interviewing, structured, unstructured, and postmodern 2407

interviewing, structured,
and postmodern

Andrea Fontana

Interviewing is a methodology based on asking
questions in order to gain information from the
respondent. The interview may be structured,
unstructured, and postmodern. Structured
interview seeks information with an emphasis
on measurement, unstructured interview stres
ses understanding the world of the respondent,
and postmodern interview focuses on the nego
tiated interaction between interviewer and


Interviewing first became popular in clinical
diagnosing and in counseling; later, it was used
in psychological testing. Charles Booth (19023)
is credited with introducing interviewing to
sociology, by embarking on a survey of social
and economic conditions in London. Others
followed, both in England and the US. Among
the most notable early interview projects were
Du Boiss (1899) study of Philadelphia and the
Lynds (1929, 1937) studies of Middletown.
During World War II the impetus of inter
viewing was magnified by large scale interviews
of American military personnel, some of which
were directed by Samuel Stouffer and titled The
American Soldier. In the 1950s, interviewing in
the form of quantitative research moved into
academia and dominated it for the next three
decades. Some of the most notable proponents
of this methodology were Paul Lazarsfeld and
Robert K. Merton at the Bureau of Applied
Social Research at Columbia University, Harry
Field at the National Opinion Research Center
in Denver and later in Chicago, and Rensis
Likert with the Survey Research Center at the
University of Michigan.
There were other developments in interview
ing. Opinion polling was popularized by George
Gallup; the documentary method focused on
respondents attitudes, and was initially used
by W. I. Thomas and Florian Znaniecki;
unstructured interviewing, often coupled with
ethnographic research, was originally used
by researchers at the Chicago School of sociol
ogy. Focus group interviewing moved from
marketing to sociology and was employed both
in quantitative and qualitative research. Oral
history and creative interviewing were based
on multiple, very lengthy interview sessions
with the respondent. More recently, postmo
dern approaches have brought heightened atten
tion to the negotiated collaboration in interviews
between interviewer and respondents and the
dynamics of gendered interviewing.

Telephone interviews, face to face interviews,
and interviews associated with survey research
are included in this category. Structured inter
views make an effort to standardize both the
instrument (the interview questions) and the
interviewer. The questions posed are generally
preestablished, provide a limited number of pos
sible responses, and leave little room for varia
tions. This approach makes it possible to
numerically code each response a priori. The
interviewer attempts to remain as neutral as
possible and to treat each interview in exactly
the same manner. The same questions are read
in the same sequence to all respondents; expla
nations to be given to the respondents are pre
pared in advance by the supervisor and the
interviewer should not deviate from them or
try to interpret the meaning of any question.
The interviewer must ensure that no one inter
rupts the interview or tries to answer for the
respondent. The interviewer should not attempt
to influence any answer or show agreement or
disagreement in regard to any answers. The
interviewer must never deviate from the prees
tablished questions and their exact wording.
These efforts aim at minimizing errors and leav
ing little room for chance.
However, three types of problems arise in
structured interviewing. Firstly, the task itself:
the close ended nature of the questions limits
the breadth of the answers. Secondly, the inter
viewers: they do not in fact remain neutral but
are influenced by the nature of the context and
the variations among respondents. Additionally,