The semi-structured interview is an exploratory interview used most often in the social sciences for qualitative research purposes or to gather clinical data. While it generally follows a guide or protocol that is devised prior to the interview and is focused on a core topic to provide a general structure, the semi-structured interview also allows for discovery, with space to follow topical trajectories as the conversation unfolds.
Qualitative interviews exist on a continuum, ranging from free-ranging, exploratory discussions to highly structured interviews. On one end is unstructured interviewing, deployed by approaches such as ethnography, grounded theory, and phenomenology. This style of interview involves a changing protocol that evolves based on participants’ responses and will differ from one participant to the next. On the other end of the continuum lies standardized interviews or surveys where each participant responds to the same questions from a highly structured protocol. In the middle falls the hybrid approach of the semi-structured interview, which begins with an interview protocol comprised of open-ended questions that are asked of each participant (Knox and Burkard 2014). A hallmark of the semi-structured interview is the ability of the interviewer to probe and follow different directions as information emerges, including flexibility in the sequence of questions, while maintaining the organizing focus determined beforehand (Hill et al. 2005; Knox and Burkard 2014).
The recent shift in the social sciences away from a strict adherence to positivist methodologies and toward recognition of a post-positivist lens has made way for interpretative qualitative approaches like the semi-structured interview. The semi-structured interview is an approach utilized both for qualitative research in the social sciences and as a complement to clinical practice and diagnosis in the field of psychology. As cultural and contextual variables are now more readily recognized as impacting scientific inquiry, post-positivist approaches accept that phenomena being investigated are often complex and do not adhere to a single interpretation. In keeping with this, the semi-structured interview allows for discovery, exploration, and meaning-making so that intricacy and nuance are not overlooked in the investigation. The interview is a reflective dialogue that considers the lived experience of the interviewee (Galletta 2013). It may be used as one component of data collection within a broader inquiry and may also be triangulated with other sources of data so that the topic in question can be well understood.
The interrelated nature of researcher subjectivity and reflexivity and the adequacy of data brings ethical considerations to the fore. Given the integral role that the interviewer plays in conducting the interview and gathering and interpreting the data, investigating one’s own epistemologies is an essential starting point for a productive semi-structured interview (Ryan 2006). As such, when devising the interview guide, conducting the interview, and coding or interpreting responses, a concerted and acknowledged effort on the part of the interviewer to explore their personal biases and to bracket their assumptions is imperative for the adequacy of data (Williams and Morrow 2009; Creswell 2007). Using self-reflecting memos and journaling throughout the process can help in exploring and managing personal biases (Rennie 2004). This helps create the conditions for the interview to be discovery-oriented rather than confirmatory and to be less influenced by the interviewer (Elliott et al. 1999).
An ethical imperative lies in acknowledging reflexivity, where the interviewer searches for interference that may impact the interview, explores what that interference is and what it may represent, and documents those factors through various efforts (Galletta 2013). Reflexivity demands vigilance on the part of the interviewer. The conversational quality of the semi-structured interview requires the interviewer be attentive to walking the treacherous line between the interviewer and therapist while remaining in the role of responsive interviewer throughout (Haverkamp 2005). During the process of the interview, ethical guidelines demand competence in the amount of information that the interviewer collects, such that gathering unnecessary, extraneous information must be avoided (Gibbs et al. 2007).
What Is a Semi-structured Interview?
Semi-structured interviews are flexible and versatile, making them a popular choice for collecting qualitative data (Kallio et al. 2016). They are a conversation in which the researcher knows what she/he wants to cover and has a set of questions and a foundation of knowledge to help guide the exchange (Fylan 2005). The goal is to create a safe space in which the participant feels comfortable to reflect upon his or her own personal experiences (Fylan 2005), providing the researcher an in-depth understanding of a particular area of interest (Polit and Beck 2010a). This requires the researcher to allow for reciprocity with the participant (Galletta 2013), achieved through open-ended questions and improvised follow-up questions (Kallio et al. 2016; Polit and Beck 2010b).
In contrast to a structured interview in which questions are administered in a particular order and consistent across participants, the flow of the semi-structured interview is likely to vary in order and in content depending on the participant’s responses. That said, while not every question will be relevant for each participant, the questions embedded within the semi-structured interview are determined beforehand and formulated using a guide (Rubin and Rubin 2005; Kallio et al. 2016). Therefore, several steps need be taken before the interview is conducted.
