Structured Interviewing and Questionnaire Construction

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Most of what we know about what people think and do comes from interviews and questionnaires. Th is chapter focuses on the development of interview materials for collecting direct informant-based information with interviews and questionnaires. It is organized by interview purpose and presents diff erent approaches to interviewing and question formats within the context of study goals. A mixed methods approach is recommended, beginning with open-ended questions in an exploratory or pilot phase and then integrating those results into a second phase using structured or systematic interviewing techniques and questionnaires. Th is two-step process is widely used across the social sciences in the development of interview materials. Th e initial stage of any study should include a descriptive exploration of the topic under study. A variety of strategies are available for conducting semistructured individual or group interviews. In general, the less that is known about an area, the more appropriate unstructured, open-ended interviewing methods are. For new areas of investigation, the goal is to develop questions and materials relevant to the area of inquiry and the people being studied. If an existing questionnaire or scale is to be used, especially if it will be used on a new population, then the initial interviews serve to verify that the questions and content are appropriate for the new population. Th e initial phase, then, focuses on eliciting relevant themes, questions, and responses for further study. A productive technique for doing this is the free-listing interview. Th e second stage incorporates those results into the development or modifi cation of structured interview materials for a more systematic and detailed examination of the topic and responses across people. In anthropology, the fi rst phase can be quite lengthy, as the purpose is oft en to explore topics in a new population, a new setting, and a new language. Descriptive information may then be used to frame a study on cultural beliefs or behaviors. In psychology, an initial phase of interviewing may be used to generate items for a new scale or to modify existing scale items (e.g., questionnaires) for use on a new population. In sociology, large surveys begin with a pilot or preliminary phase of interviewing to test clarity, comprehension, and question content. Th e combination of an initial descriptive exploratory phase followed by a systematic, structured phase produces a study much superior to one based on either method alone, but it also involves a greater commitment of time and energy. Projects relying solely on either responses to open-ended questions or on responses to a series of agreement rating scales can be biased and inaccurate.