Unstructured Interviewing

Next comes unstructured interviewing, one of the two types covered in this chapter. There is nothing at all informal about unstructured interviewing, and nothing deceptive, either. You sit down with another person and hold an interview. Period. Both of you know what you’re doing, and there is no shared feeling that you’re just engaged in pleasant chitchat.

Unstructured interviews are based on a clear plan that you keep constantly in mind, but are also characterized by a minimum of control over the people’s responses. The idea is to get people to open up and let them express themselves in their own terms, and at their own pace. A lot of what is called ethnographic interviewing is unstructured. Unstructured interviewing is used in situations where you have lots and lots of time—like when you are doing long-term fieldwork and can interview people on many separate occasions (box 8.1).

BOX 8.1


Should anthropologists pay their informants? If so, how much? I'm a firm believer in paying for people's time, but there are exceptions. If you are studying people who are worth millions of dollars, paying them is inappropriate. You can't possibly pay them enough to compensate them financially for their time. It's better to make a donation to a charity that they support. This will vary from case to case, but the general rule, for me at least, is that if you want to interview people formally—sit down with them, voice recorder on the table and/or notebook in hand—they should be paid at least the local rate for their time. With key informants, the rule for me is that there's always a culturally appropriate way—money, job training, buying cement for a new school—to compensate people for their contribution to your career. [1]

interviewing and requires all the same skills, but semistructured interviewing is based on the use of an interview guide. This is a written list of questions and topics that need to be covered in a particular order.

This is the kind of interview that most people write about—the kind done in professional surveys. The interviewer maintains discretion to follow leads, but the interview guide is a set of clear instructions—instructions like this one: ‘‘Probe to see if informants (men and women alike) who have daughters have different values about dowry and about premarital sex than do people who have only sons.’’

Formal, written guides are an absolute must if you are sending out several interviewers to collect data. But even if you do all the interviewing on a project yourself, you should build a guide and follow it if you want reliable, comparable qualitative data.

Semistructured interviewing works very well in projects where you are dealing with high-level bureaucrats and elite members of a community—people who are accustomed to efficient use of their time. It demonstrates that you are fully in control of what you want from an interview but leaves both you and your respondent to follow new leads. It shows that you are prepared and competent but that you are not trying to exercise excessive control.

Structured Interviewing

Finally, in fully structured interviews, people are asked to respond to as nearly identical a set of stimuli as possible. One variety of structured interviews involves use of an interview schedule—an explicit set of instructions to interviewers who administer questionnaires orally. Instructions might read: ‘‘If the informant says that she or he has at least one daughter over 10 years of age, then ask questions 26b and 26c. Otherwise, go on to question 27.’’

Self-administered questionnaires are a kind of structured interview. Other structured interviewing techniques include pile sorting, frame elicitation, triad sorting, and tasks that require informants to rate or rank order a list of things. I’ll deal with these in chapter 10.

  • [1] Semistructured Interviewing In situations where you won’t get more than one chance to interview someone, semistructured interviewing is best. It has much of the freewheeling quality of unstructured
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