Research Interviewing: The Range of Techniques

By Bill Gillham | Go to book overview

7: The unstructured interview
All interviews have a structure in the same way that all conversations have a structure, however loose it may be. At the very least they follow the rules of language use ('grammatical' or not), of some kind of rationale and of that selective, more-or-less chronological sequence usually known as narrative. The notion of the narrative interview (NI) is one of the main topics of this chapter.What an unstructured interview does is give responsibility for determining the structure to the interviewee who has to 'lead the way' and 'tell the story'. In research terms, there are three main uses of the unstructured interview:
as an initial technique where the researcher is casting around for those things that need to be investigated in a subsequent, more structured, stage of the research;
where the person being interviewed might be inhibited or constrained by a more structured approach;
where the interest is in some dimension of an individual's life experience, and where the significant themes can only be elicited by allowing the individual to give their account in their own way, without the fragmentation of structured questioning which may lose the thread of the narrative.

Implicit in these uses is that the researcher does not know what is there, and cannot determine what needs to be known, or found out. The primary skill is in eliciting the account: of people's experiences and what they feel and think about them. The diversity of subject-matter can be very great: for example, being a female engineering student; the transition from school to university; what it's like to work in a busy call centre.

These examples give some indication of what qualitative research is about – the understanding of someone else's world – and where the researcher is concerned with discovery. The tacit assumption of a structured investigation,

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