Understand common interview types.

The design of your interview is determined by your goal. Below is an overview of common interview formats.

Writers conduct interviews for many reasons. Interviews can play a role in helping you develop all of the projects presented in this book. Researchers employ interviews to achieve multiple purposes:

  • Oral histories; interview people who can tell stories about life in the past.
  • Expert testimonies; interview experts, such as famous inventors, entrepreneurs, political leaders, or trend-setters
  • Slice-of-life profiles; interview "man/woman on the street," profiling the life of "ordinary people"
  • Memorable quotes; perhaps someone said something in a clever way that supports your work

Some researchers argue that their interviews of individuals can be used to generalize to broader populations. For example, an urban sociologist might interview gang members and then try to generalize to other gangs, other cities. In contrast, some researchers argue that interviews can only generate knowledge about individuals, that researchers who use interviews are simply telling stories.

Participant Construct Interview

A participant construct interview identifies perceptions or ideas that an individual may have about another person, activity, or construct. In other words, he or she could ask a group of employees to identify all of the things that a supervisor should do in the workplace, which would subsequently reveal information about employees' perception of the role of the supervisor. A similar investigation of supervisors may yield a different set of information. These differences, the employee vs. the supervisor, concerning the same role, may identify a source of conflict in the workplace. A well-thought-out survey is a valuable tool in investigating social relationships.

Projective Interviews

Projective techniques sample people's reactions to perilous situations or psychologically charged contexts. For example, the participant is placed in an artificial situation--such as a burning building--by being shown a picture or being engaged in a simulation and then asked to respond. This technique is beneficial for areas such as investigating spousal abuse or violence in the workplace.

Face-to-Face Interviews

It is imperative that you are thoroughly familiar with the interview questions, are relaxed, and present the questions in a nonthreatening manner. You may wish to practice interview techniques in a controlled environment. Videotaping the practice session provides an excellent opportunity for both researcher and interviewee to critique and standardize the interviewer's performance.

By tape recording the interview, the interviewer has information that can expand and clarify the handwritten responses. The tape recorder will also capture a more complete response to open-ended questions. It also allows the researcher to replay the information should there be a question as to a particular response. Most importantly, for research data, independent evaluations of the same interview may be made.

Using a tape recorder also raises legal as well as ethical issues. The purpose of the recorder is to support your data collecting. The interviewee should be made aware of the purpose, restrictions, and disposition of the interview tapes. Ask the interviewee to sign a consent form (sample form at Figure 1). If the interviewee declines to sign the form, don't record the interview.

An interviewer taking notes during an interview is a normal situation and is easily acceptable to most interviewees. The tape or video recorder may adversely influence the situation by placing additional stress on the interviewee. The interviewer can reduce the stress by creating a relaxed, practiced, and professional interview session.

Telephone Interviews

Telephone interviews are another common means of gathering information. The telephone interview is economical in terms of both time and money. Many people consider their time as a precious commodity and are more inclined to grant a telephone interview than to schedule an appointment for a face-to-face interview.

The nature of your research can also influence the appropriateness of the telephone interview. Although the vast majority of American homes and businesses have telephone service, it is still not universally true. If your research involves the socially or economically disenfranchised, then there is a high likelihood you will exclude individuals simply because they don't have a telephone.

Computer-Assisted Interviews

Increasingly, people are interviewing others online with computer-assisted interviews. You may find that you can gain access to someone online who otherwise would not have time to meet with with you. You can distribute a questionnaire by email, join someone in a chat space, or use an instant messenger service.