Designing a Qualitative Interview Topic Guide

This week one of the things I have been doing is teaching how to design Topic Guides for Qualitative Interviews. I prefer to think of them as Discussion Guides, as this gives a better sense of their purpose. Also, I am not particularly keen on the structured/semi-structured/unstructured typology many people use. It is more of a continuum in practice: most questions will be fairly open-ended (tell me about your life as a …) but there may be some closed questions you need to ask (do you have health insurance? How many children have you got?).

I found it useful to distinguish three types of interview

  • investigative interviews (what is actually going on: key areas to be covered, likely to be more semi-structured)
  • exploratory interviews (what is it like to be in a situation, why do people behave as they do: some key areas to be covered but lots of contextual detail captured as well, could be semi-structured or more in-depth)
  • narrative interviews (what is the person’s own story: minimum interruption, in-depth)

I was inspired by this post from Jess Schoeman, who uses a series of metaphors to think through the role of the interviewer and the interactions involved in the research process.

Investigative Interviews: The Miner

Schoeman reminds us of Kvale and Brinkman’s (2009) use of the miner and traveller metaphor. The miner, they argue, is the researcher who is looking for nuggets of truth, for the nitty gritty detail of ‘real’ lives as lived. It seems to me some investigative style interviews are like this. You can see it in some evaluation studies, assessments, and policy research, and also in some academic research. It has its uses as an approach but it is not usually informed by interpretive approaches, phenomenology or hermeneutics. Qualitative researchers should ask themselves what is the purpose of the interview. Is it an investigation or an exploration.


Exploratory Interviews: The Traveller

Kvale and Brinkman suggest qualitative interviews should be more of a ‘travelling together’ with interview partners, where in partnership, or in a conversation, themes, ideas, experiences and thoughts are explored and discovered. I think exploratory interviews are more like this, a traveling together. I woud guess the vast majority of qualitative interviews are exploratory in nature.


Narrative interviews: Dropping a pebble in a stream.

Narrative interviews (or narrative aspects of a qualitative interview) are more akin to what Schoeman describes poetically as dropping a pebble in a stream. Here an idea or a thought is simply dropped into the conversation and the interviewer quietly and patiently watches (and hears) where it goes. This style of interviews works well for placing experiences, thoughts and feelings in the context of a life (and perhaps a culture).

I commend Jess Schoeman’s piece. It is a good read. All the images I have used here are from her blog post.



Kvale, S. and Brinkman, S.  (2009)  InterViews: Learning the Craft of Qualitative Research Interviewing Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage

Schoeman, Jess (2014).

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