Without any doubt, the most popular style of doing qualitative social research, is to interview a number of individuals in a way that is less restrictive and standardized than the one used for quantitative research.ten Have, 2004, p. 5, emphasis original
A standard practice for qualitative research has become accepted in which interviews are conducted, the data are coded, and the results reported in the form of summaries written in formal language. In this chapter, I examine the practice of the qualitative research interview and explore the assumptions about language – and about people – that are embedded in its practices.
Interviews are a ubiquitous way of collecting data throughout the social sciences. Although qualitative researchers today work with a wide variety of perspectives and study an enormous range of phenomena – from rituals to the unconscious – the technique used to obtain data is overwhelmingly the interview (Potter & Hepburn, 2005). Verbal data are sometimes elicited in the form of solitary words or phrases, or brief statements or explanations, but interviewing has become a familiar, taken for granted component of qualitative research, as well as research in cognitive studies, developmental psychology, the learning sciences, and elsewhere. Qualitative approaches that are otherwise very different – grounded theory, thematic analysis, empirical phenomenology, and interpretative phenomenological analysis – all agree that interviews are the method of choice to obtain qualitative data (Table 2.1). Many qualitative research projects use only interviews as their source of empirical data.
We live today in what has been called “an interview society” (Atkinson & Silverman, 1997). On television, on the radio, and in newspapers and magazines, we watch, hear, and read interviews every day. Bogdan and Biklen suggest that “most of us have conducted interviews. The process is so familiar we do it without thinking” (Bogdan & Biklen, 1992, p. 96). Everyone knows what an interview is – or at least we think we do. Perhaps the very ubiquity of interviews prevents us from looking at them carefully.
Typically the qualitative research interview is “semistructured.” Other possibilities exist – focus group interviews, interviews that are completely unstructured, life histories, and so on – but the semistructured interview is the workhorse of qualitative research today.
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