In Defense of Unstructured Interviews: What we can gain from doing away with interview guides and “going with the flow”

“What can you tell me about your experiences using different languages in your classroom?” I stated as my opening question for the professor I was interviewing. Based on my experiences observing another professor’s lectures, I had prepared about eight questions all leading off this one question for all university professors included in my study. However, her response had me scrambling. “I only use English,” she replied, staring at me like I was an idiot, “We are an English language university, so I exclusively teach in English.” “Oh, of course, of course…” I quickly responded and added something to save face about how a previous experience led me to believe otherwise.

What I was really thinking as I stammered some excuse for my assumption was what my next question should be since I could not then follow my intended list based on this unexpected answer. I panicked at first trying to grapple with the sense that we needed to stick to my script and how dare she derail my careful planning! After what felt like a difficult recovery, my common sense kicked in and I set aside my list of interview questions and sighed— releasing the expectations I had for my interview questions and the anticipated answers. Then I asked follow up questions based on her first response, as I do when organically meeting someone and just by coincidence discussing the topic of my dissertation. We ended up having a very fruitful conversation. This was in contrast to what always felt to me like an awkward question and answer session when I tried to unwaveringly sticking to my list of interview questions. In the end I learned more from this professor than I would have if I had followed my structured interview list because I allowed room for the conversation to grow and take directions different from the one(s) my interview guide had allowed for.

Making the switch from structured to unstructured interviews

I fully advocate for the unstructured interview as a main mode of interviewing interlocutors in ethnographic fieldwork. In training for my field research, the unstructured interview was often glossed over as the third interview style and lazy cousin to the structured and semi-structured interview models. But in my fieldwork it has proven time and again as the most effective interview style. In my opinion, for the unstructured interview to work well, one needs to be good at thinking on their feet, and generally friendly, confident, and open. Overall, it helps to be an experienced conversationalist to begin with, which is something I struggled with as I gained my footing in my field site and with the field language. But after ample practice, unstructured interviewing is now my go-to method and feels the most comfortable for discussing my research for the first time with new interviewees.

Based on classes, research proposals, and preparing documents for my university’s IRB review, I had my structured and semi-structured interview questions neatly laid out with a clear vision of how to use them in my research. However, as I have learned over and over again, actual fieldwork is not as neat and tidy as the proposal or classroom methods exercises. After my experience feeling blindsided by the professor, I stopped rigidly planning my interview questions most of the time. I had a guide for questions based on previous interviews or an idea of where I wanted the interview to go, but I made sure to leave room for answers that would change my route or expectations for the interview. But most of the time, I did away with using my interview guides though I always brought them along with me more as a safety blanket. I also still make sure to always begin with the general statement about confidentiality and safety and what my research is and what it will be used for.

Introduce yourself as a talking point

Contrary to what feels like good ethnographic research methods, I begin my interviews now by talking about myself. I had initially intended to do as little talking as possible to be a good listener but I found that this confused my interviewees who often had more questions about me and my work than what I started our interview with. I also found that it was helpful to give rather extensive background information to spark more fruitful conversation and to avoid having the interviewee explain something I already knew. Sometimes my introduction includes more personal details like my background and family but most of the time I first just explain my general topic and interests within the topic and answer their questions first. Sometimes, without divulging specific details, I include in these introductions what I’ve already learned from speaking to other people in the same field. Often just these initial details about myself are enough to spark conversation and generate a fruitful discussion with my interviewee.

Structuring unstructured interviews

These interviews are still structured or scaffolded in certain ways. Unstructured interviewing does not mean going into an interview blindly or without any preparation. For each person I interview, before our scheduled meeting, I most likely make first contact with them through email or in person in a previous meeting or introduction. So they know a little in brief about my dissertation topic and interests in meeting with them. I also make sure to google them or search for them and their background in some way so I don’t ask questions to which answers could be easily found by other means. This was one of my mistakes in that first interview that shifted my default interview style from structured to unstructured— if I had prepared more by looking into the school and professor rather than expecting to get all my answers from the person I was interviewing, I would have known that that school policies dictate that professors are to instruct in English, for example.

Conclusions and caveats

The first time I tried heading into an interview in an unstructured manner, I felt a sense of dread similar to the one I would get when I was about to take a test that I had not studied enough for. I felt as though I was being lazy, so in the cab I sketched out specific questions to ask. At some points during my research, last moment questions have come in handy. For example, some of my interlocutors have not been very loquacious and expect and wait for me to drive the conversation. Having questions written down not only guides and structures our interaction but it gives me time to collect my thoughts while I scan my notebook. In one interview in particular I went into a producer’s office with what I thought was a clear understanding of that person’s role was within the industry, but ended up being mistaken or having incorrect information before meeting. When this happened, I was pretty much at a loss and wished I had prepared a much more structured but open ended interview guide. I scrambled again to think up questions that would make our meeting worthwhile which I’m sure resulted in me looking quite unprofessional and fumbling.

Another caveat is that arriving for an interview without any planned questions is counter productive if it is not the first time you are meeting with that person. When I have had follow-up interviews with individuals, they have expected a much more formal question and answer session based on our first encounter. The first meeting generates specific questions for the second meeting. So, if it is a subsequent interview with the same individual, I definitely bring specific questions as we would have already covered all the general, open-ended topics. Though, I still make sure to not be so rigid in sticking to those questions and to still allow for new topics and directions to blossom out of the interview guide if needed.

Generally, after listening more intensely to my interlocutors (because I have stopped ticking off questions or trying to direct the conversation in ways that my next question does not feel so unexpected or off topic), I have found that my interviews tend to be longer and more rich with details branching into new and exciting areas of my research that I have not previously thought to consider. Some of the branches need trimming and I have to sometimes bring the conversation back to a central theme or sometimes there are topics I have in mind that I need to ask pointed questions about that I make sure to have jotted down. Overall, doing away with an interview guide and opening interviews by speaking about my own background and research has liberated my style of interviewing to produce very good results and has helped me to make meaningful connections with my interlocutors.