Orientation Observation In-depth interviews Document analysis and semiology Conversation and discourse analysis Secondary Data Surveys Experiments Ethics Research outcomes



Social Research Glossary

About Researching the Real World



© Lee Harvey 2012–2020

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Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012–2020, Researching the Real World, available at
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A Guide to Methodology

4. In-depth interviews

4.1 Introduction to in-depth interviewing
4.2 Types of in-depth interview
4.3 Methodological approaches to in-depth interviews
4.4 Doing in-depth interviews

4.4.1 Constructing an interview guide
4.4.2 Setting up the interviews Rapport Probing Foreign language complications Remote interviewing Follow-up interviews Focus groups

4.4.4 Recording interview data

4.5 Analysing in-depth interview data
4.6 Summary and conclusion

4.4 Doing in-depth interviews Probing
Although researchers aim to make in-depth interviews as relaxed and conversational as possible, in-depth interviews and friendly conversations differ in several important ways (Spradley, 1979). There tends not to be an equal balance of power in an interview situation (see Section The main aim, whether dialogic interviewing or not, is for the interviewer to acquire information that is going to contribute to the research endeavour. Sometimes this means adopting ploys to ensure that the respondent provides detailed responses.

Probes are devices used to prompt a respondent to speak further when an initial question fails to elicit the desired information.

The respondent will not necessarily think the detail of a response is important, or may even assume that the interviewer has the same set of referents and therefore elaboration of detail is not necessary. Furthermore, the tendency is often, in normal conversation, to leave many things unsaid because both contributors to the dialogue have a set of taken-for-granted ideas, views and knowledge, some of which they share (Garfinkel, 1967). Probing these taken-for-granteds is often necessary in an in-depth interview situation to ensure the interviewer is not placing his or her own interpretations on the conversation.

One way to get these taken-for-granteds expanded is by overtly showing interest in detail, by admitting ignorance of things that appear obvious to the respondent, or by simply by waiting and gently probing at later points in the conversation or in subsequent interviews. (See CASE STUDY Distorting the truth.)

Another way to encourage the informant to continue elaborating a point, besides affirmative nods and other verbal and non-verbal encouragement, is to avoid rushing in with the next question. Leave a gap of several seconds after the informant answers (count to ten in your head) before asking the next question. This gives the respondent time to reflect on what has just been said and often the respondent provides additional material that develops the answer or explains ambiguities or apparent contradictions. When you first start interviewing you will be disinclined to leave a gap and are likely to rush in with the next question because you are nervous or feel that the informant will think you do not know what to ask next. This is a natural reaction but try to take time, even if a few seconds' pause does feel like an eternity to you.

Conversations differ from in-depth interviews. When talking with a find, for example, each person tends to take turns speaking and the participation rate for both conversationalists is fairly equal. Interaction is less balanced during an in-depth interview, as the researcher's contribution is often deliberately kept to a minimum. Conversations also differ from in-depth interviews in that they tend to avoid repetition. During an interview a subject relevant to the research objectives may be returned to several times.

To get the informant's meanings, the in-depth interviewer has to be alert to the underlying nuances and seek out the taken-for-granteds of the informant. Thus in-depth interviewers must develop the ability to 'think on their feet' to keep probe questions in their head while conducting an interview that appears to be like an interested conversation. (See CASE STUDY Seven kinds of probes)

Phenomeongraphic interviews often require a fairly intensive probing of meanings. The point of phenomenographic interviews (see Section is to explore the different ways sample respondents interpret or understand specific words or concepts. It is, therefore, important to ask 'what do you mean by that?' and this may extend to subsequent words or pharses used in the explanation of terms. This can appear interrogatory and requires a degree of skill to do it in a way that does not annoy the respondent. The aim, unlike early ethnomethodological studies (or experiments) (see Section, is not to dig away at taken-for-granteds but to clarify differences in meanings.

So it is necessary at times to use probes to develop a better understanding or interpretation of what the respondent is saying. Probes might be direct questions seeking clarification such as 'could you explain that a bit more?' or 'how does that work, then?' or they might be simple encouragements for the respondent to say more. This may be by simple affirmative or enquiring gestures or by picking out an issue that the respondent has referred to, perhaps in passing, and opening up the possibility of further exploration. For example, you might say “You mentioned X….” And then trail off hoping the respondent will elaborate.

Probing, without appearing to be interogating the respondent is a skill that needs developing: having a sound grasp of your subject area of enquiry, a good memory for what has been said and being relaxed enough to interact as conversationally as possible all help.

When constructing an interview guide it is helpful to build in probes in areas where you expect to have to dig a little deeper during the interview. Arhinful et al. (1996) provided an example of a medical study of attitudes towards antibiotic use.

Suppose in our antibiotic illustration the following question is asked of a prescriber:

What would your reaction be if you were advised by the District Medical Officer to stop the use of antibiotics in the treatment of ARI in children?

Answer: Well, I guess we'll have to wait and see what happens when the time comes.

Here the respondent avoided answering the question. If his answer is accepted, his attitude about a policy against the use of antibiotics in treating ARI will not be known. It is helpful to anticipate this difficulty, and to construct "probe questions" in advance to cater for these situations.

An example might be: How would you feel about the DMO issuing such a directive?

The creation of appropriate probes brings a measure of control to a potentially haphazard form of questioning.


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