Conducting Semi-Structured In-Depth Interviews:
Guidelines to Successful Interview (prepared for REPLACE 2
Draft (do not quote)
Dr David Beecham
1. What is the in-depth Interview
2. The interview as a social interaction
3. Who should I Approach to be interviewed?
4. Where to conduct the Interview
6. Preparing for the interview
7. The Interview
8. De-briefing participants and saying good bye
9. Writing the report
|What is the in-depth interview?
The in-depth qualitative interview has been adopted by many researchers within
the social sciences, as a means to gain an insight into how people make sense of
their world. Feminist researchers have advocated the use of in-depth semi
structured interviews in order to give voice to those individuals who are
marginalised within society. It is seen by many feminist researchers as a method
which allows participants to describe their lives and experiences in their own
words, to ‘tell it like it is’.
In-depth interviews are conducted in order to gain a thorough insight about a
particular issue. It allows researchers to explore individuals’ experiences and how
they attribute meaning to aspects of their everyday life. The in-depth interview
goes ‘deeper’ by asking participants to expand on the ‘taken for granteds’ or
perceived social ‘norms’. Only be exploring these ‘taken for granteds’ do we get a
glimpse of how complicated social reality really is.
This research project wishes to explore the beliefs that individuals hold about
practicing or not practicing FGM. Although we could ask participants to complete
a questionnaire, this would not allow us to understand why individuals make the
decision to either have or refuse FGM. It is only by asking members of the
community about aspects associated with the practice of FGM that we will be
able to identify what they believe are the consequences of performing or not
performing FGM. Furthermore, by exploring wider social issues relating to the
family and being a member of the Somali or Sudanese community, will we
understand the level of perceived control participants have over whether their
daughters should be cut.
|The Interview as a Social Interaction
Although it may feel like once you enter the interview room you and the
participants are closed off from the rest of society, but this is not the case.
Interviews do not take place within a vacuum; both you and the participants bring
social identities, perceptions, meanings and beliefs about certain aspects of
society to the interview. Both participants and, to a certain extent, the interviewer
will bring certain preconceived ideas they have about the other into the interview
room. You need to be aware of how participants social location or characteristics
and how these influence the interview setting. For example, marriage status,
occupational status, family position, age, educational status, geographical
location, membership in the community, religious status, class and gender all
influence the interview in some shape or form.
Having a different social position or status to those people you are interviewing,
can make the interview process more challenging; however, it can also facilitate
a good discussion. By being a different age from your participant, not sharing the
same marital status can allow you to explore these differences. But some
participants might feel uncomfortable discussing issues with someone they
perceive as not being able to sharing the experience they are describing.
As with any social interaction, the interview is not immune to the effects of power.
Interviewers need to be aware of the power dynamics that operate within the
interview process, if they are to minimise its impact. Power is associated with
social status, such as class, age, occupational status and position within the
community. Thus, community or religious leader could utilise their position of
power to influence the direction of the interview, essentially use the interview in
order to voice a particularly perspective. This could lead to the interviewer feeling
intimidated and/or overwhelmed and to afraid to ask certain questions or request
that the participant expand on a particular point.
One also has to be mindful that as interviewers that your social position might
affect the power relations within the interview process. Feminist researchers
advocate that interviewers try to minimise power within the interview setting.
|One way to achieve this is by allowing participants to choose the time and
location that is most convenient for them. Also, allowing participant the freedom to
discuss openly, and in their own words/language, the topics covered within the
interview is seen as empowering the participant. It is vitally important that
participants within this research as allowed to voice their thoughts and feelings
about the practice of FGM. As an interviewer, you may hear things that you
fundamentally disagree with, nevertheless, should not immediately judge the
participant or voice negative comments during the interview. This is not to say that
you should not ask why participants hold such opinions, but this should not be
done in a non-aggressive manner.
Who should I Approach to be interviewed?
It is difficult to advise who you should approach to be interviewed before you have
conducted the focus groups and revised the interview schedule/guide. Due to the
sensitive nature of this research, we cannot be to rigid about our research
sample. However, here are a few things to bear in mind when you are recruiting
Ideally we wold like to interview women and men from across the age
spectrum, from 18 years of age all the way up to and beyond 65 years
old. Bear this in mind when recruiting participants.
Position within the Community:
We would like the opinions of female and male community leaders.
We would like the opinions of those women and men with and without
child. Also, we would like the views of grandparents.
|If possible, we would like to interview people from various socio
economic backgrounds and education has a significant impact
on an in individual’s life chances. Therefore, try to recruit people
who have received different levels of education.
