Open Interview

From Sustainability Methods
Method categorization for the Open Interview

Method categorization
Quantitative Qualitative
Inductive Deductive
Individual System Global
Past Present Future

In short: Open Interviews are a form of qualitative data gathering through open conversations with interviewees. For more Interview forms, and more on Interview methodology in general, please refer to the Interview overview page.


SCOPUS hits per year for Open Interview until 2019. Search terms: 'open interview', 'unstructured interview' in Title, Abstract, Keywords. Source: own.

"Interview methodology is perhaps the oldest of all the social science methodologies. Asking interview participants a series of informal questions to obtain knowledge has been a common practice among anthropologists and sociologists since the inception of their disciplines. Within sociology, the early-20th-century urban ethnographers of the Chicago School did much to prompt interest in the method.” (Hamill 2014) Barney Glaser and Anselm Strauss are central figures regarding this method-and interviews and other methods in general- ever since they developed the Grounded Theory approach to qualitative data analysis in the 1960s. Their 1967 landmark book paved the road for the integration of methodologically conducted interviews into sociological research. While Glser & Strauss built on several previously explored approaches, they widely triggered this branch of science, and set off a change considering the role that interviews play ever since in research, creating an altogether new arena in science (see Key Publications). Today, qualitative interviews are abundantly used in gender studies, social and political studies as well as ethnographics (2, 3), market research and other fields.

What the method does

  • Interviews are a form of data gathering. They can be conducted in direct conversation with individuals or groups. This is also possible online or via the phone (1, 2). It is possible for more than one researcher to conduct the interview together (2). The necessary equipment includes notes regarding topics of interest that help ask relevant questions, a recording device and paper & pencil or a computer for note taking during the interview.
  • A wide range of formats is available for qualitative interviews. They may be distinguished in terms of a) the extent to which the interview questions are pre-formulated (for a stronger pre-formulation, see Semi-structured Interview), b) how broad or topic-specific the questions are and c) the focus of the interview - letting the interviewee narrate freely or purposefully extracting meanings and interpretations expressed by the interviewee (3).
  • Among this variety, commonly used forms and fields of the open interview are clinical interviews to diagnose illnesses -anamnese- biographical interviews to "gain access to life-histories" (Hopf 2004, p.205) or ethnographical interviews (see Ethnography) (3).
  • "Interview methodology is particularly useful for researchers who (...) are concerned with the way in which individuals interpret and assign meaning to their social world." (Hamill 2014) Interviews allow the researcher to gain insight into understandings, opinions, attitudes and beliefs of the interviewee (2).
An exemplary interview transcript from an Open Interview. Source: own.

How to do an open interview

Conducting the interview
For an open interview - similar to the Semi-structured Interview - the researcher may prepare a set of questions ahead of the interview. These questions may result from the study design and research questions, but also from literature or prior studies on the respective research topic and specific characteristics of the interviewee. However, different from the Semi-structured Interview, these questions are not strictly pre-formulated but rather represent general topics of interest to the researcher.

Before the start of the interview, the interviewer lets the interviewee sign a Voluntary Consent Form, guaranteeing voluntary participation in the research. The interviewer should provide Full Disclosure (information about the main goal of the research and further use of the information), Confidentiality of the Data as well as the right of the interviewees to review the results before publication and to withdraw from the interview without any need for an explanation.

The interviewer then opens the wider field around these topics by asking open questions, listening to the answers given by the interviewee and developing new questions that arise from these responses. The interviewer tries to understand, not to measure, what the interviewee is saying (2).

Transcribing the interview
The interview should be video- or audio-recorded for later transcription. This transcription is preferably done by writing down the recorded speech either word by word (denaturalism) or including stutters, pauses and other idiosyncratic elements of speech (naturalism). The chosen approach depends on the research design. In any case, the form of transcription should not impose too much interpretation upon the interview data, and allow for intersubjective data readability (7). The text may be structured and punctuations may be added to improve legibility. For ethical reasons, the identity of the interviewee should be secured in the transcribed text (7). To allow for quotations, the lines of the transcript should be numbered or time codes should be added at the end of each paragraph (6). The subsequent analysis of the gathered data relies on this transcription. Quite often, the transcription is coded to map out a more systematic understanding of the interview. This may allow for a deeper qualitative analysis of the text, upon which a sequential analysis that is integrated later may build (see Content Analysis). For more on Transcription, please refer to the entry on Transcribing Interviews.

