Collecting Knowledge: SEMI-STRUCTURED INTERVIEWS
Tool authored by: Petter Holm, Norwegian College of Fishery Science, University of Tromso
Semi-structured interviews are topical, information-rich conversations conducted with an open framework that allows for two-way communication. They are used both to give and receive information. Where possible, interviews should be conducted face-to-face and in informal settings. Unlike the questionnaire framework, where detailed questions are formulating ahead of time, semi structured interviewing starts with more general questions or topics. Semi-structured interviews are encounters with informants directed towards understanding informants’ perspectives on their lives, experiences or situations as expressed in their own words. The semi-structured interview is modeled more after a conversation between equals than a formal question-answer exchange. The role of interviewer entails not merely obtaining answers, but learning what questions to ask and how to ask them.
- Obtain quantitative or qualitative information from a group of informants
- Gain a range of insights on specific issues
- Obtain general information relevant to specific issues
What is needed
Before the interviews are conducted an interview framework, including topics or questions for discussion, must be worked out. In addition, it is useful to make an overview of the relevant groups of informants and some procedure for selecting who and how many should be interviewed. If interviewers are inexperienced, they can conduct practice interviews with each other and/or with a few informants to become familiar with the questions, and get feedback on their two-way communication skills. Record only brief notes during the interview. Immediately following the interview elaborate upon the notes.
In some cases, recording the interviews on tapes or video makes it easier to focus fully on the conversation. Always ask permission. Analyze the information at the end of each day of interviewing. This can be done with the interview team or group. Discuss the overall results of the analysis with informants so that they can challenge the perceptions of the interview team. This can make the process more participatory.
How it works
- Semi-structured interviewing is structured only in the sense that some form of interview guide is prepared beforehand and provides a framework for the interview.
- The guide serves as a reminder of relevant topics, such as the spatial distribution of fish species or fishing practices, and how these are related to key research issues, such as cooperative research and fisheries regulations.
- Not all questions are designed and phrased ahead of time.
- Some questions, or sometimes the majority of questions, are created during the interview, allowing both the interviewer and the person being interviewed the flexibility to probe for details or discuss issues.
- A lot of extra information may surface during interviews. Team meetings can help identify similarities in responses.
- Assure that, in a personal interview, the person being interviewed understands and trusts that the responses will be confidential.
- It may take some practice for the interviewer to find the balance between open-ended and focused interviewing.
- In a semi-structured group interview people may interrupt one another or “help one another out,” or not take turns. They may get off the topic completely.
- Interviewers need some skills. A common problem with interviewers is asking leading questions.
- Other problems are: failure to listen closely; repeating questions that have already been asked; failure to probe when necessary; failure to judge the answers; and asking vague or insensitive questions.
Examples from GAP2 and beyond
Semi-structured interviews were carried out within the GAP2 Case study on the Adriatic Sea to gather information on long-term changes in the fisheries resources in this area and the relative causes.
A preliminary set of questions and items to be discussed was prepared, in particular a selection of species for which information was sought, based on literature analysis and on the “oral history” interviews formerly carried out in the area. Interviews were carried out at the port or on board of fishing vessels, and much information, even beyond that of the general topic to be addressed, was gathered. The application of semi-structured interviews showed to be a very effective tool for collecting information, although very time consuming for the later interpretation and for gaining an overarching picture.
The same method is being applied, for instance, in the Netherlands GAP2 case study, where fishermen were asked to share their perspective on the issue of discards and the discard ban in the area.
What people say about this tool
“Semi-structured interviews allowed us to collect a range of information on the understanding of fishermen on the causes of changes to species in the Adriatic Sea and much related information. I highly recommend their use; to better work, it is necessary to be flexible and establish mutual trust” (Gianluca Franceschini, GAP2 Adriatic CS, Italy)
References and resources
FAO. 1990. The community’s toolbox: The idea, methods and tools for participatory assessment, monitoring and evaluation in community forestry. FAO: Rome.
Taylor, S.J. and R. Bogdan. 1984. Introduction to qualitative research methods. New York: John Wiley & Sons
Visual references and resources
Click here for: A map of the Adriatic Sea used to allow summarize spatial info during the interview