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  • 00:09

    HERWIG REITER: My name's Herwig Reiter.I'm an empirical sociologist, qualitative sociologistwith a focus on youth research and life course research.I'm currently based at the German YouthInstitute in Munich.Before that, I studied sociology and political scienceat the University of Vienna as well asat the European University Institutein Florence, where I did my PhD.

  • 00:35

    HERWIG REITER [continued]: After that, I went to the University of Bremen Instituteof Sociology and worked as a lecturer for a couple of yearsbefore I got an offer to move outof academia into a non-university researchinstitute.The German Youth Institute is actually one of the biggest,probably, non-university researchinstitutes in Germany with at the moment some 350 people.

  • 01:06

    HERWIG REITER [continued]: And we do qualitative different quantitative research,and I am member of a small unit thatis called Department of Social Monitoring and Methodologythat supports research across all disciplinesand across all departments that are basicallydealing with issues of childhood, youth, and familyresearch.

  • 01:34

    HERWIG REITER [continued]: So my role is that of advice and trainingin terms of qualitative methods.I have a colleague who does the same for quantitative methods.And we are available for all sorts of questions relatedto methods in terms of research design, data analysis, datacollection, and publication.

  • 01:56

    HERWIG REITER [continued]: So this is my main day-to-day job sort of thing now.In my current position, I'm actuallynot doing much research myself because Ihave this advisory function, so my job is more about reflectingresearch, how it's done, how it could be improved,and how it could be done effectivelywith the resources that are available.

  • 02:18

    HERWIG REITER [continued]: So it's more a monitoring, quality management positionof research without really doing hands-on research myselfat the moment.Having said that, I have done a lot of qualitative researchin the field of youth transitionsto employment and unemployment, I'vedone a lot of biographical research,and of course I've done a lot of qualitative interviewingresearch with all sorts of young people and adults.

  • 02:51

    HERWIG REITER [continued]: Problem-centered interviewing is a particular methodof qualitative interviewing that is dialogic discursiveof approach to interviewing and to collectingand reconstructing knowledge in the perspectiveof the interview partner.It really was designed in the 1970sby my colleague, Andreas Witzel, as a responsive and alternativeto more asymmetrical forms of interviewing-- on the onehand, of course, the survey interview, whichis extremely tightly structured, and on the other hand,the qualitative alternative of the narrative interview, whichis very open and to our taste, a little bit too open.

  • 03:42

    HERWIG REITER [continued]: And as an alternative, the problem-centered interviewtries to reduce this asymmetry in interviewing,and establish a more equal relationshipbetween the respondent and the researcher.I think the most distinguishing feature, probably,is that some of the interpretation that is usuallydone after the collection of data is finishedis introduced into the interview,so it's actually done during the discussionbetween the researcher and there respondent.

  • 04:14

    HERWIG REITER [continued]: So we have a combination or we suggest a combinationof, on the one hand, active listening, whichis done in all sorts of qualitative interviews,with active understanding.So you, as a researcher, involve yourselfvery much in the clarification of meaning,and you give the respondent the chanceto participate in the interpretation of what youunderstand from what he says.

  • 04:38

    HERWIG REITER [continued]: So it's really, I think, partly a delegation of someof the control over the interpretationto the respondent, and this is, I think,rather particular for qualitative interviewing.So if I were to do an interview with you about a certain issue,then you would be talking about what you think about it,and I would be not only listening to youand recording it, but also trying to make sense of itin vivo.

  • 05:10

    HERWIG REITER [continued]: So during the course of interviewing,I would develop what we call pre-interpretationsof what I think that you mean in terms of your perspectiveon the issue.And the thing is, I would not hold that back,so I would not say, OK, I think I understand,Patrick, and I write down what I understand that he said.

  • 05:33

    HERWIG REITER [continued]: But I actually mirror it back.I give you the chance of clarifying this interpretation.And what we also see in many qualitative interviewsis that people contradict themselves.When they start talking about an issue, theyusually-- sometimes at least, they don't reallystick to their opinion.

  • 05:56

    HERWIG REITER [continued]: But they might be able to revise itin the course of talking about the issue.And the problem-centered interviewis sensitive to these kinds of contradictionsthat arise during the formulation of meaning,and tries to bring it to the foreand discuss it with the respondent.