We would like to explore the opinions and beliefs of individuals who are
employed in different occupations etc. However, this should not be a
priority when recruiting interviewees. Because of the subject nature of
the research, we need to be mindful that we cannot be too picky about
who we approach to participate. What is important, however, is that you
uphold ethical standards and inform the participant about the nature of
the research project- hand them a participant information sheet (PIS) –
when you first approach them. I shall return to the issue of Ethics shortly.
Where to Conduct the Interview?
As I highlighted earlier, you need to be aware of the power dynamics
when conducting interviews and the location and environment in which
an interview is conducted will have a tremendous impact on the interview
process. This is particularly the case when dealing with such a sensitive
issue as FGM. People will talk more when they feel more relaxed and at
ease. Also, people are more likely to participate if the interview can be
conducted at a time and location that is mist convenient for them.
Therefore, when recruiting participants, indicate that you would be happy
to conduct the interview at a time and place which best suits them. At
first suggest a neutral location, a place where both you and the
participant would not feel inhabited and at ease. A participant might
indicate that they would feel far happier for the interview to take place in
their home. Although the participant might feel comfortable about
discussing FGM in the safety of their own home, this could make you feel
uneasy. If participants agree to take part but only if the interview can be
conducted in their home or a place you are not familiar with, here are a
few things that you need to consider:
|1. Plan for a friend or a colleague to collect you after the interview
2. Let people know where you are: Notify colleagues at FORWARD or
friends where you will be conducting the interview.
3. Let the participant know that people know where you are
4. If possible, check out the location before the interview takes places.
5. Once inside their home, make sure you assess the location and make
yourself familiar with the layout of the building, for example, where the
doors are etc.
6. If you start to feel uncomfortable at any point, be polite, but indicate that
you will have to end the interview and leave the premises.
Your safety is a priority and do not compromise for the sake of an interview.
After offering the participant the ability to choose the location and time of the
interview they are still reticent about participating, you could suggest that the
interview be conducted via telephone. Some individuals might feel uncomfortable
about revealing their personal number. Others may prefer this option because
they may feel less inhibited about talking over the phone. If they choose to
conduct the interview over the telephone, here are a few things you need to do:
1. Make sure you have access to a telephone
2. The room in which the telephone interview is to be conducted is private
3. You test the equipment before the interview beginnings
4. Make notes whilst conducting the interview
5. Be mindful about silences: It is difficult to tell whether someone is thinking
about the question they have asked you and formulating a response or has
|simply finished saying something and waiting for you to ask the next
6. It is difficult to know whether someone is distressed
Telephone interviewing may sound like an easy option, but it poses its
unique set of challenges. A major difficulty is the lack of any visual cues
which are a valuable source of information within an interview. For
example, you can tell a lot about a person’s body language or facial
expressions when talking to someone, with these it makes it extremely
difficult to judge whether a person is comfortable, distressed, unsure
about what is being discussed etc. Therefore listen closely to
participant’s voice, whether they sound comfortable or upset etc.
As I have already mentioned, when recruiting participants you need to
inform them about the project. This is done by giving the participant a
participant information sheet (PIS), this explains what the study is about,
why they have been chosen, what will happen if they take part, the
possible disadvantages and risks of taking part, informs them how the
information they disclose will be kept confidential and includes the
contact details of the researchers at Coventry University. Some
participants may have difficulty understanding written English, Dutch,
Somali, Sudanese and therefore you might have to explain this
information verbally. If the participant agrees to take part in the study, this
information should be relayed to them again before the start of the
interview. Before the interview commences you should ask the
participant if they consent to the interview being digitally recorded.
Participants should be asked to sign a participant consent form indicating
that they have been fully informed of the research project and understand
the nature of their participation. Again, like the PIS interviews might need
to verbally relay the information on the consent form, for those who have
difficulty reading. If participants don’t want to sign a consent form, but are
happy for the interview to be recorded, then informed consent can be
confirmed by the interviewer reading allowed the informed consent form
and the participant verbally indicating that they agree to the five points.
|Also, emphasise that participants are under no obligation to continue with the
interview and that they can withdraw from the project at anytime without giving
In order to identify the participant for future reference, for example, if they wish
to withdraw from the research project, ask them to generate a unique
identification number. This could be their initials plus the month and day of their
birth, for example, JS initials, 12 day, 10 month. Inform that this identification will
only be used by the researchers and that their identity will be anonymised in the
final report/ transcript.
Do not disclose the details or discuss the comments of another participant
during an interview. This not only breaches past participants’ confidentially, but
the present participant will doubt your ability to maintain their confidence. This is
not to say that you can’t talk in generalities, for example, if a participant asks
you ‘what have other people said’ in relation to particular point, you could say
‘well, a lot of participants have indicated that’ etc.
