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Exploring Religion

Session 5: Overview

Research Skills – Interviews

Learning objectives

  • Understand the basic strategies for conducting a quality interview for research
  • Experience the process of conducting an interview


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Last week, we covered the topic of religious beliefs and behaviors of individuals. You learned about different ways that people can be religious (or not), including several different methods for how to assess the religiosity of someone. Now, we want to give you a chance to interview someone on the same topic.

Interviews are one of the most common data collection tools in the social sciences, and the study of religion is no exception. For example, this week you’ll read an article (Religious Trajectories and Transitions Over the Life Course) that asks older adults about their religious participation over the life course. The authors could have used a survey to study this topic, of course, but as you’ll see in the text, many of the respondents’ answers could simply not be captured in a survey.

This is not to say that interviews are always better than surveys (or other methods). Just simply that there is a time and place for each. Surveys are great at obtaining a wide range of surface-level information efficiently, while interviews are great for complex issues that require explanation – especially about meaning and process. For example, if a researcher simply wants to know how often people pray, a survey would work well. But if that researcher wants to know why people pray, or what prayer means to people, an interview would likely be much better.

Many studies in the social sciences actually combine methods to study the same phenomenon. This is called “mixed methods” research, and the major strength here is that researchers can take the best parts of multiple methods and combine them together. Doing this helps overcome the weaknesses of different methods, as well; for example, since surveys tend to collect more shallow information, combining them with interviews provides a great way to overcome that weakness. The process of combining findings from different methods together is known as triangulation.  

One of your assigned readings for the week is a short and simple list of 12 interview tips that will help you conduct your first interview. You’ll want to follow these tips closely! The authors’ main tip (which they include three times!) is to probe. We will reiterate here that the whole point of an interview is to get information that goes beyond what we could get from a survey. After all, if we just wanted single-word answers or simple responses, it would save us time and energy to forgo the interview and give respondents a survey. So, probe, probe, probe!

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