  • 06:22

    HERWIG REITER [continued]: I think in the advantages are that you can reallyinvolve yourself much more directlyinto the discussion with the respondent.We do distinguish between different typesof communication strategies and you use themaccording to find what you want to find out.But you can use them very flexibly and you can of course,always address a topic first of all in a narrative way,but then you can also come back to this more activeunderstanding part of the interview, which is not usuallypart of other interviewing strategies.

  • 07:02

    HERWIG REITER [continued]: So if you feel like you want to introduce, also, some kindof what we call prior knowledge to a discussion,then the problem-centered interviewswas a good way of doing this because it combines,if you like, the inductive element of opennesswith the more deductive element of involving yourselfand what you already know about the topicduring the discussion.

  • 07:34

    HERWIG REITER [continued]: I think one first criticism is associated, I think,to the label itself.Some scholars say, well, problem-centered,of course every kind of interview, every kind of methodtries to focus somehow, so what is itthat you call problem-centered?And the answer is that problems in our definition,they are closely related to what Germans wouldcall problemstellung or the French wouldcall problematique, so it's not reallyabout problems or difficulties or somethinglike, that but it's about issues.

  • 08:09

    HERWIG REITER [continued]: And the relevant thing is that these problems needto be close to the people you're actually talking to,so they have to have a certain immediate relevanceto the everyday lives of the people you're discussing with.So you cannot simply discuss or bring up a topic that is notimmediately related to the life world of the person.

  • 08:30

    HERWIG REITER [continued]: A problem in our definition is somethingthat is immediately relevant for the personthat we're talking to, and that canbe reconstructed in the subjective perspectiveof the individual.

  • 08:51

    HERWIG REITER [continued]: Problems in difference, in distinctionto topics that you're usually investigating alsohave a certain quality that is complexand that can be accessed by focusing all our researchefforts on these issues.

  • 09:12

    HERWIG REITER [continued]: So this would be the centering part of problem-centering.So together with the respondent, youform an alliance of research around this topic,around this issue, around this problem,and you establish, if you do it right,a joint interest together with the respondentto discuss this issue together and to make itpart of a successful dialogue.

  • 09:37

    HERWIG REITER [continued]: So what we aim at is an implicit contract between the researcherand the interviewer around a certain issue,to discuss it together in detail and in its complexity.Another criticism I think that is probablyrelated to this is that the problem-centered interview--well, you can say that, of course,also about other methods-- may notbe able to solve the dilemma between breadth on the one handand depth on the other hand.

  • 10:15

    HERWIG REITER [continued]: And it may be true that there is no single method thatcan do this all, but at least the problem-centered interviewresponds to this dilemma by suggestingtwo types of communication strategiesthat can be used complementarily.And this is, on the one hand, communication strategiesof general exploration, so the purpose hereis that you produce and generate material-- breadth,if you like-- and this is done by using narrative openingquestions or narrative questions related to certain topics.

  • 10:57

    HERWIG REITER [continued]: This is done by using detailing questions,by involving the person into discussing and elaboratingon issues, and this is also done by using ad hoc questions,so if there's something that you want to knowor you didn't understand, you can interrupt, actually,and find out what the person is meaning.

  • 11:18

    HERWIG REITER [continued]: This by the way, is also establishinga very nice relationship of trustbecause the respondent understands that you are there,that you're following, that you're actually activelyinterested in what's going on.So this is the part of the general exploration.It's more, if you like, the active listening part, and thenthe communication strategies of a specific exploration,they are devised in the directionof active understanding.

  • 11:48

    HERWIG REITER [continued]: And here we try to go deep into the topic.One very important strategy is, of course,asking comprehension questions, so what is itactually you're talking about?Can you elaborate on that?Another very important one is the mirroring,so you're actually saying something like,did you understand right?

  • 12:10

    HERWIG REITER [continued]: Did you mean that?Another communication strategy isthe strategy of confrontation.This is a very delicate one because itchallenges the opinion of the interview partner.And it also challenges the relationshipthat you've established so far, so you should alsodo confrontations rather the end of the interview,not at the beginning.And what happens here is that you point to contradictionsor you point to misunderstandingsthat arose during the interview, and you actuallyreally try to get to the bottom of what the person meant.

  • 12:42

    HERWIG REITER [continued]: And it may also help the person, once again,to figure out what he or she actually wanted to say.What I should add at this point is,a very important distinction in qualitative interviewsis related to the type of text that isproduced during the interview.

  • 13:03

    HERWIG REITER [continued]: And there are essentially three typesof texts that are relevant here, and that is the narration,and this is a dense elaboration of involvementin the narrative, in a process, in something that is happening.Then a second type of text is the description,so when people summarize what happened,summarize experiences.

