There is a continuum of interview situations based on the amount of control we try to exercise over people’s responses (Dohrenwend and Richardson 1965; Gorden 1987; Spradley 1979). These different types of interviews produce different types of data that are useful for different types of research projects and that appeal to different types of researchers. For convenience, I divide the continuum of interviews into four large chunks.
At one end there is informal interviewing, characterized by a total lack of structure or control. The researcher just tries to remember conversations heard during the course of a day in the field. This requires constant jotting and daily sessions in which you sit at a computer, typing away, unburdening your memory, and developing field notes. Informal interviewing is the method of choice at the beginning of participant observation fieldwork, when you’re settling in. It is also used throughout ethnographic fieldwork to build greater rapport and to uncover new topics of interest that might have been overlooked. When it comes to interviewing, never mistake the adjective ‘‘informal’’ for ‘‘lightweight.’’ This is hard, hard work. You have to remember a lot; you have to duck into private corners a lot (so you can jot things down); and you have to use a lot of deception (to keep people from knowing that you’re really at work, studying them). Informal interviewing can get pretty tiring.
Still, in some kinds of research, informal interviewing is all you’ve got. Mark Connolly (1990) studied gamines, or street children, in Guatemala City, Guatemala, and Bogota, Colombia. These children live, eat, and sleep on the street. Hanging out and talking informally with these children was an appropriate way to do this research. Informal ethnography can also be combined with more structured methods, when circumstances allow it. In fact, Rachel Baker (1996a, 1996b) was able to collect anthropometric data on street children in Kathmandu, Nepal, while doing informal ethnography.