provide a researcher with useful data.

Of course, all these benefits do not come without some drawbacks. As with quantitative survey research, qualitative interviews rely on respondents’ ability to accurately and honestly recall whatever details about their lives, circumstances, thoughts, opinions, or behaviors are being asked about. As Esterberg (2002) puts it, “If you want to know about what people actually do, rather than what they say they do, you should probably use observation [instead of interviews].”Esterberg, K. G. (2002). Qualitative methods in social research. Boston, MA: McGraw-Hill. Further, as you may have already guessed, qualitative interviewing is time intensive and can be quite expensive. Creating an interview guide, identifying a sample, and conducting interviews are just the beginning. Transcribing interviews is labor intensive—and that’s before coding even begins. It is also not uncommon to offer respondents some monetary incentive or thank-you for participating. Keep in mind that you are asking for more of participants’ time than if you’d simply mailed them a questionnaire containing closed-ended questions. Conducting qualitative interviews is not only labor intensive but also emotionally taxing. When I interviewed young workers about their sexual harassment experiences, I heard stories that were shocking, infuriating, and sad. Seeing and hearing the impact that harassment had had on respondents was difficult. Researchers embarking on a qualitative interview project should keep in mind their own abilities to hear stories that may be difficult to hear.

Key Takeaways

  1. In-depth interviews are semi-structured interviews where the researcher has topics and questions in mind to ask, but questions are open ended and flow according to how the participant responds to each.
  2. Interview guides can vary in format but should contain some outline of the topics you hope to cover during the course of an interview.
  3. NVivo and Atlas.ti are computer programs that qualitative researchers use to help them with organizing, sorting, and analyzing their data.
  4. Qualitative interviews allow respondents to share information in their own words and are useful for gathering detailed information and understanding social processes.
  5. Drawbacks of qualitative interviews include reliance on respondents’ accuracy and their intensity in terms of time, expense, and possible emotional strain.

Reflection activity: interview questions

Share the answers to the following questions with the group in the discussion forum.

  1. Based on a research question you have identified through earlier exercises in this text, write a few open-ended questions you could ask were you to conduct in-depth interviews on the topic. Now critique your questions. Are any of them yes/no questions? Are any of them leading?
  2. Read the open-ended questions you just created, and answer them as though you were an interview participant. Were your questions easy to answer or fairly difficult? How did you feel talking about the topics you asked yourself to discuss? How might respondents feel talking about them?

Issues to Consider for Interviews


  1. Identify the main issues that interviewers should consider.
  2. Describe the options that interviewers have for balancing power between themselves and interview participants.
  3. Describe and define rapport.
  4. Define the term probe and describe how probing differs in qualitative and quantitative interviewing.

The researcher interacts with his or her subjects, and that creates a few complexities that deserve attention. Let’s examine those here.


First and foremost, interviewers must be aware of and attentive to the power differential between themselves and interview participants. The interviewer sets the agenda and leads the conversation. While qualitative interviewers aim to allow participants to have some control over which or to what extent various topics are discussed, at the end of the day it is the researcher who is in charge (at least that is how most respondents will perceive it to be). As the researcher, you are asking someone to reveal things about themselves they may not typically share with others. Also, you are generally not reciprocating by revealing much or anything about yourself. All these factors shape the power dynamics of an interview.

A number of excellent pieces have been written dealing with issues of power in research and data collection. Feminist researchers in particular paved the way in helping researchers think about and address issues of power in their work (Oakley, 1981).Oakley, A. (1981). Interviewing women: A contradiction in terms. In H. Roberts (Ed.), Doing feminist research (pp. 30–61). London, UK: Routledge & Kegan Paul. Suggestions for overcoming the power imbalance between researcher and respondent include having the researcher reveal some aspects of her own identity and story so that the interview is a more reciprocal experience rather than one-sided, allowing participants to view and edit interview transcripts before the researcher uses them for analysis, and giving participants an opportunity to read and comment on analysis before the researcher shares it with others through publication or presentation (Reinharz, 1992; Hesse-Biber, Nagy, & Leavy, 2007).Reinharz, S. (1992). Feminist methods in social research. New York, NY: Oxford University Press; Hesse-Biber, S. N., & Leavy, P. L. (Eds.). (2007). Feminist research practice: A primer. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage. On the other hand, some researchers note that sharing too much with interview participants can give the false impression that there is no power differential, when in reality researchers retain the ability to analyze and present participants’ stories in whatever way they see fit (Stacey, 1988).Stacey, J. (1988). Can there be a feminist ethnography? Women’s Studies International Forum, 11, 21–27.

