Research Methods – the strengths and weaknesses of unstructured interviews

In sociology, there are two contrasting approaches to conducting research. This method is mainly used by interpretivists because it shows a developed understanding (verstehen) of an individual persons behaviour which they believe can only be explored via methods that produce qualitative data to allow them to find insight and meaning, which can be provided by using unstructured interviews (UI). However, positivists who would use a quantitative research method such as questionnaires, because they are considered to be easy to analyse, objective, and highly reliable.

The practical issues surrounding the use of UI are time because to do just one participant is very time consuming, and at times they usually get off topic thus creating unnecessary information. It is known to be very difficult to manage and organise the large amount of qualitative information gathered and also sociologists may disagree on what the important points in the participant’s interview are. Access to the group of people that the researcher wants to interview might be difficult so if there was a gatekeeper it would be much easier. Due to the difficulty of getting a large sample, a group of researchers may be trained but this will be both costly and time-consuming.

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Another issue is the ethical side of the research. The participants must be given the option to provide informed consent. Also confidentiality and anonymity are important as this will gain the trust of the interviewee thus increasing validity. At all times they should have the right to stop and withdraw if they do not want to continue. This is more relevant with UIs as they normally touch upon sensitive issues. The participant must also have an idea of what the research is about, but revealing too much about the hypothesis may lead to social desirability.

Unstructured interviews are not seen as reliable, because if it was done again, due to their conversational nature the answers can never be the same, meaning that the research cannot be carried out by other researchers even on the same participants.

On the other hand, the validity of this research method is very high because it shows the true picture of what is being researched and allows for a deep understanding of an issue from the participant’s perspective. However, we must also consider interviewer bias (the answers given in an interview being influenced or distorted in some way because of the presence or behaviour of the interviewer), social desirability (this is when the interviewee denies socially undesirable traits or qualities to make himself look better) and not structuring the questions to be bias or leading or the participant will not give the validating information we need, hence rendering the information false.

The representativeness of the research falls upon the how large the sample is, because the larger the sample, the easier it is to get a generalisation. The fact that UI samples are normally small, means that it will be difficult to generalise.

To conclude, all research methods have their strengths and limitations, but to make the limitations as small as possible sociologists use triangulation, where they use more than one research method on a particular study to get the best results. An example is Wright when she observed 1000 teachers and students, looking at how teachers behaved towards students, she used non-participant and direct observation to carry out her study. Barker (The Making of a Moonie) – she used a number of methods when researching the lives of Moonies.

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