Moving beyond the explicit knowledge dimensions of experts

by Stefanie Döringer

In the article The problem-centred expert interview’. Combining qualitative interviewing approaches for investigating the implicit dimension of expert knowledge, I discuss the implications of merging two qualitative interview approaches in order to explore implicit and tacit dimensions of expert knowledge. This note refers to this paper and outlines how the idea of a methodical combination arose during my PhD thesis in human geography. 

In my research, I focus on the influence of ‘key agents’ from politics, economy, and administration, but also from civil society in regional development. These agents are considered to take a pivotal role in socio-spatial change process through their special capabilities, networks, and knowledge. In order to explore their individual agency and to reveal how these persons might change the development of regions, I considered it necessary to move beyond explicit expert knowledge and to generate insights on the personal perceptions, orientation, and relevancies that guide their actions.

Based on this interest and former research experience, I had planned to draw upon a qualitative approach and to conduct ‘expert interviews’. However, on thinking about the appropriateness of this method in terms of my research, many questions arose: Can the potential interview partners be considered ‘experts’ at all? Is it necessary to have a specific educational background or an official position to gain expert status? How is the knowledge of experts characterized and how does it emerge? And how can I enquire about personal opinions and perceptions of experts, which might only be obtained in an indirect manner? These considerations encouraged me to scrutinize my previous knowledge about expert interviews and to dig deeper into the literature of methodological research.

In dealing with different interview methods, I realized that my research interest can best be addressed by a combination of two qualitative interviewing methods: firstly, the theory-generating expert interview that discusses the definition of experts, the complexity of expert knowledge, and the structures of interactions in expert interviews. Secondly, I drew upon the problem-centred interview, which highlights individual perspectives of interviewees and provides a supportive interview design for exploring biographical experiences. The two methods share connectable epistemological and methodological premises and proved to be a useful combination when the individual agency of experts forms part of an investigation.

My work benefited from the in-depth engagement with methodological literature in different ways. Bringing together elements of both approaches not only helped me to develop an eligible methodological approach in accordance with my research interest, but also challenged me to sharpen the epistemological focus of my study and to refine my theoretical assumptions on ‘structure and agency’ in regional development. By examining and working with both approaches, I gathered useful knowledge about methodical challenges and was able to draw upon concrete interview techniques during the ‘problem-centred expert interviews’. In research practice, I could greatly profit from this intensive examination, for instance when dealing with unexpected events in the interview situation or when critically reflecting upon the interview experiences in the follow-up phase.

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