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Defining the issue tag cloud


Semi-structured interviews

Qualitative interviews can range from fully structured to unstructurred. it all depends how far the topics and questions are pre-planned by the reseacher. A fully structured interview is one where the researcher has decided on the topics to be addresed and the questions (and subsiduary questions and prompts) to be used. It is very like the use of a questionnaire in survey except that all the questions are open-ended. In contrast, an unstructured interview leave it open to a large degree what the repondent will say. Researchers ususually have a short list of topics they want to cover, but no questions and the topics may be covered in any order that seems appropriate at the time. The narrative interview is a form of unstructured interview and in this case the respondent is often simply asked to 'tell their story' n the topic without any further instructions from the researcher. A semi-structured interview lies between these two extremes. It will contain some key topics that need to be talked about and maybe also some questions and suggested prompts and/or suplementary questions. More structred interviews are used where the researcher knows what kinds of answers to expect. Less stuctured interviews are used in a more exploratory way, where the researcher is unsure of the kinds of things that the respondent will say.

Doctor and  nurseHaving something to research: defining the issue, expanding the target group

Authors of this page:Dawn Clarke and Graham R. Gibbs

Affiliation: University of Huddersfield

Date written: 27th July 2008




Learning outcomes

  1. Learn


Now Frances realised that she had 'got something' to research. This is a key point for any researcher. Having an idea about the topic is a first step but knowing what needs researching and why it needs researching is often very difficult to work out at the start.

In most projects, initial ideas and questions get revised as the research progresses. This is a typical and central feature of qualitative research. There is often no need to stick with your initial research questions and a lot to be gained by changing them to reflect both your developing understanding of your subject matter and your appreciation of the research and theoretical literature.

In short, the research is constantly evolving throughout the different stages i.e. initial ideas, literature review, the methodology, methods of data collection and data analysis and the final write-up.

Loudspeaker iconHear how Frances described how she began to move from knowing she had something to research to how to go about researching it:

So it [the research] built up from there so that, kind of overall, big view became questions: what would I need to do? So I knew in my head that I would have two groups of people that I would need to [interview], obviously talk to patients who have an injury themselves … and I’ve decided that because doctors were the first port of call rather than the physiotherapists or …other professionals who work with physical injuries...


Why doctors as well as patients? This reflects Frances’ awareness of the difference between the medical definition of whiplash injury and her own experience. She knew that the medical definition of whiplash was of a minor injury which health workers paid little attention to and yet her own experience had been of an injury with long term effects. So there was a difference between the medical view of whiplash and the patients’ experiences of it. To investigate this difference, Frances needed to talk to doctors.

Loudspeaker iconHear Frances explain why she needed to interview doctors as well as patients.

It made sense to actually speak to doctors about what whiplash injury was, what it meant to them and what they did to deal with that in a consultation and what happened in that consultation for them. So that was where the idea was so over time it was refined if you like so what is this injury became what actually are the psychological and social consequences of having a whiplash injury. I wanted to know what are the differences between professional perceptions and the patient’s perceptions … of what having that injury are and what those implications might be for health care if, indeed, there are any implications for healthcare.


She interviewed 6 GPs. Her questions were:

  • What was a whiplash injury according to the medical definition?
  • What did it mean to the GPs?
  • How did the GPs deal with whiplash in a consultation?
  • What happened in that consultation for the GPs?
  • What are the psychological and social consequences of having a whiplash injury?
  • What are the differences between professional perceptions and the patient’s perceptions of having that injury?
  • What are the implications for health care?


As you can see, Frances has introduced questions about the psychological and social consequences of having a whiplash injury and this became one of her key theoretical issues. It also formed the basis of the semi-structured interviews (Interview schedules here).

In her next phase Frances began to focus on the questions for the patients. What she wanted to do was compare their experiences of the injury against the processes and views of the medical profession.


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The resources on this site by Graham R Gibbs, Dawn Clarke, Celia Taylor, Christina Silver and Ann Lewins are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.


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