At the end of the interview de-brief the participant by giving them a copy of the
de-briefing sheet (explain this to the participant if they have trouble
understanding written English/Somali/Sudanese) that includes information
regarding the organisations who work within the area of FGM and who can give
them advice or support if required. During de-briefing it is an opportune moment
to ask the participants if they have any questions or concerns regarding the
issues raised or their participation. Some participants might indicate that they
wish to withdraw from the project at this stage. If this is the case, inform the
participant that all information that they have disclosed will not be included in the
project and the digital recording will be deleted.
|Preparing for the Interview
So you have been successful in recruiting individuals to be interviewed
and you have kept in contact with them to remind them of the time, date
and location of the interview. But what do you need to do before the
interview actually starts? Hopefully, the following pieces of advice
should help you to conduct a successful interview:
1. Make sure that you are on time:
There is nothing more unprofessional that being late for an
appointment. If you are able unable to make it for some reason
or are running late, notify the participant and offer to
reschedule. Also give yourself plenty of time to conduct the
interview, de-brief that participant and write a summary of the
interview. You should allow yourself at least 30-40 minutes after
the participant has left for you to write the report.
2. Check to see if the location is suitable:
If the interview is taking place in an environment which you
have control, check to see whether there are any posters,
notices on the walls, which could offend or influence the
participants answers. Make sure no one will disturb the
interview by walking into the interview room by placing a notice
on the door indicating that a private interview is in progress.
Have refreshments ready, for example, two bottles of water or a
cup of herbal tea etc.
4. Equipment check:
It is important that you have brought the correct equipment with
you. You will need:
|a) Digital Recorder
b) Spare batteries and/or mains adapter
e) Spare pen/pencil
Before the participant arrives, check that the equipment is working by
conducting a test of the recording level within the interview room. Not only does
this check whether the equipment is working, it also allows you to see whether
there is any noise interference.
5. Be familiar with the interview schedule
6. Have a box of paper tissues ready:
Participants may become upset during the interview; it is always a good
idea to be prepared with paper tissues.
7. Be alert and keep in mind what is the purpose of the interview:
Interviews require concentration. Not only do you have to remember
what participants have said in order to avoid repeating yourself, but you
also have to listen closely to what is being said so that you can probe
deeper if you need to. During the interview the participants might start
talking about an issue which is not related to the questions or topics
which you are discussing. That is why it’s important to remember why
you are conducting the interview and how you can guide the
conversation back to the issues that you wish to discuss.
8. Have all documentation ready:
You will need the PIS, consent form and de-briefing sheet ready to give
to the participant.
9. Relax and be confident:
|Give yourself a few minutes before the participant arrives to relax and
take stock of your situation. Even if you still doubt your abilities, be
confident when conducting the interview. Displaying confidence can
help, especially when you are interviewing individuals in positions of
power within the community.
The participant has arrived, or you have arrived at the arranged
location. You have done all the necessary equipment checks and
preparations and, you have just finished explaining our ethical
responsibilities and the interview has started. But how do you ask those
difficult questions? What do you need to do during the interview?
Hopefully, the comments below should answer these questions.
1. Listen and work through the answers:
You need to listen carefully to what the participant is saying, for
their response might not actually answer the question.
Alternatively, the participant may give you a vague response, to
which, you might have to ask for clarification or further
explanation. The most important thing to remember when
conducting an interview is not to rush through the questioning.
Don’t just sit there and read off the questions on the interview
schedule. Listening is equally as important as asking the
2. Use appropriate language:
You should conduct the interview in the language that the
participant is most comfortable with. But you should also avoid
using complicated language; for instance, do not use academic
language that could confuse participants. Not only is language
important, but how you ask the question can have influence a
participant’s response. Ask questions in a calm, not aggressive
manner, and be sensitive when probing participants for more
|3. Let the participants tell their own story in their own way:
Don’t interrupt participants when they are in the middle of a sentence or when
they stop in order to collect their thoughts. For some participants, this will be the
first time they have had change to express their opinions and experiences with
someone who will actually listen and be interested in what they have to say.
4. ‘Could you tell me’:
This is always a good way of starting an interview or asking a participant to
explain a particular point of view. For example, ‘could you tell me about your
experiences in coming to the UK/Netherlands’.
5. Reassure participants:
If participants become uncomfortable during the interview, reassure them that
these issues are hard to talk about, but talking about them may help.
6. If a participant becomes distressed during the interview what do I do?
If the interviewee becomes upset during the interview, give them time to gather
their thoughts and then ask them if they wish to continue.
