63 13.1 Interview research: What is it and when should it be used?

Learning Objectives

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


Knowing how to create and conduct a good interview is an essential skill. Interviews are used by market researchers to learn how to sell their products, and journalists use interviews to get information from a whole host of people from VIPs to random people on the street. Police use interviews to investigate crimes. It seems everyone who’s anyone knows how to conduct an interview.


two people talking in a dark restaurant

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 questions are designed by a researcher to elicit information from interview participants on a specific topic or set of topics. These topics are informed by the author’s research questions. Typically, interviews involve an in-person meeting between two people—an interviewer and an interviewee– but interviews need not be limited to two people, nor must they occur in-person.

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—they can change as you learn more information. In a survey, you cannot change what questions you ask if a participant’s response sparks some follow-up question in your mind. All participants must get the same questions. The questions you decided to put on your survey during the design stage determine what data you get. In an interview, however, you can follow up on new and unexpected topics that emerge during the conversation. Trusting in emergence and learning from your participants are hallmarks of qualitative research. In this way, 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, requires lengthy explanation, or needs a dialogue between two people to thoroughly investigate. Also, if people will describe the process by which a phenomenon occurs, like how a person makes a decision, then interviews may be the best method for you. For example, you could use 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” you would need to have some back-and-forth dialogue with respondents. When they begin to tell you their story, inevitably new questions that hadn’t occurred to you from prior interviews would 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:

  • You wish to gather very detailed information
  • You anticipate wanting to ask respondents follow-up questions based on their responses
  • You plan to ask questions that require lengthy explanation
  • You are studying a complex or potentially confusing topic to respondents
  • You are studying processes, such as how people make decisions


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.



  • Interviews- a method of data collection that involves two or more people exchanging information through a series of questions and answers


Image attributions

interview restaurant a pair by alda2 CC-0



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Scientific Inquiry in Social Work Copyright © 2018 by Matthew DeCarlo is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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