International Relations Interviews and Focus Groups
Gregory Lyon, Beth Leech
  • LAST REVIEWED: 09 October 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 February 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199743292-0228


Interviews and, to a lesser extent, focus groups are used both in quantitative and qualitative research within international relations and political science. When conducted qualitatively, interviews can be used to generate new hypotheses, to understand a phenomenon or process more deeply, or to interpret attitudes and feelings. In quantitative research, interviews are used to collect information that is not available in any public documents or data sets. In such cases, responses from the interviews are often used to code a series of numeric variables that then are analyzed statistically. For example, the researcher might examine the interview transcripts to see how many obstacles to success policy officials were mentioned, then create a count variable of those mentions. There is a wide range of interview types used in research, and discussions of these methods often point to the trade-off between reliability and validity. More-structured questions should lead to more reliable and replicable data, but if the questions miss the point, the responses are less valid. More-open-ended approaches may help researchers get closer to the truth as viewed by the respondent. Mass surveys that are conducted in-person are sometimes referred to as “survey interviews.” These are more properly treated as surveys, rather than interviews, because they are highly structured, requiring respondents in most cases to give responses within predetermined categories—such as agree, somewhat agree, somewhat disagree, or disagree. The works listed in this article instead focus on interviews that allow for open-ended responses. These interviews can be structured—with questions always asked in a uniform way, or semistructured—in which a set list of questions and possible follow-up questions, or “prompts,” are asked in a more conversational way, not necessarily always in a set order but as they come up naturally during the interview. Structured and semistructured interviews are most often used by scholars taking a more quantitative approach. The subjects of these interviews are often government officials, organizational leaders, or other experts in the topic, leading this type of research to be referred to as “elite interviewing.” Alternatively, some scholars take a more qualitative or interpretive approach to interviewing. Borrowing techniques from anthropology and sociology, these “ethnographic” interviews often leave it to the informant to decide what is most important about the topic at hand. Focus groups are used infrequently in international-relations research and in political science but are more common in educational research and marketing. Still, some notable exceptions exist, especially in the realm of deliberative democracy and decision making.

General Overviews

These general overviews focus on interviewing and techniques for conducting interviews, with hands-on stories from the field. Most but not all of these scholars make use of semistructured interviews with elites. Dexter 2006, originally published in 1970, provided the first instructions to political scientists about how to conduct such elite interviews for research. Beyers, et al. 2014 provides cross-national advice on interviewing and on how to make these data reliable across cultural divides. Mosley 2013 is an edited volume that offers a wide range of approaches, from the interpretive to the structured, whereas Leech 2002 introduces a collection of articles for a symposium in the journal PS: Political Science & Politics. Articles in the symposium remain among the most-downloaded articles in the journal’s history, providing evidence for the relative scarcity of hands-on advice about interviewing from experts in the field.

  • Beyers, Jan, Caelesta Braun, David Marshall, and Iskander De Bruycker. “Let’s Talk! On the Practice and Method of Interviewing Policy Experts.” Interest Groups & Advocacy 3.2 (2014): 174–187.

    DOI: 10.1057/iga.2014.11

    An overview of how interviews were used as part of the INTEREURO collaborative project, which involved twenty-eight researchers studying policymaking across Europe, using parallel research methods and research questions.

  • Dexter, Lewis Anthony. Elite and Specialized Interviewing. ECPR Classics. Colchester, UK: ECPR, 2006.

    Originally published in 1970, this book provides the first treatment of interviewing techniques by a political scientist. Dexter was one of the authors of American Business and Public Policy (see Bauer, et al. 2007, cited under Seminal Works; first published in 1963), and his own research focused on Congress and organized interests.

  • Leech, Beth L. “Interview Methods in Political Science.” PS: Political Science & Politics 35.4 (2002): 663–664.

    Symposium provides a collection of six articles dealing primarily with elite interviewing. Another article by Leech discusses how to phrase semistructured interview questions (pp. 665–668), an article by Joel D. Aberbach and Bert A. Rockman gives tips on coding interviews for quantitative analysis (pp. 673–676), and an article by Sharon Werning Rivera, Polina M. Kozyreva, and Eduard G. Sarovskii shares information about conducting interviews in post-communist states (pp. 683–688).

  • Mosley, Layna, ed. Interview Research in Political Science. Papers presented at a conference held in January 2010 at Duke University, Durham, NC. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2013.

    Contains a wide range of advice from researchers in international relations, comparative politics, and American politics about the applications and styles of interviewing. Discusses ethics, interviewer safety, and methodological pitfalls and trade-offs. Appendix includes examples of interview protocols.

  • Tansey, Oisín. “Process Tracing and Elite Interviewing: A Case for Non-probability Sampling.” PS: Political Science & Politics 40.4 (2007): 765–772.

    Encourages the use of elite interviewing when doing within-case causal analysis, and points out that purposive and snowball sampling are more appropriate for such interviews, given the goals of the research. For example, choosing the most centrally placed or knowledgeable policymaker is more informative than choosing a random policymaker, if the goal is to learn about the policy.

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