  • 13:26

    HERWIG REITER [continued]: Here you already have a certain distance of the interviewpartner to what's happening.And the third type of text is the argumentation,and this is a reflexive perspectiveon what person, what people, what a respondent thinkabout certain issues.And if you think of narrative interviews--and they are obviously most interested in narrations,they are not so much interested in argumentations--the descriptions usually are something that you anyway get.

  • 13:58

    HERWIG REITER [continued]: But the problem- centered interview hereis very, very strongly interested in getting, also,the argumentation of the respondentrelated to the things that he or she said.And this is very strongly relatedto this idea of specific exploration,of really finding out and actively understandingwhat the person means by what he or she says.

  • 14:24

    HERWIG REITER [continued]: In terms of confrontation, I would say, now,if I understand you right, at the beginningof the interview you said that there is not enoughsun in Oxford, yes?And at another point of the interview,you said, well, actually you like it gray.You're just not a beach boy or something like that.

  • 14:46

    HERWIG REITER [continued]: And I would respond to this.I would react to this by saying, I mean,I figure that you're not so sure about what kind of weatheryou prefer and at what situationsyou would prefer what kind of weather,but if I understand you right, you're moody,you have certain priorities in certain situations,and I find this perfectly natural,but could you perhaps elaborate a little bit on that?

  • 15:16

    HERWIG REITER [continued]: Because I find this interesting that you havethis kind of contradiction.This could be a way of addressing a confrontation.It's not, probably, the best example,but it's something that is incoherent in your account.And what we found is that if you havea good relationship established, once you havea good relationship, this alliance,this implicit contract between the researcherand the respondent-- if this is established,then these kinds of questions, follow-up questions,exactly, actually, reinforce the trust relationshipthat you have.

  • 15:56

    HERWIG REITER [continued]: So it's not putting them at risk, so to say,so you can really do that without problem.I mean, you shouldn't do it all the time,and you have to be careful when you do it, but you can do it.Maybe as a footnote, there is a very interestingqualitative interview technique developed in Germanythat is called the discursive interview,and it's mostly based on confrontation.

  • 16:22

    HERWIG REITER [continued]: So you really work on this issue of clarifying contradictionsin interviews.Very difficult to use, but it's a good thing.It's difficult to say, but I think normally,if I have a functioning relationship, an interviewrelationship, I don't have problems askingthese sorts of questions.

  • 16:51

    HERWIG REITER [continued]: And if the respondent is taken seriously,then he or she will have the chance to say,I don't get your point.What are you aiming at?And then you can take a step back and start again.So it's not a problem to communicate these kindsof things, normally.

  • 17:12

    HERWIG REITER [continued]: Well, there is the content part of the preparation,then there is the interaction part of the preparation.I think the interaction part of the preparationis one where you try to figure outwho you are as a person, who you are as a personality, howyou're perceived by other people,and I think this is a matter of experience, of doing it,simply.So it's a matter of doing more and more interviews,and then you will, I think, understand who you are.

  • 17:38

    HERWIG REITER [continued]: And then, of course, you need to establish a connectionwith the respondent, and this usually takes some time.So you have a warming up period where you're not actuallytalking about the topic, but whereyou try to figure out who the other person is.So this is the interactive part of the preparation.And the other thing is the content partof the preparation, and this can be more or less extensivedepending on the availability of resourcesand the time you have hand.

  • 18:08

    HERWIG REITER [continued]: But what you should at least do isyou should be elaborating on whatwe call the prior knowledge that isrelevant for this kind of topic.And we usually distinguish between everyday knowledgethat you have about the issue, so if I talk with youabout the weather and sun in Oxford,I, of course, have my own interpretation of that.

  • 18:32

    HERWIG REITER [continued]: It's not a big deal because it's something that we do every day.Another level of prior knowledge is the contextual knowledge.So weather and sunshine is different in Oxfordthan it is on the Canary Islands, for example,so you will get a very different setting,and the meaning of sunshine is different in these twocontexts.

  • 18:54

    HERWIG REITER [continued]: Very simple example, of course.And then you get a third level of knowledgethat is relevant for the preparation,the so-called research knowledge.So as researchers, we have access to certain knowledgethat usually is not everyday knowledge,but that is usually coded in academic language,in libraries, and so on and so forth.

