This is “Interview Research: What Is It and When Should It Be Used?”, section 9.1 from the book Sociological Inquiry Principles: Qualitative and Quantitative Methods (v. 1.0). For details on it (including licensing), click here.

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9.1 Interview Research: What Is It and When Should It Be Used?

Learning Objectives

  1. Define interviews from the social scientific perspective.
  2. Identify when it is appropriate to employ interviews as a data-collection strategy.

Knowing how to create and conduct a good interview is one of those skills you just can’t go wrong having. Interviews are used by market researchers to learn how to sell their products, journalists use interviews to get information from a whole host of people from VIPs to random people on the street. Regis Philbin (a sociology major in collegeThis information comes from the following list of famous sociology majors provided by the American Sociological Association on their website: used interviews to help television viewers get to know guests on his show, employers use them to make decisions about job offers, and even Ruth Westheimer (the famous sex doctor who has an MA in sociologyRead more about Dr. Ruth, her background, and her credentials at her website: used interviews to elicit details from call-in participants on her radio show.Interested in hearing Dr. Ruth’s interview style? There are a number of audio clips from her radio show, Sexually Speaking, linked from the following site: Warning: some of the images and audio clips on this page may be offensive to some readers. It seems everyone who’s anyone knows how to conduct an interview.

Figure 9.1

Social scientists use interviews as do many others, from journalists to talk show hosts to businesses making hiring decisions.

From the social scientific perspective, interviewsA method of data collection that involves two or more people exchanging information through a series of questions and answers. are a method of data collection that involves two or more people exchanging information through a series of questions and answers. The questions are designed by a researcher to elicit information from interview participant(s) on a specific topic or set of topics. Typically interviews involve an in-person meeting between two people, an interviewer and an interviewee. But as you’ll discover in this chapter, interviews need not be limited to two people, nor must they occur in person.

Figure 9.2

In social science, interviews are a method of data collection that involves two or more people exchanging information through a series of questions and answers.

The question of when to conduct an interview might be on your mind. Interviews are an excellent way to gather detailed information. They also have an advantage over surveys; with a survey, if a participant’s response sparks some follow-up question in your mind, you generally don’t have an opportunity to ask for more information. What you get is what you get. In an interview, however, because you are actually talking with your study participants in real time, you can ask that follow-up question. Thus interviews are a useful method to use when you want to know the story behind responses you might receive in a written survey.

Interviews are also useful when the topic you are studying is rather complex, when whatever you plan to ask requires lengthy explanation, or when your topic or answers to your questions may not be immediately clear to participants who may need some time or dialogue with others in order to work through their responses to your questions. Also, if your research topic is one about which people will likely have a lot to say or will want to provide some explanation or describe some process, interviews may be the best method for you. For example, I used interviews to gather data about how people reach the decision not to have children and how others in their lives have responded to that decision. To understand these “how’s” I needed to have some back-and-forth dialogue with respondents. When they begin to tell me their story, inevitably new questions that hadn’t occurred to me from prior interviews come up because each person’s story is unique. Also, because the process of choosing not to have children is complex for many people, describing that process by responding to closed-ended questions on a survey wouldn’t work particularly well.

In sum, interview research is especially useful when the following are true:

  1. You wish to gather very detailed information
  2. You anticipate wanting to ask respondents for more information about their responses
  3. You plan to ask questions that require lengthy explanation
  4. The topic you are studying is complex or may be confusing to respondents
  5. Your topic involves studying processes

Key Takeaways

  • Understanding how to design and conduct interview research is a useful skill to have.
  • In a social scientific interview, two or more people exchange information through a series of questions and answers.
  • Interview research is often used when detailed information is required and when a researcher wishes to examine processes.


  1. Think about a topic about which you might wish to collect data by conducting interviews. What makes this topic suitable for interview research?