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Are you one of us or one of them? Social groupings are with us throughout our development. I should not have been surprised to learn that being part of a group or not may impact my research. There has been a long debate about whether researcher positionality has a positive or negative impact on the findings of research (Brannick & Coghlan, 2007; Corbin Dwyer & Buckle, 2009).

Insiders are considered part of the community within which they are conducting research while outsiders are considered to be outside of the group they are studying (Hellawell, 2006).

As a mixed-methods researcher, what implications does my positionality have on research? Where do I even position myself? A researcher’s positioning should be considered when assessing a study, whether qualitative or quantitative. However, the majority of research exploring researcher positionality has focused on qualitative research (Berger, 2013; Brannick & Coghlan, 2007; Corbin Dwyer & Buckle, 2009; Hellawell, 2006). This can be attributed to the fact that the relationship between the researcher and the participants is much more intimate and direct within qualitative research (Corbin Dwyer & Buckle, 2009).

Insiders

The benefits and drawbacks relate to the lack of distance between the researcher and the chosen participants.

Benefits of being an Insider

The main benefit of being an insider within research is that the researcher is familiar with the group’s language or norms (Brannick & Coghlan, 2007). They may have already built up rapport with their participants, and are able to identify the honesty of their participants while knowing which topics may not be appropriate for elaboration (Brannick & Coghlan, 2007; Hockey as cited in Hellawell, 2006). This familiarity may lead to the researcher having better access to participants and being more accepted by the participants (Berger, 2013; Corbin Dwyer & Buckle, 2009).

When the researcher is considered an insider, participants may be more confident in the researcher’s ability to represent their story (Berger, 2013). Therefore, the participants may be more willing to share, and provide richer data (Berger, 2013). Insider research can also be personally beneficial as the researcher not only contributes knowledge to the field but may be able to apply what they have learned to their own lives (Corbin Dwyer & Buckle, 2009).

Drawbacks of being an Insider

When conducting research within one’s own community or group, there runs a risk of the researcher struggling between their role as a group member and their role as a researcher (Brannick & Coghlan, 2007; Corbin Dwyer & Buckle, 2009). There is the argument that the researcher may be too close to the research topic or participants and that will inhibit their objectivity (Brannick & Coghlan, 2007). The researcher may also choose participants who are most like them, and therefore neglect the diversity of the group (Brannick & Coghlan, 2007).

Another potential issue of being an insider within research may be the researcher’s questions and interview are structured by their own experiences rather than being attentive and flexible, which would allow for the unique experience of the participant to be the subject of the interview (Brannick & Coghlan, 2007; Corbin Dwyer & Buckle, 2009). Conversely, if the participant considers the researcher as an insider, they may leave things unsaid as they expect the researcher to know, or be able to finish the participant’s thoughts (Berger, 2013).

Finally, there is often a delicate balance that the researcher engages in while deciding how much of their insiderness to reveal to participants. There is a fear that to be considered too much of an insider, there may be assumptions that are made by the researcher or the participant, and thus less information may be disclosed (Hellawell, 2006). Asselin (as cited in Corbin Dwyer & Buckle, 2009) suggests that even those researchers who consider themselves insiders should approach the research as if they know nothing about the topic. It could very well be the case that despite being an insider, they do not know something about the subculture they are targeting with their research. Therefore, it is important for a researcher to acknowledge his or her assumptions to allow for the participant’s story to come through (Corbin Dwyer & Buckle, 2009).

Outsiders

The benefits and drawbacks related to the researcher as an outsider within their research are related to the distance afforded by being an outsider.

Benefits of being an Outsider

It is often considered a positive to be an outsider within research, as they are able to be more objective and critical within the situation (Hellawell, 2006). However, the notion of objectivity has been criticized, as their presence within the research setting, and power within the research process must be recognized and reflected upon (Lewis as cited in Hellawell, 2006). The outsider as researcher often is able to sift through the complexity of group dynamics, and sift through any false beliefs or biases the group may have (Corbin Dwyer & Buckle, 2009).

