Qualitative Interviewing: 3 Mistakes to Avoid in Question Formulation

There are common mistakes that are often committed by an interviewer who is new in the field. Even the seasoned ones sometimes inadvertently overlook these errors. To avoid these mistakes, a carefully prepared and tested set of questions is the key.

One classic example given by Bradburn, Sudman, and Wansink (2004) to illustrate the criticality of proper construction of questions is the difference between the two questions namely, “Is it a sin to smoke while praying?”, and “Is it a sin to pray while smoking?”. The inquiry brought about by an argument between two priests is to find whether it is a sin to pray and smoke at the same time.

When both asked each other’s superior, the first question (of the first priest) got a ‘yes’ answer while the latter (question of the second priest) got a ‘no’. The difference in the answers is not due to conflicting opinions but due to the disparity in the context.

In the first question, there is the assumption that the individual is already praying when he/she opted to smoke along with praying. While the second implies the opposite, that is, the individual is already smoking when he opted to pray (maybe to ask for strength to resist the vice). This reminds us that a slight change in the wording of a question changes its meaning and context.

The following are six reminders on the common mistakes to be avoided when preparing and asking questions for interview.

3 Common Mistakes to Avoid in Question Formulation

1. Avoid underestimation, overestimation, and over-assumption.

Underestimation. Use simple words but not too simple. Do not underestimate your interviewee’s capacity to understand. Doing so might offend her. Unless necessary, slang language should be minimized not because it is informal but because some slang words cannot be easily understood. Jargons too should be simplified.

Overestimation. You should not overestimate as well. Do not ask questions beyond the interviewee’s ability to comprehend and also do not over-assume that the interviewee is knowledgeable as this situation is prone to social desirability bias. This bias refers to the interviewee’s motivation to appear “good” like being smart or morally good in front of the interviewer. Thus, even if he does not totally understand the question, or has no knowledge regarding the topic of the question, he might attempt to answer it to appear knowledgeable.

Over-assumption. One example of over-assumption is when you assume that an interviewee who has a driver’s license automatically has experience in driving an SUV. Without the preceding question “Do you happen to have driven an SUV?” the question “How does it feel driving an SUV?” is an over-assumption.

2. Avoid double-barreled questions.

Do not confuse the interviewee by asking double-barreled questions. This may result to vague answers since the interviewee gets confused to the question that contains two (or more) concepts (or objects) that are put together needing two (or more) different opinions but asks only one answer. There are actually two (or more) questions compounded together.

For example, “Are your teachers morally good and kind?” and “Do you support homosexuality and gender equality, or do you support heterosexuality and freedom of religion?”

In the first question, being morally good is different from being kind. The two concepts should be separated to formulate two questions asking for two different answers. The second question contains four different concepts that should ask four different opinions.

3. Avoid leading questions.

Social desirability bias may also be at work if leading questions are delivered. These are questions that influence the direction of the interviewee’s answers either to correspond with what the interviewee thinks as socially desirable answer or as the answer expected of her by the interviewer (Seidman, 2006). These could be in the form of predisposing questions, leading probes, or loaded questions.

Predisposing Questions. There are questions that predispose the interviewee to provide a socially desirable answer. The question “Do you jog?” for example, may seem neutral and not leading at first. But to some interviewees, this may become predisposing since jogging is considered as fashionable and good. The interviewee is prone to provide an answer that appears good. Researchers suggest the use of the word “happen” in “Do you happen to jog?” since it neutralizes the question implying that it is not expectant of a positive answer from the interviewee (Bradburn et al., 2004).

The question “What is the opinion of an honor student like you on cheating?” will likely elicit a socially desirable answer since including the phrase “honor student like you” is leading the interviewee to desire to be seen as good. The question should start with “What do you think is the general opinion of students on cheating?” which could then be followed by “How about your opinion?”.

Leading Probes. Asking leading probes is like subtly shoving the answers into the interviewee’s mouths. For example, the probe question “Are you saying that you are already in love with him?” when you want to clarify what she means by the statement “Well, I think I miss him now”, is leading because it creates an idea that may not be originally present in the interviewee’s mind. The probe should be open-ended like “Why?”, “How?” or “What do you mean by that?”

Loaded questions. These are worded in such a way that they will get answers expected or desired by the interviewer. These questions contain loaded words which could be emotional like “apathetic” and “problematic” or political like “trickery” and “defraud.”

The question “Do you think your teachers are too burdened and apathetic to help you in your academic concerns?” is loaded in such a way that it will likely elicit a biased answer. The use of the loaded words implies that the writer of the question have biases against teachers. It should be rephrased into “Do you think your teachers help you in your academic concerns?”

In his early surveys on workers, Karl Marx asked the question “Does your employer or his representative resort to trickery in order to defraud you of your part of your earnings?” (Bradburn et al., 2004). He was clearly an advocate of the working class given his loaded question leading the interviewees to provide a biased opinion against the capitalist employers. The question should be asked “Does your employer treat you fairly when it comes to your earnings?” to get the real answers of the interviewees.

References

Bradburn, N.M., Sudman, S., & Wansink, B. (2004). Asking questions: The definitive guide to questionnaire designs – for market research, political polls, and social and health questionnaires. CA: Josey-Bass: A Wiley Imprint.

Seidman, I. (2006). Interviewing as qualitative research: A guide for researchers in Education and Social sciences (3rd ed.) New York: Teachers College Press.

© 2015 February 8 J. G. Pizarro

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