The insider/outsider debate


I recently attended a British Sociological Association (BSA) early career forum at Sheffield Hallum University entitled ‘Demystifying the insider outsider, involvement/detachment debate- locating the researcher in qualitative research’.

As an ethnographer by heart, my interests lie in being able to attempt to understand a culture before making any grand assumptions about the way it works; I believe that quantitative enquiry is often not enough to provide a picture of a population; and that participatory research should have far more stature. For that reason, the event left me with a multitude of questions about our role as a researcher and the extent to which we are able to immerse ourselves into a culture that we may be researching.

Firstly, there is the issue of access and inclusion. Before we are able to plan a research project and imagine ourselves existing in the field, how do we get in and stay in? On one hand, it must be questioned that if we don’t look, speak or act like the groups we are studying then we may be unable to blend in as an ‘insider’ and this may limit what we can see, especially in terms of gendered arenas. The location of the research may be exclusive, intimidating and unwelcoming. Yet on the other hand, we must ask if the individuals that we are studying are truly native and part of that culture, especially if the culture is fluid and interchangeable. For example, can we claim that all participants feel the same way, have the same thoughts, or even feel like an insider themselves?

Building on this idea, there were a number of researchers at the event who were studying cultures from which they came, in theory making them insiders. For example, a member of a roller derby team was studying the culture of roller derby, and a young female student was measuring the views of young female students on pornography. Yet, what was clear is that as researchers and academics we cannot escape the field from which we come from and the knowledge that we have internalised that may affect the way we formulate ideas and beliefs, as Bourdieu calls it our ‘habitus’. Therefore it must be questioned if we can even be an insider on the inside?

Another important issue raised was about the consideration of ethics and personal limits. What if the participants are doing or saying something that we find offensive?  To be an insider this means that we may have embrace things that we may be against in our normal life to be able to represent informants in their own words. Yet as researchers we must have limits to what we are participating in. It could be that a person is being racist or homophobic, or that they are taking part in illegal activity in your presence. Do we choose to put our views away in our back pockets? Or do we choose to temporarily remove our ‘insider’ status and retreat back to the safety of ‘outsider-ness’?

Since my early days at University studying anthropology, I always assumed that to become fully immersed as a ‘native’ in a culture was the epitome of ethnographic research. Yet there’s something to be said for outsider-ness in laying claims to the authenticity of our work. Having a reflective awareness of who you are, your role and where you have come from as a researcher can actually serve to strengthen your research. This is especially true in research nowadays where we are restricted by time and funding that may inhibit our chances of ever understanding a culture. But in any case, even with unlimited time and resources, can we ever wholly be an insider?

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