Well planned and conducted semi-structured interviews are the result of rigorous preparation. The development of the interview schedule, conducting the interview and analysing the interview data all require careful consideration and preparation.
(Mathers, Fox and Hunn 1998, p.3)
Semi-structured interviews are one of the most used methods in qualitative research. They are useful when your research is ‘exploratory’. This means you have a general topic in mind, but there is not enough existing research for you to develop a hypothesis prior to your own study. In this case, you are looking for answers that emerge as the research project grows, and you can use semi-structured interviews to let participants guide you towards their truths within the specific areas you are studying.
In a semi-structured interview, you have an ‘interview guide’ (or ‘topic guide’). This is a document which lists pre-determined questions that you ask, for the most part, in a consistent order. At the same time, you are supposed to encourage your study participants to freely express ideas and give information they find important. That is, semi-structured interviews combine pre-formulated interview questions with ‘free conversation’.
The ‘interview guide’ arranges the questions by topic and may include follow-up questions, probes and comments. A good interview guide will contain a range of general and specific questions which are open-ended. Open-ended questions do not give participants a pre-determined set of answer choices. Rather, they are designed so participants can respond in their own words. Open-ended questions start with question words such as ‘why’, ‘when’, ‘where’ or ‘how’.
Example questions for a research project exploring experiences of resilience could be:
- What does the word ‘resilience’ mean to you?
- When do you feel most resilient? Why do you think this is the case?
- How do you access support in your community to strengthen your resilience?
Questions listed in an interview guide are not fixed. They can be adapted to your specific participants and their experiences and expertise.
Studies built around semi-structured interviews will often use the following steps:
- determine the purpose and scope of the study
- identify participants
- consider ethical issues
- plan logistical aspects
- develop the interview guide
- establish trust and rapport
- test the interview guide with a volunteer
- conduct the interview
- memo and reflect
- analyse the data
- demonstrate the trustworthiness of the research
- present findings in a paper or report
(Adapted from DeJonckheere & Vaughn 2019)
(Author: Jonathan (Jonny) Adams)