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What Is a Semi-Structured Interview?

A semi-structured interview requires skill and improvisational abilities on the part of the interviewer.
A semi-structured interview allows the potential employer to gain a clear picture of the subject.
Semi-structured interviews are risky because the conversation can quickly get off track.
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  • Written By: Jessica Ellis
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 02 September 2014
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A semi-structured interview is a technique used in both research and business practices. While the interviewer conducting the questioning may have a specific set of questions and topics to cover, a semi-structured interview also allows for the introduction of relevant tangential information, in order to get a better idea of the interviewee's point of view. There are advantages and disadvantages to using a semi-structured interview form: while the method can allow for more personalized and comprehensive answers, it requires extensive training and preparation on the part of the interviewer.

Both research studies and business operations may use a semi-structured interview for a variety of purposes. Researchers may use the technique when the focus of their research is the subjective experience of the subject. For instance in a study on human sexual behavior, a semi-structured interview might be used to understand the personal experience of a subject's first sexual encounter, rather than simply factual data such as the date of the encounter and age of the subject at the time. In business, a semi-structured interviewer can be used for hiring purposes, as a means of getting to know the interview subject better in order to determine if he or she has a personality that would commplement the company.

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In order for a semi-structured interview to be successful, the conversation cannot be permitted to go fully off the rails. Interviewers typically prepare a list of topics and questions that require answers, and may ask each subject the same list of questions in the same order. Unlike a formally structured interview, however, a semi-structured conversation permits the interviewer to ask follow-up questions on the fly, should a subject offer examples or appear interested in a particular area of discussion. The follow-up or detail questions may be different for each subject, depending on his or her responses and willingness to discuss the topic.

One of the major advantages of a semi-structured interview is that it can permit the interviewer to gain a clear and comprehensive picture of the subject. By allowing the interests and examples of the subject to guide the conversation, the interviewer can gain insight into the personality and unique experience of each individual being interviewed. For this reason, semi-structured interviews are often used for studies and research on human behavior, since the subjective point of view of the individual is a critical component in this field.

The downside of this interview technique is that it requires skill and improvisational abilities on the part of the interviewer. The interviewer must be able to pick up verbal and even body language cues from the subject in order to know which areas to pursue farther. At the same time, the interviewer must remain objective and detached in order to ensure that he or she is not leading or influencing the responses of the subject. Moreover, the topics covered must be carefully prepared beforehand, so that results from different interviews remain generally comparable to one another.

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