One of the best ways you can gain information from the members of your religious organization is to talk with them. Interviews allow members of the organization to share stories, accounts, and explanations that can be valuable in a deep understanding of the religious group.

There are a lot of options when it comes to how you want to structure your interview:

  • Unstructured, ethnographic interviews – the interview questions are general, allowing for open-ended responses. This interview format does not require you to have all your questions read verbatim or in a particular order; instead start with a broad question orienting the discussion to the general topic and let the conversation flow naturally to related topics. This method allows respondents to provide rick stories about his or her own experience, highlighting topics that are significant and salient to each particular respondent.
  • Structured interview – the interview questions are planned, written in advance, and asked in that exact wording during the interview. These questions can be simple yes or no questions, or have a format that allows for an open-ended response. Once the order and wording is established, the structure must be maintained in this type of interview.
  • Schedule-structured interview – the interview questions are basically a verbal questionnaire, where there are set questions with a list of fixed responses. These types of interviews are regularly used in telephone polls or opinion surveys. This form is most useful if you have a lot of topics to cover in limited time, or if a substantial portion of your interview subjects have reading difficulties.
  • Semi-structured interviews – blends the unstructured approach with the structured approach by having some pre-planned, written questions about general topics. These types of interviews allow the respondent space to provide open-ended responses, allowing the researcher to deviate from a predetermined list of questions if an interesting topic is raised.

What questions should you ask?

  • The questions you want to ask depend on what you are interested in examining in your study. Perhaps you’re interested in understanding involvement in your particular congregation. You might want to ask questions about how long the person has attended the congregation, what first brought them to the congregation, why they continued to stay in the congregation, and what their favorite and least favorite parts of the congregation are.
  • “Tell me a story about…” is a good way to ask for a specific example in an interview. “Tell me a story about how a member of the congregation connected with you when you first started attending,” or “tell me a story about when you felt particularly connected to your faith.”
  • Demographic questions are often important — you will want to be able to understand the respondent’s life situation to better understand their responses. You may already know some of this information if you have a relationship with the respondent, but it might be good to clarify that information in the course of the interview.

Carefully think through the sorts of questions you want to ask, and invite others to look at your interview protocol prior to conducting your first interview. It also is useful to try out the interview protocol on someone prior to the first official interview. You can get a feel for whether questions flow and if something is worded improperly.


Focus Group versus Individual Interview

Focus groups and individual interviews have a lot in common — you’re interested in asking questions to a set of people, and want to hear their candid responses. Individual interviews allow the respondent the privacy to answer without others within the community judging his or her response. Focus groups, on the other hand, allow respondents to hear each other, spurring on discussion topics that an individual may not have thought of herself.