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

Page updated 29 April, 2020

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
4.4.3 Interviewing Rapport Probing Foreign language complications Remote interviewing Telephone interviewing Asynchronous interviews 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 Asynchronous interviewing
Asynchronous interviews are those where there is no direct engagement of both parties, either face-to-face, via the telephone or other technology-enabled link. The researcher sends written questions and the respondent, at another time, responds in writing.

E-mail questions are an example of asynchronous interviews. The researcher obtains the agreement of the respondent to take part. The researcher explains that the 'interview' is seeking opinions and will be in the form of general orientating questions but will not be a questionnaire with pre-coded answers (see Section 8). The researcher sends questions to respondents, who reply to each (or some of the questions) in as much detail as they wish, in their own time, consulting, if they choose, whatever sources may help them construct responses. From the outset, it is important to establish the nature of the process and an indication of the extent of the contribution the respondents are likely to be making.

The email interview has the advantage of needing very little by way of logistical arrangement. Once the respondent has been contacted by email (usually) and agreed to participate, there is no need to co-ordinate a meeting or have any concerns about distance or time zones. Participants can, thus be widely distributed making it possible to have a geographically more representative sample than is perhaps the case in face-to-face in-depth interviews.

Furthermore, it is possible to have a larger sample when using email than can be managed face-to-face or on the telephone, because, in effect, the researcher, by sending out all the questions at the same time is interviewing the respondents simultaneously.

This means that the time-span for the interviews can also be shorter than if undertaking synchronous interviews; the researcher normally specifies a cut-off date usually of around 10 days, as experience suggests that if a reply hasn't been received by then that any longer will not generate any more responses.

As in any request for responses to a survey, the researcher can send out reminders at appropriate intervals. The advantage of the email interview is that reminders can be sent quickly and without any delivery costs.

Another advantage of the email interview is that responses are already written, removing the need to transcribe oral responses.

In some circumstances, a more reflective response may be desirable and the asynchronous interview allows the respondent time to think through the answer or look up details that may not come initially to mind and thus would not be provided in a face-to-face interview. Kaye Stacey and Jill Vincent (2011, p. 605), for example, interviewing mathematics teachers about their teaching practice and beliefs argued that the asynchronous interviews 'provided for richer interview than would have been possible with a face-to-face interview in the more limited timeframe that would have been imposed'. Similarly, Jamie Lewis (2006, p. 5), comparing asynchronous interviews with the instantaneous response in online chat room noted that a written email response 'allows participants greater scope to think about any questions asked and, as such, often encourages more descriptive and well thought out replies'.

A disadvantage is that responses will be less spontaneous than a face-to-face interview, which may be important in some in-depth interview situations. In a study of experts views on the development of English higher education (Huisman et al. 2012) asked respondents to project what higher education would be like in 2025. They used a Delphi technique, with two rounds of questions, which required respondents to consider different scenarios and take time to reflect on and justify their views of the future. As the respondents were geographically scattered and it time for reflection was required in responding an e-survey was designed and organized around the key themes. In the first Delphi round 21 statements were selected. The experts were asked to indicate both the likelihood and desirability of the statements.

In the second round, ten survey items from the first round were presented to the respondents, including the key arguments provided by the experts in the first round. The ten items were selected because they were deemed to be salient (operationalised as considerable disagreement on the likelihood of what was stated in the item). Respondents were asked to rate the items again, in light of the arguments presented, and tick as many arguments they agreed with. (Huisman et al. 2012, p. 344)

A major problem with email interviews is that you cannot easily assess the veracity of the responses, nor in extremes even that the intended respondent is replying. There are no visual or aural clues by which the researcher might judge veracity (Nalita James and Hugh Busher, 2006).

In any interview situation respondents may be telling the researcher what they think the researcher wants to hear and this can be a particular problem with a written email response. Conversely, the relative anonymity and distance of asynchronous communication may encourage the respondent to write things they may be reluctant to say in a face-to-face interview, especially if the issues are embarrassing or sensitive.

One cannot probe in the same way as in a face-to-face interview, although a second round of questions from the researcher could, if the respondent agrees to participate, probe some of the responses from the first round. It is rare that in-depth email interviews go past three rounds of questions, unless it is an intensive study of a very small sample.

Undertaking email in-depth interviews, as has been said, involves finding the email addresses of potential respondents, asking them to take part and then sending out questions. A structured or semi-structured in depth interview might involve a single round of questions, with no follow-up (Section taking the response provided as the final text for analysis. This would likely be the case if the sample is large and the questions very structured, something close to a standard questionnaire with open (non-pre-coded) questions. The researcher, in such circumstances, may respond to some or all respondents seeking clarification of responses but is unlikely to embark on new questions. Harvey (2004) explored perceptions of academic accreditation processes from key informants using email exchanges. The study drew on responses from 53 academics and administrators who have been involved in accreditation processes (mainly from the United Kingdom with some Canadian, United States and Australian input). The qualitative perceptions were gathered on-line via e-mail correspondence, including follow-up discussions to clarify specific areas. The study would not have been possible within the available time frame and resources without the use of email.

With an unstructured in-depth interview, there may be layers of questions in several rounds of questions. The responses to the initial questions may provoke reply emails from the researcher seeking clarification or more depth and these may also lead to further rounds of questions, either particular to the respondent based on earlier answers, or common to all respondents, once the initial conversation has begun. Rosalind Edwards and Janet Holland (2013) suggested that, in general, for (unstructured) in-depth interviews 'it is better not to send all of the questions at once (although an indicative list of topics or issues sent early is useful) but to send them in the form of dialogue and exchange. Lucy Gibson's (2010) research on music fans is an example of an extended study that involved numerous e-mail rounds that took place over months, with long gaps between questions and responses, which varied widely in quantity of content. She argued that the process allowed participants to construct complex stories about their lives and engagement with music and that, in effect, the outcome was more akin to respondents providing diaries of their experiences.

In short, with an unstructured (and to some extent semi-structured) in-depth interviewing, the exchange is rather similar in process to a synchronous in-depth interview but with larger time gaps and in practice fewer opportunities to ask further questions and limited use of probes. Respondents tend, in most cases, to tire of the process after three or four rounds.

Email in-depth interviews require a set of skills, especially if following up or probing responses. Timing is important, when to send reminders, when to probe responses, when to send follow-up questions. It can be hard to assess how the interview is progressing 'when it is hard to assess the meaning of time gaps' (Edwards and Holland, p. 50). Furthermore, as with any in-depth interview, it is necessary to be sensitive as to how further questions or probes are introduced into the exchange and to judge when the interview is at an end.

In the last resort, participants must feel comfortable writing about the topic of the research. Gibson (2010) argued that the music fans participating in her study enjoyed 'authoring' their experiences. In Nicole Ison's (2009) research on impaired verbal communication, email interviews provided a means for young people with cerebral palsy to provide their experiences in a way that would not have been possible through face-to-face interviews'.


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