7. Take notes:
The in-depth interview consists of more than just listening to participants verbal
responses, you should also take note of non-verbal cues such as hand
gestures, facial expressions and how a person is sitting. Sometimes, body
language can tell us more than the actual answer to the question. During the
interviews take notes about particular moments during the interview that made
an impression on you, say for example, when the participant’s body language
and the answer they give to a question seem mismatched. Laughter and
silences can also be very informative. Do not feel uncomfortable about long
silences, the participant could simply be reflecting on the things being
discussed. Use your judgement about when to move the conversation forward.
|Things you should not do when interviewing:
1. Don’t be busy taking too many notes and not listening
It is a difficult task taking notes, listening and thinking about possible
further questions to ask the participant. However, don’t worry about
combining these elements will improve as you conduct more interviews.
2. Don’t be frightened about not sticking to the interview schedule
The interview schedule is only a guide, it is not a prescriptive. If the
participant decides to go off on a slightly different direction, don’t worry.
Explore these avenues, however, if they are unhelpful then simply guide
the conversation back to an area which you are interested in.
3. Don’t sit there and try to find out what the participant is really
You will never know what the participant is really thinking about, or
whether they are telling you the ‘truth’. Simply listen to what the
participant is saying and explore their understanding of FGM.
4. Don’t simply listen for the things that you want to hear
An interview is not about getting what you want to hear from individuals.
You need to listen to everything that they say, even if you do not agree
5. Don’t relate things back to yourself during the interview
Participants are bound to ask you questions about your experiences of
opinions about FGM, it is up to you whether you want to disclose this
information. By disclosing certain aspects of your life, it can produce a
better rapport with participants, which in turn, can make for a better
interview. It can also influence the participant’s answers. Getting the
balance right between openness and influencing the interview is difficult,
some might say it’s possible. Simply being aware of this dilemma will
help you during the interview process.
|6. Don’t tell the participants that they are wrong
Even if you fundamentally disagree with what the participant is saying, do not
pass judgement on them by telling them that they are wrong. Nevertheless, this
doesn’t mean you have to agree with them. If a participant says something that
you disagree with or that is quite controversial, ask them to explain why they
7. Don’t try to make the participant like you.
The interview is not an audition for a possible friendship. If the participant
doesn’t really like you, or if you don’t really like them, that’s fine so long as the
interview doesn’t become too unbearable.
8. Don’t change the subject abruptly
If a participant is talking about something interesting or expanding on a
particular point, don’t just change the subject abruptly. Guide the interview
subtly back to a topic you want to cover.
What if I feel uncomfortable or threatened during the interview?
It is very rare that a participant becomes aggressive or offensive during an
interview, however, they could ask you questions which make you feel
uncomfortable. A participant could ask you about your personal live or make a
judgement about you, which you find inappropriate. You could:
1. Challenge them by asking why they have asked such questions
2. Keep silent and let the comments and/or questions go unanswered
3. Try to avoid these situations occurring
By displaying confidence and projecting a professional manner within the
interview will go a long way to prevent these incidents occurring. Of course, one
can never be certain of this, even if one prepares thoroughly. If you do become
totally uncomfortable or the participant starts emotionally or physically abusing
you, then discontinue the interview and ask them to leave. Your personal well
being and safety is paramount.
|De-briefing the participant and saying good-bye
After you have finished discussing the issues and the participant doesn’t
wish to add anything further, stop the digital recorder and begin de
briefing the participant. Hand them the de-brief sheet and explain what is
going to happen next. Also ask if they are still happy to continue to
participate. If they are still distressed after the interview, indicate that the
de-brief sheet has the contact details of organisations that they may wish
to contact in order to get support or guidance. Don’t rush the de-briefing,
answer the participant’s questions. Also, have your notepad and pen at
the ready because sometimes participants can say the most insightful
things when the digital recorder has been switched off. Thank the
participant once again for their time. Saying goodbye can be very
strange, especially if the participant has disclosed very personal topics
during the interview. After the participant has left you may feel
emotionally worn out, however, you should write the report of the
interview immediately whilst all the information is fresh in your mind.
Writing the Report
It is extremely important that you do this immediately after the interview,
whilst you can still remember vividly what aspects of the interview really
had an impact on you. Look over the notes that you took during the
interview, play the interview back to yourself and listen for things that you
didn’t notice when you were conducting the interview. Particularly pay
attention to how you asked the question and whether you feel they need
to be changed, or is there another area of your interview technique that
could improved? Writing the report allows you to reflect on your
performance and the interview as a whole. Make a note of your initial
thoughts relating to the issues discussed and the common themes, if any,
which emerged. These reports, together with the field notes, will be very
helpful to the research team when it comes to analysing the transcripts of
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