  • 19:16

    HERWIG REITER [continued]: And this is knowledge that you should, of course,also consult before you start interviewing.So before I start the interview in relationto this research knowledge, I would probablytry to figure out why weather is such an important topicfor people in the UK.Is it just small talk, or are they really affected by it?

  • 19:37

    HERWIG REITER [continued]: Is it just something that you do in orderto solve this problem of interaction at this moment?So there's a lot of research knowledgeattached to all sorts of things that you can investigate.And the important thing is, in the preparation,that you transfer and translate these kinds of prior knowledgeinto sensitizing knowledge.

  • 20:02

    HERWIG REITER [continued]: So it's not a kind of knowledge that you apply directlyto the person, but knowledge that youuse in an indirect way.So I would operate, for example, in this example of weatherand sun or rain in Oxford, I would probablyhave in mind the notion of cultureand cultural relationships to weather and to things that areimportant for everyday life.

  • 20:32

    HERWIG REITER [continued]: But I wouldn't actually introduce itas a notion in the interview, but I would keep it in mindand work with it in a sensitizing way.So I would just prepare myself to be sensitive to this issue.So this would be the content part of preparation,if you like.When the method was developed-- so it was in the '70s, '80s--you were lucky to have a tape recorder,so this is how it started.

  • 20:59

    HERWIG REITER [continued]: And now we recommend doing all your recordings.We are not so much into video recordingbecause the problem is that you can collect all sorts of data,but you also should make sure that youwill be able to process it and analyze it.So you can always do a video recording of things,but you probably will not be able to analyze it anyway,for reasons of time-- except you do a video-based study.

  • 21:27

    HERWIG REITER [continued]: So for the problem-centered interview, tape recordingor audio recording, digital recording nowadays, of course,is just fine.We do also suggest to follow whatpeople said in terms of protocol,but that shouldn't be extensive.

  • 21:49

    HERWIG REITER [continued]: Just take notes of things that you want to follow-up.Otherwise, our suggestion is morethat you do a so-called postscript.So postscript is short for post communication description,so it's a kind of exposed protocol of whathappened in the interview.And this is something that should ideallybe done immediately after the interview,so once you're out of the room, try to find a quiet place,go to a coffee house, and sit down and take notes and tryto write down as much as you rememberand as much as you consider important about the interview.

  • 22:26

    HERWIG REITER [continued]: Don't censor yourself, so also write downif you didn't feel nice during the interview,if you didn't like the respondent,if you did like the respondent.And write, also, down first interpretationsthat you might have.The important thing about this isthat usually when you do an interview study,it will take you a couple of weeks, maybe alsoa couple of months.And if you come back to an interview after a few months,you might not remember very much about it.

  • 22:54

    HERWIG REITER [continued]: But as soon as you pick up the postscript and read through itand read through this emotional part of registering things,you are immediately there again in the situationand you can very easily recall detailsthat you would otherwise forget.We've discussed this, Andreas Witzel and I,that actually a lot of things thatare suggested in the frame of the problem-centered intervieware actually transferable to other ways of doing research.

  • 23:25

    HERWIG REITER [continued]: And you could even probably developa problem-centered research approach altogether,not just restricted to the interview.In fact, the original outline of the problem-centered interviewwas a combination, was a mixed-methods combinationof the interviewing part together with group discussionsby graphical research and a short questionnaire.

  • 23:49

    HERWIG REITER [continued]: So that was actually the idea of problem-centered interviewing,that you get several perspectiveson one issue from certain people.There is also a colleague of ours,Thomas Kuhn, he's also a former student of Andreas Witzel,and he's actually written in German a book about the groupdiscussion.

  • 24:10

    HERWIG REITER [continued]: And he likes to use the notion of the problem-centered groupdiscussion because he uses a lot of whatis written about the problem-centered interviewapproach and introduces and transfers it to the groupdiscussion context.So yes, I think it would be possible to do that.

  • 24:34

    HERWIG REITER [continued]: You could certainly do that, and in fact,the problem-centered interview hasbeen developed at the University of Bremen,where they, for some 10 to 15 years,had a multi-method, mixed-methods collaborativeresearch project and a longitudinal studyabout young people's transitions from educationto work-- quantitative longitudinal study.

  • 25:03

    HERWIG REITER [continued]: And, at the same time or parallel to that,they had a qualitative longitudinal study.And they were indeed using the same respondentsand they were indeed doing exactly what you suggested--clarifying things that came out of the surveyby means of qualitative interviewing.And especially what I said in the beginning,that you actually invite the respondentto participate in an interpretation of whathe or she has said and what he or she means--you can do that only when you do interviewing or qualitativeresearch-- in this case, problem-centered research.