However you feel about sharing details about your background with an interview participant, another way to balance the power differential between yourself and your interview participants is to make the intent of your research very clear to the subjects. Share with them your rationale for conducting the research and the research question(s) that frame your work. Be sure that you also share with subjects how the data you gather will be used and stored. Also, be sure that participants understand how their privacy will be protected including who will have access to the data you gather from them and what procedures, such as using pseudonyms, you will take to protect their identities. Many of these details will be covered by your institutional review board’s informed consent procedures and requirements, but even if they are not, as researchers we should be attentive to how sharing information with participants can help balance the power differences between ourselves and those who participate in our research.

There are no easy answers when it comes to handling the power differential between the researcher and researched, and even social scientists do not agree on the best approach for doing so. It is nevertheless an issue to be attentive to when conducting any form of research, particularly those that involve interpersonal interactions and relationships with research participants.

Location, Location, Location

One way to balance the power between researcher and respondent is to conduct the interview in a location of the participants’ choosing, where he or she will feel most comfortable answering your questions. Interviews can take place in any number of locations—in respondents’ homes or offices, researchers’ homes or offices, coffee shops, restaurants, public parks, or hotel lobbies, to name just a few possibilities. I have conducted interviews in all these locations, and each comes with its own set of benefits and its own challenges. While I would argue that allowing the respondent to choose the location that is most convenient and most comfortable for her or him is of utmost importance, identifying a location where there will be few distractions is also important. For example, some coffee shops and restaurants are so loud that recording the interview can be a challenge. Other locations may present different sorts of distractions. For example, I have conducted several interviews with parents who, out of necessity, spent more time attending to their children during an interview than responding to my questions (of course, depending on the topic of your research, the opportunity to observe such interactions could be invaluable). As an interviewer, you may want to suggest a few possible locations, and note the goal of avoiding distractions, when you ask your respondents to choose a location.

Of course, the extent to which a respondent should be given complete control over choosing a location must also be balanced by accessibility of the location to you, the interviewer, and by your safety and comfort level with the location. I once agreed to conduct an interview in a respondent’s home only to discover on arriving that the living room where we conducted the interview was decorated wall to wall with posters representing various white power organizations displaying a variety of violently racist messages. Though the topic of the interview had nothing to do with the topic of the respondent’s home décor, the discomfort, anger, and fear I felt during the entire interview consumed me and certainly distracted from my ability to carry on the interview. In retrospect, I wish I had thought to come up with some excuse for needing to reschedule the interview and then arranged for it to happen in a more neutral location. While it is important to conduct interviews in a location that is comfortable for respondents, doing so should never come at the expense of your safety.

Researcher-Respondent Relationship

Finally, a unique feature of interviews is that they require some social interaction, which means that to at least some extent, a relationship is formed between interviewer and interviewee. While there may be some differences in how the researcher-respondent relationship works depending on whether your interviews are qualitative or quantitative, one essential relationship element is the same: R-E-S-P-E-C-T.You should know by now that I can’t help myself. If you, too, now have Aretha Franklin on the brain, feel free to excuse yourself for a moment to enjoy a song and dance: A good rapport between you and the person you interview is crucial to successful interviewing. Rapport is the sense of connection you establish with a participant. Some argue that this term is too clinical, and perhaps it implies that a researcher tricks a participant into thinking they are closer than they really are (Esterberg, 2002).Esterberg, K. G. (2002). Qualitative methods in social research. Boston, MA: McGraw-Hill. While it is unfortunately true that some researchers might adopt this misguided approach to rapport, that is not the sense in which I use the term here nor is that the sort of rapport I advocate researchers attempt to establish with their subjects. Instead, as already mentioned, it is respect that is key.