Strengths & Challenges

  • Compared to the more restricted standardized format of surveys, the qualitative interview allows for an open collection and investigation of self-interpretations and situational meanings on the part of the interviewees. This way, theories from psychology and sociology can more easily be empirically explored (3), while also keeping the option open to work independently from initial theories.
  • Open interviews may reproduce existing power structures less strongly, allowing for more open spaces where more information is shared. This highlights the importance of the overall settings, and a clarification of the respective roles, as well as the general research protocol, including ethical concerns.
  • At the same time, due to this focus on the subjective position of the interviewee with regards to his/her feelings, attitudes and interpretations, the results gathered in qualitative interviews represent the perspective and context of an individual and hence differ in many aspects from data gathered by quantitative surveys (2), often offering what many consider to be a deeper perspective.
  • Language barriers impose problems in understanding the interviewee's statements during the interview and in the transcription process, making it often necessary to hire native speakers, since due to the qualitative nature and the sensitive interview setting a deep understanding of the respective cultural and social context is desirable.
  • Pitfalls during the interview: It is crucial that the interviewer is well-acquainted with the conceptual approach and design of the research, which is crucial to maintain the general flow of the interview setting (8). This process imposes high demands on the interviewer. The interviewer must remain attentive and flexible throughout the interview in order to make sure all relevant aspects of the interview guide are profoundly answered. The quality and richness of the data depend on the proficiency in this process (1). In addition, the interviewer must make sure not to impose bias on the interviewee. Therefore, he/she should not ask closed yes/no-questions or offer answers for the interviewee to choose from. This open form can be lengthy, at time, which demands a lot of patience form the interviewer. Answers should not be commented or confirmed. The questions should not be judgemental, unexpected or incomprehensible to the interviewee (3, 5). It is thus recommendable that the interview be rehearsed (as much as possible in view of the open structure) and the interview guide be tested before the first real interview so as to ensure the quality of the interview conduction.
  • The amount and depth of data that is gathered in long interviews prohibits a big sample size in terms of number of different interviews. This affects the feasible sample size. Also, the more extensive the interview is, the longer takes the transcription process. Especially longer interviews cannot be replicated endlessly, as opposed to the huge number results possible with standardized surveys. Open interviews therefore tend to rather small samples (1, 2).


Connected methods

  • * Qualitative Interviews can be used as a preparation for standardized quantitative Interviews (Survey), Focus Groups or the development of other types of data gathering (2, 3). To this end, they can provide an initial understanding of the situation or field of interest, upon which more concrete research elements may follow.
  • A Stakeholder Analysis may be of help to identify relevant interviewees.
  • The interview transcript ought to be analysed using a qualitative form of content analysis (e.g. with MAXQDA) (1). While quantifications of the gathered data are possible, this is uncommon - almost proscribed - in the case of open interviews (2).
  • The open nature of Open Interviews, adapting the process of data gathering to inductively as the first insights are evaluated, is comparable to Grounded Theory, which was also developed by Glaser & Strauss (see Background).

