At the beginning of Chapter 1 we attempted to define an interview and, from that definition, to distinguish it from a questionnaire. Exceptions were noted but the distinction largely applies. In the present chapter, however, that distinction will be qualified for practical purposes.
We have emphasized the variety of ways in which a researcher can obtain information and insight from people; and the need to think flexibly about what precise methods would be feasible or suitable in a given situation. To a large extent these vary according to the availability or characteristics of the interviewee, who is often selected as representative of a larger group and, in that respect, replaceable. But sometimes the people one might want to interview are neither particularly accessible nor replaceable. Hence the importance of 'distance' techniques or those which make only limited demands; or both. Here we describe two variants of a simple technique that will suit some respondents and some purposes.
Questionnaires are normally composed of closed questions with various forms of multiple-choice answer. Because these answers are 'pre-coded' – that is, already defined in categorical terms – they are easy to analyse in a standardized format and thus are appropriate for the very large number of responses possible in a large-scale survey. The experienced social researcher knows that a questionnaire with open questions, where the response is open to the respondent's free choice, results in a data set which is almost unanalysable. Even with the use of sophisticated software, it still requires the researcher to 'code' (derive categories from) the data, and with a vast amount of qualitative data that soon becomes a gargantuan task.
Although interviews are normally face-to-face and interactive, a key element is the openness to the possible responses of the interviewee. A 'questionnaire' as described here which asks (normally a very few) open questions lies somewhere between a live interview and a standardized-format questionnaire.