The interview method of collecting data involves presentation of oral-verbal stimuli and reply in terms of oral-verbal responses. This method can be used through personal interviews and, if possible, through telephone interviews.

Personal interviews: Personal interview method requires a person known as the interviewer asking questions generally in a face-to-face contact to the other person or persons. (At times the interviewee may also ask certain questions and the interviewer responds to these, but usually the interviewer initiates the interview and collects the information.) This sort of interview may be in the form of direct personal investigation or it may be indirect oral investigation. In the case of direct personal investigation the interviewer has to collect the information personally from the sources concerned. He has to be on the spot and has to meet people from whom data have to be collected. This method is particularly suitable for intensive investigations. But in certain cases it may not be possible or worthwhile to contact directly the persons concerned or on account of the extensive scope of enquiry, the direct personal investigation technique may not be used. In such cases an indirect oral examination can be conducted under which the interviewer has to cross examine other persons who are supposed to have knowledge about the problem under investigation and the information, obtained is recorded. Most of the commissions and committees appointed by government to carry on investigations make use of this method.

The method of collecting information through personal interviews is usually carried out in a structured way. As such we call the interviews as structured interviews. Such interviews involve the use of a set of predetermined questions and of highly standardised techniques of recording. Thus, the interviewer in a structured interview follows a rigid procedure laid down, asking questions in a form and order prescribed. As against it, the unstructured interviews are characterised by a flexibility of approach to questioning. Unstructured interviews do not follow a system of pre-determined questions and standardised techniques of recording information. In a non-structured interview, the interviewer is allowed much greater freedom to ask, in case of need, supplementary questions or at times he may omit certain questions if the situation so requires. He may even change the sequence of questions. He has relatively greater freedom while recording the responses to include some aspects and exclude others. But this sort of flexibility results in lack of comparability of one interview with another and the analysis of unstructured responses becomes much more difficult and time-consuming than that of the structured responses obtained in case of structured interviews. Unstructured interviews also demand deep knowledge and greater skill on the part of the interviewer. Unstructured interview, however, happens to be the central technique of collecting information in case of exploratory or formulative research studies. But in case of descriptive studies, we quite often use the technique of structured interview because of its being more economical, providing a safe basis for generalisation and requiring relatively lesser skill on the part of the interviewer.

We may as well talk about focused interview, clinical interview and the non-directive interview. Focused interview is meant to focus attention on the given experience of the respondent and its effects. Under it the interviewer has the freedom to decide the manner and sequence in which the questions would be asked and has also the freedom to explore reasons and motives. The main task of the interviewer in case of a focused interview is to confine the respondent to a discussion of issues with which he seeks conversance. Such interviews are used generally in the development of hypotheses and constitute a major type of unstructured interviews. The clinical
interview is concerned with broad underlying feelings or motivations or with the course of individual‘s life experience. The method of eliciting information under it is generally left to the interviewer‘s discretion. In case of non-directive interview, the interviewer‘s function is simply to encourage the respondent to talk about the given topic with a bare minimum of direct questioning. The interviewer often acts as a catalyst to a comprehensive expression of the respondents‘ feelings and beliefs and of the frame of reference within which such feelings and beliefs take on personal significance.

Despite the variations in interview-techniques, the major advantages and weaknesses of personal interviews can be enumerated in a general way. The chief merits of the interview method are as follows:

  • More information and that too in greater depth can be obtained.
  • Interviewer by his own skill can overcome the resistance, if any, of the respondents; the interview method can be made to yield an almost perfect sample of the general population.
  • There is greater flexibility under this method as the opportunity to restructure questions is always there, specially in case of unstructured interviews.
  • Observation method can as well be applied to recording verbal answers to various questions.
  • Personal information can as well be obtained easily under this method.
  • Samples can be controlled more effectively as there arises no difficulty of the missing returns; non-response generally remains very low.
  • The interviewer can usually control which person(s) will answer the questions. This is not possible in mailed questionnaire approach. If so desired, group discussions may also be held.
  • The interviewer may catch the informant off-guard and thus may secure the most spontaneous reactions than would be the case if mailed questionnaire is used.
  • The language of the interview can be adopted to the ability or educational level of the person interviewed and as such misinterpretations concerning questions can be avoided.
  • The interviewer can collect supplementary information about the respondent‘s personal characteristics and environment which is often of great value in interpreting results.

But there are also certain weaknesses of the interview method. Among the important weaknesses, mention may be made of the following:

  1. It is a very expensive method, specially when large and widely spread geographical sample is taken.
  2. There remains the possibility of the bias of interviewer as well as that of the respondent; there also remains the headache of supervision and control of interviewers.
  3. Certain types of respondents such as important officials or executives or people in high income groups may not be easily approachable under this method and to that extent the data may prove inadequate.
  4. This method is relatively more-time-consuming, specially when the sample is large and recalls upon the respondents are necessary.
  5. The presence of the interviewer on the spot may over-stimulate the respondent, sometimes even to the extent that he may give imaginary information just to make the interview interesting.
  6. Under the interview method the organisation required for selecting, training and supervising the field-staff is more complex with formidable problems.
  7. Interviewing at times may also introduce systematic errors.
  8. Effective interview presupposes proper rapport with respondents that would facilitate free and frank responses. This is often a very difficult requirement.

Pre-requisites and basic tenets of interviewing: For successful implementation of the interview method, interviewers should be carefully selected, trained and briefed. They should be honest, sincere, hardworking, impartial and must possess the technical competence and necessary practical experience. Occasional field checks should be made to ensure that interviewers are neither cheating, nor deviating from instructions given to them for performing their job efficiently. In addition, some provision should also be made in advance so that appropriate action may be taken if some of the selected respondents refuse to cooperate or are not available when an interviewer calls upon them. In fact, interviewing is an art governed by certain scientific principles. Every effort should be made to create friendly atmosphere of trust and confidence, so that respondents may feel at ease while talking to and discussing with the interviewer.

The interviewer must ask questions properly and intelligently and must record the responses accurately and completely. At the same time, the interviewer must answer legitimate question(s), if any, asked by the respondent and must clear any doubt that the latter has. The interviewers approach must be friendly, courteous, conversational and unbiased. The interviewer should not show surprise or disapproval of a respondent‘s answer but he must keep the direction of interview in his own hand, discouraging irrelevant conversation and must make all possible effort to keep the respondent on the track.

Telephone interviews: This method of collecting information consists in contacting respondents on telephone itself. It is not a very widely used method, but plays important part in industrial surveys, particularly in developed regions. The chief merits of such a system are:
1. It is more flexible in comparison to mailing method.
2. It is faster than other methods i.e., a quick way of obtaining information.
3. It is cheaper than personal interviewing method; here the cost per response is relatively low.
4. Recall is easy; callbacks are simple and economical.
5. There is a higher rate of response than what we have in mailing method; the non-response is generally very low.
6. Replies can be recorded without causing embarrassment to respondents.
7. Interviewer can explain requirements more easily.
8. At times, access can be gained to respondents who otherwise cannot be contacted for one reason or the other.
9. No field staff is required.
10. Representative and wider distribution of sample is possible.

But this system of collecting information is not free from demerits. Some of these may be highlighted.
1. Little time is given to respondents for considered answers; interview period is not likely to exceed five minutes in most cases.
2. Surveys are restricted to respondents who have telephone facilities.
3. Extensive geographical coverage may get restricted by cost considerations.
4. It is not suitable for intensive surveys where comprehensive answers are required to various questions.
5. Possibility of the bias of the interviewer is relatively more.
6. Questions have to be short and to the point; probes are difficult to handle.

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