There are no big secrets or tricks for how to show respect for research participants. At its core, the interview interaction should not differ from any other social interaction in which you show gratitude for a person’s time and respect for a person’s humanity. It is crucial that you, as the interviewer, conduct the interview in a way that is culturally sensitive. In some cases, this might mean educating yourself about your study population and even receiving some training to help you learn to effectively communicate with your research participants. Do not judge your research participants; you are there to listen to them, and they have been kind enough to give you their time and attention. Even if you disagree strongly with what a participant shares in an interview, your job as the researcher is to gather the information being shared with you, not to make personal judgments about it. In case you still feel uncertain about how to establish rapport and show your participants respect, I will leave you with a few additional bits of advice.

Developing good rapport requires good listening. In fact, listening during an interview is an active, not a passive, practice. Active listening means that you, the researcher, participate with the respondent by showing that you understand and follow whatever it is that he or she is telling you (Devault, 1990).For more on the practice of listening, especially in qualitative interviews, see Devault, M. (1990). Talking and listening from women’s standpoint: Feminist strategies for interviewing and analysis. Social Problems, 37, 96–116. The questions you ask respondents should indicate that you’ve actually heard what they’ve just said. Active listening probably means that you will probe the respondent for more information from time to time throughout the interview. A probe is a request for more information. Both qualitative and quantitative interviewers probe respondents, though the way they probe usually differs. In quantitative interviews, probing should be uniform. Often quantitative interviewers will predetermine what sorts of probes they will use. As an employee at the research firm I’ve mentioned before, our supervisors used to randomly listen in on quantitative telephone interviews we conducted. We were explicitly instructed not to use probes that might make us appear to agree or disagree with what respondents said. So “yes” or “I agree” or a questioning “hmmmm” were discouraged. Instead, we could respond with “thank you” to indicate that we’d heard a respondent. We could use “yes” or “no” if, and only if, a respondent had specifically asked us if we’d heard or understood what they had just said.

In some ways qualitative interviews better lend themselves to following up with respondents and asking them to explain, describe, or otherwise provide more information. This is because qualitative interviewing techniques are designed to go with the flow and take whatever direction the respondent goes during the interview. Nevertheless, it is worth your time to come up with helpful probes in advance of an interview even in the case of a qualitative interview. You certainly do not want to find yourself stumped or speechless after a respondent has just said something about which you’d like to hear more. This is another reason that practicing your interview in advance with people who are similar to those in your sample is a good idea.

Key Takeaways

  1. All interviewers using either technique should take into consideration the power differential between themselves and respondents, should take care in identifying a location for an interview, and should take into account the fact that an interview is, to at least some extent, a form of relationship.
  2. Feminist researchers paved the way for helping interviewers think about how to balance the power differential between themselves and interview participants.
  3. Interviewers must always be respectful of interview participants.

Reflection activity: interview location and power relationships

Share the answers to the following questions with the group in the discussion forum.

  1. Imagine that you will be conducting interviews. What are some possible locations in your area you think might be good places to conduct interviews? What makes those locations good?
  2. What do you think about the suggestions for balancing power between interviewers and interviewees? How much of your own story do you think you’d be likely to share with interview participants? Why? What are the possible consequences (positive and negative) of revealing information about yourself when you’re the researcher?


  1. A summary of reviews on the website dedicated to Kimmel’s book, Guyland:
  2. Kimmel, M. (2008). Guyland: The perilous world where boys become men. New York, NY: Harper Collins.


Amy Blackstone 2012, Sociological Inquiry Principles: Qualitative and Quantitative Methods, Interviews: Qualitative and Quantitative Approaches, [1]