Understanding the Interview
While a semi-structured interview approach can produce a variety of rich and complex data, an interviewer may become overwhelmed or distracted by the material if unprepared. In order to focus the scope of the interview to produce manageable data, the researcher should come equipped with a solid foundation of the current literature surrounding the research question and a theoretical understanding of qualitative data collection (Fylan 2005). However, an important balance must be struck in exposure to the literature or phenomena being explored with an alert openness to new possibilities for understanding during the interview, so that the interviewer does not seek to confirm already existing beliefs and avoids a priori assumptions. This preparatory phase is considered the first step to creating an effective semi-structured interview and ultimately informs the subsequent step of formulating an interview guide.
Formulating the Interview Guide
An interview guide is a list of questions (Whiting 2008) that directs the interview toward the central research topic (Kraus et al. 2009). The interview guide should be loose and flexible (Dearnley 2005), allowing for dialogue to emerge between the interviewer and the interviewee (Whiting 2008). Questions should be clearly worded and concise, not leading, and generally presented in an open-ended format (Turner 2010; Kallio et al. 2016). Questions may begin with the least-sensitive material and move toward the more sensitive; the interview should use language comfortable and familiar to the interviewee. The interview guide should undergo a pilot testing phase once an initial version has been created. This provides the interviewer the opportunity to improve the interview by clarifying questions, removing ambiguities or leading statements, and identifying potential interview biases (Kallio et al. 2016). This insight will improve both the quality of the interview implementation and the data it produces. Once the interview guide is field-tested and modified accordingly, the interview process can commence. Ultimately, how the interview is implemented and analyzed is highly influenced by the quality of the interview guide, highlighting the importance of this step in the process.
Conducting the Interview and Building Rapport
There are several stages of the interview process that need to be considered in tandem with stages of rapport building inherent to any interview. Interviews begin with introductions, presentation of the research topic, and securing informed consent (Baumbusch 2010). This first phase coincides with the initial stage of rapport building referred to as the apprehension phase (Whiting 2008; DiCicco-Bloom and Crabtree 2006). Marked with hesitation (Whiting 2008), the participant has the opportunity to ask questions about the research and purpose of the study as the researcher works to provide comfort and create a safe and open environment (DiCicco-Bloom and Crabtree 2006). With the consent of the interviewee, the interview can be audiotaped and transcribed. When used clinically, this can help the interviewer review responses made over the course of the interview. When used for research purposes, the transcript can be used for coding of themes that emerged.
As the interview progresses, the second stage introduces more in-depth questions, while rapport is still being established (Whiting 2008; DiCicco-Bloom and Crabtree 2006). During the third stage, even more challenging questions are introduced potentially eliciting more emotional responses. Meanwhile, rapport building will progress to the exploration phase during which the interviewer uses probes to gain further insight into the interviewee’s experiences (Whiting 2008). This is followed by the cooperation phase when a level of comfort has been achieved between the interviewer and the participant that allows for a more free and open dialogue to emerge (Whiting 2008). During this stage, the interview guide is particularly helpful in preventing the interview from devolving into a casual conversation. In some cases, the participation phase of rapport building may be reached, reflecting the most developed level of rapport. During this stage, the interviewee takes the lead and guides the interviewer through his experiences with ease (DiCicco-Bloom and Crabtree 2006; Whiting 2008). This phase is often brief and not always reached depending on the length of the interview and the skill of the interviewer.
Concluding the Interview
By the fourth stage of the interview process, rapport has been readily established, and the researcher should shift to less emotional questions as the interview tapers to its conclusion. This may result in a more practical and fact-based discussion (Baumbusch 2010); however, the researcher should be mindful that this phase may elicit additional emotional responses that should be handled with care. The fifth and final phase, concluding the interview, strives for a balance between a more affable tone and expressions of appreciation for the interviewee’s time (Baumbusch 2010; Rubin and Rubin 2005) with structured questions directed toward closure (Galletta 2013). It also gives space for the participant to add any final thoughts and reflections that may inform the interviewer on how to amend the interview guide for future interviews. When appropriate, the interviewer may offer the interviewee access to the findings after the entirety of the study is complete. Depending on how the interview is being used – for research or clinical purposes – some research methodologies suggest allowing the participant to review the interview transcript and to collaborate on the meaning that is ascribed to responses.
