Research Methods (1) Interviews

2. Different types of interviews

(a) Unstructured, or non-directive:

  • These free association or open-ended interviews are mostly used to explore meaning and develop a detailed biography with the participant. Often, the subject matter is personal, intimate and emotional, and the objective is to achieve some kind of deep disclosure. The emphasis here is on acquiring deep knowledge and authenticity of people’s life experiences.
  • The participant is seen as an active agent in the interview who is not merely responding to the interviewer’s questions.
  • Rather than being asked pre-determined questions the participant provides the information and determines the direction of the interview, and the interviewer uses the participant’s dialogue to ask further questions.
  • There is usually a prompt or question to start the interview that sets the scene and is related to the research purpose (e.g. “Can you tell me what your childhood was like?”). Examples of unstructured interviews include narrative, oral history, and life story interviews.
  • While this is a less hierarchical interview set-up, the unstructured interview can be more time-consuming and contain data that may not be relevant to the research.

(b) Semi-structured:

  • This is the most common type of interview in urban research.
  • Similar to the unstructured interview, it is a flexible interview style that should unfold like a conversation so participants can explore issues that they feel are important.
  • Interviewers have an interview guide or schedule of questions that direct the course of the interview and prompt participants to answer questions relevant to the study.
  • However, interviewers are able to ask impromptu questions and prompt respondents for additional information and clarification, or to pursue other lines of inquiry. In this way it allows for the exploration of emergent themes and ideas.

(c) Structured:

  • The interviewer uses a standard set of pre-determined questions and takes care to phrase them in the same way with each respondent.
  • Structured interviews are helpful in supporting comparative analysis of responses, and are closer to surveys in their design.
  • Structured interviews are inflexible as they do not allow the interviewer to probe or pursue lines of inquiry that are not considered in the questions. In addition, there is a hierarchy of power that places the respondent as insubordinate to the researcher (Oakley, 1981, 2013).

(d) Oral history:

  • A subset of unstructured interviews that is undergoing a revival due to interest in the role of agency in social life.
  • Usually unstructured and cover the totality of a person’s life. The emphasis is on the point of view of the person in question and a commitment to the processual aspects of social life, showing how events unfold and interrelate in people’s lives, and recognizing turning points in a person’s life.
  • Will usually require several sessions of about an hour to 90 minutes each.

(e) Walking/go-along interviews:

  • Unlike traditional sit-down interviews where the interviewer and participant meet and remain in the same place, walking interviews are conducted are mobile interviews.
  • There is a growing interest in walking interviews, which combine unstructured interviews with movement through space
  • Walking interviews are a process that can be used to understand social relations in place:

“…walking as action establishes connectivity with the environment; the routes selected allows for a mobile and dynamic understanding of places; and walking with others creates a distinctive sociability.” (Warren, 2017, p803)

Case Study:

Different types of interviews can be useful for different purposes and can yield different kinds of information.

In this case study one feminist scholar reflects on the useful qualities of a walking interview.

In her study on the segregation of Muslims in Delhi, Ghazala Jamil reflects on the rich insights she gained from conducting walking interviews with her research participants through localities in Delhi. She explains that walking interviews allowed her to “tap into the tacit knowledge of the participants about the way spaces are organized” (2017, p. 103).

Jamil he explains that the walking interview gave participants a greater say in the direction of the interview:

“These interviews gave me the great starting point of analyzing how people experience outdoor spaces and built environments. It also provided more maneuvering room to the participant in deciding where to take me, in what sequence and from which route. The participant-interviewee had enhanced power to steer the course of the interview compared with other kinds of interviews, including semi-structured ones. In a way, the participants edited my observations as a researcher…” (2017, p. 103).


Anderson, J., 2004. Talking whilst walking: a geographical archaeology of knowledge. Area, 36(3), pp.254-261.

Brinkmann, S., 2014. Unstructured and semi-structured. The Oxford handbook of qualitative research, pp.277-299.

Carpiano, R.M., 2009. Come take a walk with me: The “Go-Along” interview as a novel method for studying the implications of place for health and well-being. Health & place, 15(1), pp.263-272.

Elwood, S.A. and Martin, D.G., 2000. “Placing” interviews: location and scales of power in qualitative research. The professional geographer, 52(4), pp.649-657.

Jamil, G. 2017. Real-life methods: Feminist explorations of segregation in Delhi. In: K Kannabiran and P. Swaminathan eds. Re-Presenting Feminist Methodologies: Interdisciplinary Explorations. London and New York: Routledge, pp. 91-112.

Oakley, A., 1981. Interviewing women: A contradiction in terms? In: Roberts H (ed.) Doing Feminist Research. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, pp.30–61.

Oakley, A., 2016. Interviewing women again: Power, time and the gift. Sociology, 50(1), pp.195-213.

Peake, L. 2018. Presentation at the ‘Workshop in Urban Feminist Research: Ethnographic Research Tools’, Ramallah, Palestine, July 2018.

Tang, N., 2002, Interviewer and interviewee relationships between women. Sociology 36(3), pp. 703–721.

Warren, S., 2017. Pluralising the walking interview: researching (im)mobilities with Muslim women. Social & Cultural Geography, 18(6), pp.786-807.