Everything normative related to this method

  • Quality criteria: The knowledge gathered in qualitative interviews, as in all qualitative research, is dependent on the context it was gathered in. Thus, as opposed to standardized data gathering, objectivity and reliability cannot be valid criteria of quality for the conduction of qualitative interviews. Instead, a good qualitative interview properly reflects upon the subjectivity involved in the data gathering process and how it influences the results. It is therefore crucial to transparently incorporate the circumstances of the interview situation into the data analysis. The quality criteria of validity, i.e. the extent to which the gathered data constitutes the intended knowledge, must be approached by the principles of openness and unfamiliarity. An open approach to the interview ensures a valid understanding of the interviewee's subjective reality (4).
  • Ethics: As indicated throughout the text, a range of ethical principles should guide the Interviewing process. These include that Interviewees should be informed about the goal of the research and the (confidential) use of their data and statements. The creation of recordings requires consent. Interviewees should be allowed to review and withdraw statements, and if desired, they should be credited for their participation in the Interviews.
  • The sampling strategy may heavily influence the gathered data, with snowballing- or opportunistic sampling leading to potential bias in the interviewee sample. The sample size depends on the intended knowledge in the first place. While more structured, systematic approaches need bigger sample sizes from which a numerical generalization may be done, more qualitative approaches typically involve smaller samples and generalisation of the gathered data is not the researcher's main goal (2). It often needs to be considered that fatigue can be an important factor both for the interviewer as well as the interviewee.
  • While interviewing concerns itself with the present situation and perspective of the individual interviewee, the meanings derived from the interviews can extend further, including the perception of a system or even a specific global context. However, since the information is sampled at the scale of an individual, it is important to note that the spatial scale is clearly restricted to the view of an individual. Something similar can be said about the temporal scale, as interviews can be not only about present views, but also about the memory an individual has regarding past events, and of course also what an individual expects the future to bring. While interviews can thus offer the perspective of individuals on past event as well as the future, we understand that the source of information is the individual at this point in time. Memories can be fleeting, and a wide array of research examines how inconsistent can create flaws within studies.

Key Publications

Fielding, Nigel G., ed. 2009. Interviewing II. London: SAGE.

  • A four-volume collection of essays of which the wide-ranging contributions comprehensively cover all the theoretical and practical aspects of interviewing methodology

Glaser, Barney G. Strauss, Anselm L. 1967. The discovery of grounded theory: Strategies for qualitative research. Chicago: Aldine.

  • The principles of grounded theory were first articulated in this book. The authors contrast grounded theories derived directly from the data with theories derived from a deductive approach.

Patton, Michael Q. 2002. Qualitative research and evaluation methods. 3d ed. Thousand Oaks, CA, and London: SAGE.

  • In chapter 7, Patton provides a comprehensive guide to qualitative interviewing. This chapter highlights the variations in qualitative interviews and the interview guides or schedules that can be used. It provides a very useful guide as to how to formulate and ask questions and offers practical tips about recording and transcribing interviews. The chapter also covers focus groups, group interviews, ethics, and the relationship between researcher and interview participants.

Arksey, H. Knight, P. 1999. Interviewing for Social Scientists. An Introductory Resource with Examples. Chapter 1: Interviews and Research in the Social Sciences. SAGE Publications, London. 1-20.

  • An extensive description of the interview process, the differences between interview forms and the underlying assumptions of the interview methodology.

Bryman, A. 2012. Social Research Methods. 4th Edition. Oxford University Press.

  • An all-encompassing guide to the basics of social science research, including insights into interview methodology.


(1) Hamill, H. 2014. Interview Methodology. in: Oxford Bibliographies. Sociology.

(2) Arksey, H. Knight, P. 1999. Interviewing for Social Scientists. An Introductory Resource with Examples. SAGE Publications, London.

(3) Hopf, C. Qualitative Interviews: An Overview. In: Flick, U. von Kardorff, E. Steinke, I. (eds). 2004. A Companion to Qualitative Research. SAGE Publications, London. 203-208.

(4) Helfferich C. Leitfaden- und Experteninterviews. In: Baur N., Blasius J. (Hrsg.) 2019. Handbuch Methoden der empirischen Sozialforschung. Springer VS Wiesbaden. 669-685.

(5) Helfferich, C. 2011. Die Qualität qualitativer Daten. Manual für die Durchführung qualitativer Interviews. 4th edition. Springer VS Wiesbaden.

(6) Dresing, T., Pehl, T. 2015. Praxisbuch Interview, Transkription & Analyse. Anleitungen und Regelsysteme für qualitativ Forschende. 6th edition.

(7) Widodo, H.P. 2014. Methodological Considerations in Interview Data Transcription. International Journal of Innovation in English Language 3(1). 101-107.

Further Information

The author of this entry is Christopher Franz.