researcher identity – insider and outsider?

It’s not unusual to hear people talk about insider and outsider research. Outsiders are, obviously, people who come into a research site. They don’t work there every day. Insiders on the other hand are people who do inhabit the school/office/hospital/university/buildingsite – whatever wherever. 

The research literatures suggest that insiders possess knowledge that outsiders find it hard to access,. The down side is that but can also have blind spots and are thus uncritical, taking far too much about the school/hospital/university/building site – whatever wherever, for granted. Outsiders have the benefit of not knowing much about the site. They begin their research already seeing the site as something strange and thus might see things that insider won’t. They can ask naive questions of the locals without being seen as such. But by the same token, outsiders can of course misunderstand what they are seeing and hearing just because its strange and unfamiliar.

Helen Gunter and I once spent a great deal of time researching in a school and working with pupils as researchers. Because we had both been in schools for a long time, this wasn’t exactly a completely new and strange site – so we were perhaps insider-outsiders. However, as we were working with the pupils, and in our conversations with the head, we found ourselves doing quite a range of other things that didn’t neatly fall into either insider or outsider categories.

Helen and I wrote a paper about this. This is the abstract:

INSIDE, OUTSIDE, UPSIDE DOWN: THE FLUIDITY OF ACADEMIC RESEARCHER ‘IDENTITY’ IN WORKING WITH/IN SCHOOL

Educational researchers are concerned about the ways in which researcher identity can influence practice and findings for better or worse effect. However, writings which offer narratives, intended to instruct others in the ways in which the positioning and reflexivity of the researcher operates for better or worse, often present a view of identity as singular, fixed and stable. In this paper we trouble this view of identity as represented in the notion of inside/outside researchers. We reconsider a project in which we worked with a group of pupil researchers to investigate bullying in their school. We show how our identities multiplied and shifted throughout the project in ways that we can see more clearly in hindsight. We mobilize Zygmunt Bauman’s notion of ‘fluid identities’ and argue that the inside/outside binary may be politically helpful but also limiting of understandings of the real politic and experience of messy research practice in and with schools.

The paper can be accessed here.

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
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One Response to researcher identity – insider and outsider?

  1. Pingback: Ethical Interviewing and the Insider/Outsider dichotomy – Exploring Youth Issues

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