The Problem-centred Interview

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    Emma Smith
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    The Problem-centred Interview

    Andreas Witzel & Herwig Reiter

    My interest in this latest offering by Witzel and Reiter was immediately sparked upon reading the book’s very title and opening pages, in which, it is suggested to us, that the authors will tackle an alternative angle on the interview method. The book, begins much as related texts do, by introducing a discussion of the method in question; the rationale for conducting interviews and the varying ways in which interviews can be undertaken. Thereafter, Witzel and Reiter, both accomplished senior researchers, indicate that the text will adopt an alternative stance towards the theory and practice of interviewing. By reference to other well-known names in the field- Kvale and Brinkmann (2009) being two, the authors introduce the prospect of using different ways to collect and accumulate knowledge. Of these, a main area of interest for the authors, relates to the idea of the interviewer as a miner and/or a traveller (developed by Kvale and Brinkmann, 2009). According to this perspective, the miner interview/interviewer is very much focused in nature; there is a pre-defined interest in seeking out particular types of information that is thought to be of value to the research. The interviewer will generally know what they are looking for in terms of information, and will thus, adapt their knowledge accumulation strategies , in fitting with the requirements/aims of the research. By comparison, the traveller interview/interviewer is presented as more curious in nature, and flexible regarding the direction of the research. The traveller interviewer will immerse themselves in the topic or ‘landscape’ being studied, fully involving themselves in discussions and interactions with others, and open to the prospect of uncovering new insights, changing or developing their original perspective, and ultimately co-producing knowledge with participants encountered during their research process/ journey.

    The above examples outlined in the text’s introduction, are used by Witzel and Reiter as a means of illustrating how metaphors may be a useful means of conceptualising interview research. Accordingly, the authors then indicate that they will adopt a similar outlook in relation to the process of interviewing and knowledge accumulation, i.e. they will adopt the role and attitude of a well-informed traveller, beginning their research journey with a set of expectations and pre-defined goals, that may change depending on the people and interactions they encounter along the journey. As part of this approach, the authors state that they aim to more closely and proactively involve individuals in the production of knowledge.

    The remainder of the introductory chapter provides a breakdown of the problem-centred interview (PCI), useful as a means of quick reference on the basic fundamentals of the approach, before it’s varying elements are covered in more detail (requiring a few reads I might add!) in the following chapters. A definition of PCI is advanced, indicating the largely qualitative nature of the approach; as one which is ultimately based on meanings and behaviour, where the researcher should strive to better understand the information they receive, from the perspective of the individuals they study. PCI , unlike it’s namesake, is not an approach that necessarily concerns issues of a problematic nature. Rather, ‘problem centred’ in this context, refers to participants being supported in the reconstruction of research problems through reconstructing practical problems, an idea which admittedly, I was a little unfamiliar with, and could have benefitted from a more concrete explanation of.

    The background and use of PCI is also explained (largely, it has origins in German qualitative research and the methods discourse of the 1970s and 1980s), along with 

    some indication of how the approach might be applicable to readers, particularly those who envisage using interviewing as a main method within their research, and finalised with an outline of the general structure of chapters to follow;  beneficial for establishing from an early stage, whether this particular approach is suitable for readers.

    The book contains various, detailed chapters, and for this reason I will comment only briefly on some selected chapters. By way of example, chapter two addresses the comparison of PCI as an approach to other forms of qualitative interviewing. The place, significance and uses of PCI os considered, including PCI’s opposing ways of operation (for example, in its use of narratives), and how PCI can fit a number of purposes ( including interviewing in biographical and life-course research contexts);  a sound case is certainly made by the authors for the application of PCI.

    Chapter four, by contrast is more heavily focused on the practicalities of doing PCI. Thus, within this chapter, readers can locate informative details on such aspects of PCI as; where interviews can be conducted, what can be explained about the project and interview,how to initiate the conversation, typical forms and contents of an opening question, follow up/PCI communication strategies, and exit and debriefing strategies.

    Chapter six meanwhile, provides a more detailed examination of the practical elements of PCI, including most helpfully, commentary on some typical interviewing mistakes. Two studies are presented, which are accompanied by a descriptive account of the varying elements of PCI, and detailed examples of how one might create, perceive and reflect on the type of information provided to them during interviews, and how knowledge production is dependent upon the interactions between the researcher and participants. Within this chapter, the authors appear to go to great lengths to provide extensive examples of PCI in action, as demonstrated by the length and scope of the chapter; this being, at times, an overwhelming chapter, in terms of the amount and detail of information presented.

    There is no conclusion in this text, which upon initial observation, could be considered a glaring omission. The authors do attempt to compensate for this however, and chapter seven provides an alternative conclusion, in the form of a summarised discussion of the material covered in the previous chapters.

    Throughout this text, Witzel and Reiter articulate a range of interesting and insightful issues, theoretical and practical, pertaining to PCI, backed up by their evident knowledge and expertise of both the literature and practice in the field of  qualitative interviewing. Based on the evidence they provide from the outset and throughout the text, PCI may be considered a rich and intellectually challenging alternative to traditional forms of interviewing. The text however, at times was slightly overwhelming in terms of the depth of information covered, including the concepts introduced, and the amount of practical effort required. For this reason, I would not, in the first instance recommend the text for students or inexperienced researchers. It appears instead, to be a method more appropriate for seasoned researchers, who have more experience and resources at their disposal, from which to fully engage with and benefit from this method.

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