Reviewing and Processing the Interview Data
When developing a semi-structured interview, it is important to consider the validity and reliability of the instrument. For research, inter-rater reliability is particularly important for the coding process to ensure that data is accurately represented for analysis. In a clinical setting, inter-rater reliability between clinical interviews and assessment tools is already low, especially when working with children (McTate and Leffler 2017; Galanter and Patel 2005). As such, by creating questions based around diagnostic criteria as part of the interview guide, the additional structure helps combat discrepancies and increases consistency in identifying symptomatology across interviewers (Galanter and Patel 2005).
Moreover, if audiotaped and transcribed, the interview transcript can be used for later analysis and, if conducting research, for coding based on the specific qualitative research paradigm in use.
Clinical Application for Individual and Personality Differences
The semi-structured interview approach to data collection has wide application beyond qualitative research. The versatility, open-ended format, and level of rapport development inherent to the semi-structured interview process can be operationalized for differential diagnosis and ultimately can be applied in a variety of clinical settings. It is a useful tool to enhance the accuracy and expediency of clinical information gathering. Notably, the interview can be used to achieve a more in-depth understanding of individual differences and personality functioning in children, adolescents, and adults.
One example of its use with children is in assessing for mood disorders – a complex task due to often overlapping symptoms across diagnoses (McTate and Leffler 2017). As such, structured interview questions can be used as a guide during the semi-structured interview process (McTate and Leffler 2017). For example, the Schedule for Affective Disorders and Schizophrenia for School-Aged Children – Present and Lifetime Version (Kaufman et al. 1997) – is designed to assess current and past episodes of psychopathology across a variety of disorders in children. It provides a guide and a series of probes rooted in diagnostic criteria that can be tailored depending on the child’s responses. This allows the interviewer to use the patient’s own words when reflecting back probative questions as specific diagnostic criteria are explored and clarified. This integration of the structured and semi-structured interview styles provides a comprehensive approach for differential diagnoses of mood disorders in children (McTate and Leffler 2017).
With adolescents, the semi-structured interview can help gather, explore, and clarify feelings, thoughts, and reactions in a safe and non-threatening manner. For instance, the Interview of Personality Organization in Adolescence utilizes semi-structured interviewing to identify stages of personality functioning across several domains, identity, quality of peer relations, affect regulation, and moral development (Clarkin et al. 2015), at three developmental stages, helping to identify areas of personality development in need of intervention. This instrument focuses on the developmental process rather than personality structure, which can be useful to inform treatment planning for adolescents.
With adults, there are many examples of the application of semi-structured interviews as a diagnostic tool. One such example is the Semi-structured Interview for Personality Function (Hutsebaut et al. 2017) which utilizes the open-ended approach inherent to semi-structured interviewing and applies a “funnel strategy” to hone in on specific personality traits. Follow-up questions are used to narrow down levels of impairment, resulting in an overall score that reflects a level of personality functioning. Similarly, the Diagnostic Interview for ADHD in Adults (Ramos-Quiroga et al. 2016) uses a series of dichotomous questions, and when specific items are endorsed, open-ended follow-up questions are used to identify the presence or absence and duration of diagnostic symptoms as well as the level of interference these symptoms have on daily functioning. A similar approach of combining the format of a semi-structured interview with the addition of more structured criteria has been applied for proper diagnosis of eating disorders (Cooper and Fairburn 1987) and drug dependence and alcoholism (Pierucci-Lagha et al. 2007). Additionally, semi-structured interviews are considered especially helpful for appropriate diagnosing of borderline personality disorder (Glenn et al. 2009).
Semi-structured interviews provide a platform for a collaborative exchange in which information can be elicited quickly and effectively. It serves equally well either as a means of gathering data for research or as a clinical tool for exploring individual differences and personality functioning for people at all ages. While the more classic definition of the semi-structured interview aims to identify new themes while having the participant share his or her own personal experiences in the moment, when applied in a clinical setting, the scope is more focused. Here, follow-up questions can be asked to clarify or elicit specific information to determine the presence or absence of diagnostic criteria. In this way, semi-structured interviewing provides a useful tool for differential diagnosis and for understanding individual differences.
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