  • 25:47

    HERWIG REITER [continued]: You could do that.I think this is something that, in terms of research ethics,sometimes you might not do, but sometimes youcould do, especially if you do problem-centered expertinterviews, for instance.You could certainly invite the expertsafter you did your conclusions to comment on these conclusionsand to invite them and elaborate on them.

  • 26:10

    HERWIG REITER [continued]: So you could, for instance, do a second interview with them.That's certainly an option.We also would say that when you talk about investigatingeveryday life and you do interviews with experts,then you have to be aware that everyday lives of professionalsare things that we consider special,but for them, it is certainly not special.

  • 26:35

    HERWIG REITER [continued]: But you still have a purpose and reasonwhy you talk to them, because their everyday life is veryalien to you and they have a certain set of specializedknowledge acquired through their profession, for example.Now, you could say that about everybody.You could say that a homeless person isan expert of homelessness, but I thinkyou have to be careful that you don't become cynicalat some point about this.

  • 27:04

    HERWIG REITER [continued]: Being good at interviewing, beinggood at qualitative research, being goodat problem-centered interviewing is certainly a matterof experience and practice.So you cannot just, for example, take our book, read through it,and be a good qualitative or problem-centered interviewer,but it's really something that you have to do and you haveto train to do that.

  • 27:25

    HERWIG REITER [continued]: But I think as soon as you're able to havea meaningful conversation with somebody else about an issue,you can essentially learn doing qualitative interviewsand you can certainly learn doingproblem-centered interviews.I think one good way of learning it is, for instance, by playingwith the possibilities, the different interviewingtechniques offer.

  • 27:52

    HERWIG REITER [continued]: So you could take, for instance, the ethnographic interview,which is very colloquial, very casual,or you could, on the other hand, take the narrative interview,which is extremely stiff and extremely unnatural extremelyasymmetrical, and you could play with these typesof conversation.And then you could use the problem-centered interview,which certainly takes elements of both of theseand brings them together.

  • 28:17

    HERWIG REITER [continued]: And you could find a way in between these two.So I think this could be a good wayof doing it-- learning how to playwith different communication strategies.I think one important thing to say to beginning researchersor to new researchers is related to the issue of personal skillsor skills that you can or should develop in orderto become a good interviewer.

  • 28:46

    HERWIG REITER [continued]: And I find this is an important questionbecause for some students that are novel to interviewing,it's a barrier that they have to overcome.And one of the things I try to tell themis that it's not about, first of all,only skills like empathy or patience or whatever you do.

  • 29:09

    HERWIG REITER [continued]: There are things, also, you can learn, of course,but you do not have them as a personal requirement.You can actually be impaired and you would stillbe a good interviewer.I have a nice anecdote from a workshopthat I had once with a rather famous German sociologist,and he said that his best interviewer was actuallydeaf in one ear.

  • 29:32

    HERWIG REITER [continued]: So you wouldn't say that should be a precondition for beingan effective interviewer, but as soon as he was explainingwhy this was so, it was pretty clear whythis was a successful interviewer, because heintroduced his impairment to the respondent,the respondent accepted the impairment and acted on it,so he or she would talk more clearly,would talk more directly to the face of the interviewer.

  • 30:04

    HERWIG REITER [continued]: The interviewer, on the other hand,would take a position that was signallingin terms of body language-- a high level of attention.So he would look the respondent directly in the eye,like I do now with you, and he would compensate his impairmentwith lip reading.And it's actually nice to find out that a slightly twistedforward bend, if you master that,that's a spectacular skill for interviewing.

  • 30:36

    HERWIG REITER [continued]: So you can do that, you can learnto be a body that is addressing itself to another body,and that is inviting communication.So this is, I think, something that you have to tell students,that it's not about manipulating the situation, it's justabout being who you are, being genuine,and being open to what the person has to say.


Dr. Herwig Reiter discusses his specialty, a qualitative research method called problem-centered interviewing. This approach can incorporate many different interview techniques; the distinguishing factor is that the interviewee is an active part of interpreting data gathered in the interview.

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Herwig Reiter Discusses Problem-Centered Interviewing

Dr. Herwig Reiter discusses his specialty, a qualitative research method called problem-centered interviewing. This approach can incorporate many different interview techniques; the distinguishing factor is that the interviewee is an active part of interpreting data gathered in the interview.

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