The difference between structured and semi-structured interviews in qualitative research

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The difference between structured and semi-structured interviews in qualitative research
Interviews are a good way of obtaining research data. (Digital Vision./Digital Vision/Getty Images)

Conducting interviews is a reliable method of obtaining research data for the social sciences and for marketing purposes. It yields comparable data that can also contain some depth, as the interview questions typically ask about thoughts and opinions. Interviews are therefore most frequently used as a qualitative research tool. Interviews are usually either structured or semi-structured.

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Structure

In a structured interview, the interviewer or team of interviewers asks a large sample of interviewees the same set of questions. The order and phrasing of the questions are consistent as the interviewer is reading from a script. The interviewer is allowed to explain questions that the interviewee does not understand, but there are few open-ended questions.

In a semi-structured interview, the interviewer develops and uses an interview guide to be used with a relatively small sample. The guide contains a list of topics to be covered, often with some scripted questions. But a semi-structured interview allows for many more open-ended questions, and the interviewer can probe more deeply when she feels it is necessary.

Development

Developing a questionnaire for a structured interview requires a very clear focus. You must know exactly what you want to find out. Structured interviews may be used to test hypotheses. They can also be used in the preliminary data gathering phase of a research project, to identify issues to be explored in in-depth interviews. In contrast, the inclusion of open-ended questions and the possibility of pursuing different conversational paths during semi-structured interviews makes them more exploratory in nature. It is possible to identify new perspectives and new avenues for research.

Interviewer experience

Structured interviews can be conducted efficiently by interviewers who have been trained to follow scripts. They do not normally require a particular rapport to be developed between interviewer and interviewee. In fact, many market research companies recruit students or entry-level staff to conduct structured interviews over the telephone.

Semi-structured interviews are more often conducted by experienced researchers with an in-depth knowledge of the subject being researched. They need to be able to develop a rapport with the interviewee in order to ask follow-up questions and encourage more detailed answers.

Data

Responses in a structured interview are usually recorded by the interviewer ticking boxes. She may take notes to record answers to open-ended questions. The resulting data is consistent and can be compared across a large number of respondents. It can be analysed quantitatively as well as qualitatively. A researcher conducting a semi-structured interview will usually use audio or video equipment to record the interview. The resulting qualitative data is reliable and comparable.

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