4.6.1 In-depth interviews compared to participant observation
In-depth interviewing provides a medium through which informants can talk about aspects of their social world in a way that is directed by their interests and perceptions. Hence, in-depth interviewers do not begin with a set of rigid pre-formulated questions but aim to explore the world of the informant and categorise experience in their terms. As an interview progresses the researcher will attempt to get beyond ‘surface’ articulations and draw out the taken-for-granteds of the social world of the subject.
However, the extent to which in-depth interviews can achieve the aims of participant observation is limited.
First, in-depth interviewers are unlikely to have the same extent of exposure to the social world of the informant as participant observers. They will not be able to spend as much time with individual respondents nor will they have the same variety of data collection experiences. Unlike participant observers, in-depth interviewers are restricted to the verbal statements of the informant and have no opportunity to match them with observed behaviour.
Second, in-depth interviewing involves a disruption of the natural context in which the subject usually operates. Wherever the interview takes place, even when located in the interviewee’s own home, the process of interviewing inevitably introduces a self-conscious element to the proceedings. The strangeness or artificiality of the situation may produce responses quite different from those occurring in a more naturalistic setting. Informants may, for example, try to give researchers answers they feel are impressive or show them in a favourable light.
Third, in-depth interviewing in unable to investigate directly the interactive links between subjects in the way participant observation can. As in-depth interviews rely on the input of individuals, they can only make inferences about the nature of informants’ social interactions.
Conversely, in-depth interviewing may provide a means of understanding a social setting that avoids some of the pitfalls of participant observation.
First, it may provide a means for a more extensive and wide-ranging analysis than participant observation, which is limited by the number of social interactions observable.
Second, in-depth interviewing may also provide a basis for a more detached enquiry. There is rather less likelihood of the researcher becoming over-involved than could be the case with participant observation.
Third, the in-depth interviewer is not forced into playing a role, and may concentrate on probing information, and be able to do so in a more open way than could a participant observer (especially one carrying out a covert study).
Fourth, the recording of information is often easier in an in-depth interview, where a tape-recorder can be employed, than in the more turbulent participant observation situation.
Nonetheless, in-depth interviewing will, despite its flexibility, necessarily involve the researcher in a process that inhibits the naturalistic perspective (see Section 188.8.131.52). In practice, there are limits to the duration of interviews and the number of follow-ups that can be done. Thus even the most skilled in-depth interviewer will just have fragments of a much larger puzzle. In-depth interviewing is very much dependent upon the verbal articulations of co-operating subjects and these represent retrospective ‘snapshots’ rather than a continuous engagement with subjects, as in participant observation.
While in-depth interviewing has valid purposes of its own, it can also be used to a limited extent as a surrogate for participant observation in ethnographic study, although lacking in intensity. In-depth interviewing tends to be a more extensive, rather than intensive, methodological device for understanding subjects’ meanings. For small-scale ethnographic research projects where the researcher faces financial constraints and time limitations, the in-depth interview is a more suitable technique than participant observation. In-depth interviews can yield a rich variety of material but the researcher must nevertheless be aware of its potential limitations.