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Semi-structured, narrative, and in-depth interviewing, focus groups, action research, participant observation


Semi-structured, narrative, and in-depth interviewing, focus groups, action research, participant observation

In contrast to survey questionnaires, qualitative interviewing aims to delve deep beneath the surface of superficial responses to obtain true meanings that individuals assign to events, and the complexity of their attitudes, behaviours and experiences. Qualitative interviews may take different formats depending on the nature of the research question and the population studied.

Semi-structured interviews

Semi-structured interviews are characterised by topic guides containing major questions that are used in the same way in every interview, although the sequence of the questions might vary as well as the level of probing for information by the interviewer. Semi-structured interviewing is suitable when the researcher already has some grasp of what is happening within the sample in relation to the research topic. However, the researcher should ensure there is no danger of loss of meaning as a consequence of imposing a standard way of asking questions (6). This could be achieved by conducting pilot interviews (these use broad topic guides with few direct questions) prior to data collection.

Even in a semi-structured interview, the questions posed during the interview should be as open-ended as possible, in order to avoid yes/no or rehearsed answers. Further, the questioning techniques should encourage respondents to communicate their underlying attitudes, beliefs and values that are so central to this method. This can be limited where the interviewee has a lack of awareness/information or is not used to putting feelings into words. Interviewees might feel exposed by questions (in particular where attitudes are probed in sensitive topics such as political attitudes, sexual orientation, borderline or illegal behaviour). On the other hand, interviewees might feel that they need to present themselves in a specific way in order to fit in with their perception of the researcher's requirements, or wish to bring in their own agenda of life-topics that do not fit easily with the aim of the interview. For these reasons, it is important to build a rapport with the interviewee before starting the interview so that both sides can feel more at ease. Different ways of posing questions and using probing and prompting help to elicit more information or steer the interview.

Narrative interviews

Unstructured interviewing allows the respondent to tell their own stories in their own words, with prompting by the interviewer. The objective of the unstructured interview has been summarised as, 'to elicit rich, detailed materials that can be used in qualitative analysis. Its objective is to find out what kind of things are happening rather than to determine the frequency of predetermined kinds of things that the researcher already believes can happen' (7). In an unstructured interview, the researcher simply has a list of topics that they want the respondent to talk about. But the way the questions are phrased and which order they come will vary from one interview to the next as the interview process is determined by the responses (stories) of the interviewees.

In-depth interviews

In in-depth interviews the aim is to obtain a more detailed, rich understanding of the topic of interest. They usually comprise an ethnographic approach and complement participant observation or action research methods.

In in-depth interviews the participant’s experience, behaviour, feelings, and/or attitudes may be probed deeply to identify underlying concepts that the researcher analyses to generate a theory surrounding the research topic. In-depth interviews are more structured than narrative interviews as the topic discussed will be directed by the researcher and they rarely involve stories or life histories. However in-depth interviews do allow the participant to communicate much more freely and to provide more detailed descriptions when compared to semi-structured interviews.

Sometimes interviewers do not reveal all the exact details of the research hypothesis when conducting in-depth interviews, as this may influence or “lead” the qualitative material obtained. Rather, the general area of interest is explained to the participant as part of recruitment and consent (see later in the chapter) and the interviewer directs the interview according to the responses.

Focus groups

Focus groups are a form of group interview with the aim of capturing the interaction between the participants based on topics that are supplied by the researcher(8). The main purpose of focus group research is to evoke a level of respondents' attitudes, feelings, beliefs, experiences and reactions otherwise not available when using methods, such as observation or interviewing. These attitudes, feelings and beliefs may be partially independent of a group or its social setting, but are more likely to be revealed via the social gathering and the interaction created in a focus group. Focus groups are particularly useful when there are power differences between the participants and decision-makers or professionals, when the everyday use of language and culture of particular groups is of interest, and when one wants to explore the degree of consensus on a given topic (9). For these reasons, it is important to make sure that the participants have a specific experience/opinion about the topic to be discussed, and that a specific interview guide is used.

Despite all the potential of focus groups, this method has its limitations. However, these limitations are dependent on the study design and can be reduced by diligent planning. Four of the main limitations are:

(a) The researcher has less control over the data produced

(b) The researcher has little control over the interaction other than generally keeping participants focused on the topic

(c) The researcher can have difficulties in recruiting and assembling the focus group (e.g. finding a date and time for seven busy health care professionals, or resistance from people who are less articulate or confident)

(d) The researcher cannot assure full confidentiality and anonymity as information is shared in the group.

The practical organisation of focus groups requires the following:

  • Planning the recruitment process
  • Negotiating the date and time of the focus group
  • Choosing a venue (a neutral place is usually of advantage; where participants live/work too far apart the focus group can also be conducted via a telephone conference line)
  • Ensuring adequate recording facilities
  • Organising a co-moderator (e.g. to take notes and monitor recording equipment), deciding how many people should be in the focus group (usually six to ten)
  • Informing participants about the potential length of the focus group (usually one to two hours).
  • Being clear about the role of the moderator. This will require the researcher to provide clear explanations of the purpose to the group, ask questions and facilitate interaction between group members (e.g. allowing quieter participants to speak).

Action research

This is a collaborative and cyclical (between practical action and research) approach to research, in which both practitioners (e.g. clinicians, nurses, public health specialists, etc.) and researchers (although they can potentially be one and the same) look for a solution to a practice-related problem or to bring about change in a particular setting. Action research methodologies aim to integrate action and reflection, so that the knowledge developed in the research process is directly relevant to the issues being studied. Action research has a long history, going back to social scientists' attempts to help solve practical problems in wartime situations in both Europe and America. Over the past ten years there has been a resurgence of interest, and many developments in both theory and practice. The newer approaches to action research place emphasis on a full integration of action and reflection and on increased collaboration between all those involved in the inquiry project. They include, among other approaches, "co-operative inquiry", "participatory action research", and "action science" or "action inquiry".

Participant observation

When undertaking observational fieldwork the researcher is also known as the 'ethnographer' as he/she attempts to discover the practices and meanings that the members of the group under study take for granted (10). By observing a group of people, the researcher sets out to identify the meanings people develop about their existence (11). In participant observation, the researcher adopts the perspective of those studied. For example, a study might be interested in the rules of the waiting room in a GP practice. The researcher in his/her observing role would adopt the perspective of a patient waiting to be called in to see the doctor. He/she would observe the interaction of the people present, e.g. the receptionist, other patients, cleaning staff, an occasional appearance of a nurse. However, this does not mean simply adopting a passive watching role; the researcher might also interact with those that he/she is observing.

Observation can involve a combination of methods, including e.g. unstructured conversations/interviews, notes on observations, recordings (audio and video) and illustrative material (floor maps, information material). Nevertheless, like all data collection methods, observation does have its limitations. These include observer bias (the influence the observer's presence might have on the situation he/she is watching), and the difficulty of replicating the data.

There are a number of points that a researcher needs to be cognisant of before embarking on observational fieldwork, a selection is listed here:

  • Selecting the field setting
  • Gaining access
  • Deciding whether participant observation will be concealed (e.g. gaining employment to field setting without informing anyone there about the observation) or open (i.e. being open about the observing role)
  • Recording the action - field notes
  • Validation of the observations



© I Crinson & M Leontowitsch 2006, G Morgan 2016