In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Interview Methodology

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Sampling
  • Interview Styles
  • Focused Interviews and Focus Groups
  • Sensitive Topics
  • Recording the Data
  • Transcribing Interviews
  • Coding and Analysis of Interview Data
  • Ethics

Sociology Interview Methodology
Heather Hamill
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 April 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 March 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756384-0105


Interview methodology is perhaps the oldest of all the social science methodologies. Asking interview participants a series of informal questions to obtain knowledge has been a common practice among anthropologists and sociologists since the inception of their disciplines. Within sociology, the early-20th-century urban ethnographers of the Chicago School did much to prompt interest in the method. In essence, interviewing is a method of eliciting information. It is a “conversation between people in which one person has the role of the researcher” (Arksey and Knight 1999, cited under General Overviews; p. 2). Interviews can be carried out face to face, over the telephone and Internet, or in a group setting. The interview can vary from a spontaneous conversation to a highly structured, closed interview style associated with social survey research. Semistructured or open-ended interviews are commonly used in qualitative research. They are often aided by an interview guide, schedule, or aide memoire that contains topics, themes, or issues to be covered during the course of the interview rather than a sequence of standardized questions. The intention is that the interviewer remains flexible and responsive throughout the interview so that the sequence of questions can change, their content can evolve, and the interviewer can probe more deeply into initial responses to gain a more detailed or “in-depth” answer to the question. Interviews may also vary considerably in length. Thus the elicitation skills of the interviewer have a strong effect on the quality and richness of the interview data. Interview data is often recorded and then transcribed to produce text that can be analyzed using qualitative and quantitative methods of data analysis. In general, the overall sample size of an interview study is relatively small because of the amount of data that is generated in great depth and detail from interviewing. Thus, when thinking about who to interview and how many interviews to carry out, a non-probabilistic sampling strategy is generally most appropriate, and while empirical generalizations cannot be made, theory can be generated from this kind of data. Interview methodology is particularly useful for researchers who take a phenomenological approach. That is, they are concerned with the way in which individuals interpret and assign meaning to their social world. It is also commonly used in more open-ended inductive research whereby the researcher observes specific patterns within the interview data, formulates hypotheses to be explored with additional data, and finally develops theory.

General Overviews

Although sociologists had been carrying out interviewed-based research for some time, it was the work of Barney Glaser and Anselm Strauss (see Glaser and Strauss 1967) that pioneered the integration of qualitative interviews into their field studies and subsequently developed the grounded theory approach to qualitative data analysis. There are a large number of very high quality ethnographic monographs that contain detailed accounts of how researchers negotiated access to research groups and individuals, the relationship between researcher and respondent, ethical concerns, what questions were asked and how they were framed, and the general highs and lows of interviewing. First published in 1943, Whyte 1993 is supremely well written and remains a classic ethnography, and the appendix contains rich and relevant details as to how the author elicited information from his respondents. Spradley 1979 was among the first to systematically outline interviewing as a distinct methodology, and this was followed by a plethora of methodology textbooks, such as Arksey and Knight 1999, Patton 2002, Hammersley and Atkinson 2007 (cited under Interview Styles), and Kvale and Brinkmann 2009, that all provide very detailed guidance on how to design an interview-based piece of research and how to best elicit information by interviewing respondents. Fielding’s edited four-volume Interviewing II (Fielding 2009) and Gubrium, et al. 2012 both provide comprehensive overviews of the method.

  • Arksey, Hilary, and Peter Knight. 1999. Interviewing for social scientists: An introductory resource with examples. London: SAGE.

    This practical guide to interviewing covers a wide range of issues such as theories of interviewing, research design, and application and interpretation of interview data. Aimed at undergraduate and graduate students, it mainly focuses on interviewing within the context of small-scale studies with tight time and resource constraints.

  • Fielding, Nigel G., ed. 2009. Interviewing II. London: SAGE.

    A four-volume collection of essays of which the wide-ranging contributions comprehensively cover all the theoretical and practical aspects of interviewing methodology.

  • Glaser, Barney G., and Anselm L. Strauss. 1967. The discovery of grounded theory: Strategies for qualitative research. Chicago: Aldine.

    The principles of grounded theory were first articulated in this book. The authors contrast grounded theories derived directly from the data with theories derived from a deductive approach.

  • Gubrium, Jaber F., James A. Holstein, Amir B. Marvasti, and Karyn D. McKinney, eds. 2012. The SAGE handbook of interview research: The complexity of the craft. 2d ed. Thousand Oaks, CA, and London: SAGE.

    A comprehensive guide to interviewing, this second edition emphasizes the dynamic, interactional, and reflexive aspects of the research interview.

  • Kvale, Steinar, and Svend Brinkmann. 2009. InterViews: Learning the craft of qualitative research interviewing. 2d ed. Los Angeles and London: SAGE.

    An easy-to-read guide to interviewing. The authors propose that interviewing is a craft rather than just a method. The book emphasizes learning from “best practice,” and there are numerous examples and learning exercises to help facilitate that goal.

  • Patton, Michael Q. 2002. Qualitative research and evaluation methods. 3d ed. Thousand Oaks, CA, and London: SAGE.

    In chapter 7, Patton provides a comprehensive guide to qualitative interviewing. This chapter highlights the variations in qualitative interviews and the interview guides or schedules that can be used. It provides a very useful guide as to how to formulate and ask questions and offers practical tips about recording and transcribing interviews. The chapter also covers focus groups, group interviews, ethics, and the relationship between researcher and interview participants.

  • Spradley, James P. 1979. The ethnographic interview. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

    A guide to ethnography informed by symbolic interactionism. Chapters 1 to 5 remain a very relevant and useful guide to interviewing.

  • Whyte, William Foote. 1993. Street corner society: The social structure of an Italian slum. 4th ed. Chicago and London: Univ. of Chicago Press.

    DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226922669.001.0001

    The appendix describes in great detail how Whyte carried out his ethnographic research. He writes about how he had to learn not only when it was appropriate to ask questions, but also how to ask those questions—and that, once he was established in the neighborhood, much of his data was gathered during casual conversations.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.