In being an outsider, the researcher is able to approach participants as experts, as the researcher wishes to hear of the participants’ experiences so that participant’s insights can be shared (Corbin Dwyer & Buckle, 2009).

Drawbacks of being an Outsider

For researchers who may be considered outsiders from their target research population, they may have trouble accessing their participants, as they have not built a rapport with them (Brannick & Coghlan, 2007). Even if the researcher is permitted to access part of the group, they may have limited access to other subgroups (Brannick & Coghlan, 2007). For example, researchers may be permitted to speak with principals within a school, but may have trouble accessing the teachers within the school.

As an outsider, the researcher may not be able to formulate relevant questions to the research, as they are unfamiliar with the subtleties of the context (Berger, 2013). Additionally, participants may feel that a researcher from outside of their group will be unable to adequately represent their story, as it is not something to which they can relate or have experienced (Berger, 2013).

The space in-between

Hammersley (as cited in Hellawell, 2006) argues that being an insider allows for access to valid knowledge that an outsider may not have. However, he elaborates that saying research benefits the most from a balance between “involvement and estrangement” (Hellawell, 2006, p. 485). Hellawell (2006) suggests that it is this familiarity and empathy mixed with a sense of alienation or distancing that provides the ideal situation for the researcher to engage with participants.

Despite there being an emergence of viewing researcher positioning as on a continuum between insider and outsider, the literature remains quite dichotomous on the matter, speaking to insider or outsider research (Corbin Dwyer & Buckle, 2009; Hellawell, 2006). To help novice researchers grasp the notion of the in-between, Hellawell (2006) suggests that students who are beginning to conduct research reflect on five questions:

  1. How they consider themselves to be engaged in insider research
  2. How they consider themselves to be engaged in outsider research
  3. How they think they may be engaged as both an insider and outsider
  4. How they may not be engaged as an insider or an outsider, and
  5. Reflect on areas where they are not sure of how they are positioned within their research.

I would suggest that this may be a good reflection process for all researchers who are approaching a new research project, as the project, participants, or situations may change how they are considered insiders or outsiders within the research.

It should also be acknowledged that within a research project the researcher may slide between facets of insiderness and outsiderness, as the situation itself changes, participants change, the project itself evolves or the researchers’ own life experiences change (Berger, 2013; Hellawell, 2006). Acknowledging the in-between also allows for recognition of the facets of which the researcher may be considered an insider or outsider. There are many facets of one’s identity (e.g., age, sex, ethnicity, professional field, experiences, hometown, etc.). No group is homogeneous within all facets of identity (Corbin Dwyer & Buckle, 2009). Thus, many continuums on which to fluctuate between being an insider or an outsider (Hellawell, 2006). Ultimately, it is up to the participant or the group to determine whether they consider the researcher an insider or an outsider, and by which facets of identity this will be judged (Corbin Dwyer & Buckle, 2009).  Due to the researcher’s familiarity with the research topic, they can never be complete outsiders. While their status as a researcher prohibits them from being a complete insider (Corbin Dwyer & Buckle, 2009). The researchers are always somewhere in-between, never completely at either end of the continuum (Corbin Dwyer & Buckle, 2009).

Addressing researcher positionality

Reflection has been provided as the main method of addressing and managing researcher positionality (Berger, 2013; Brannick & Coghlan, 2007; Corbin Dwyer & Buckle, 2009; Hellawell, 2006). Reflexivity has been described as the process through which an individual consciously and critically reflects on their beliefs, values, biases, and identity as it may influence their research choices, methodology, and the way in which they interpret the research (Berger, 2013; Shacklock & Smith as cited in Hellawell, 2006). It is important for a researcher to reflect on how their positionality may impact the participants or the setting, in regards to power or presence (Berger, 2013; Brannick & Coghlan, 2007).

Reflection allows for the researcher to bracket potential beliefs and biases, which may help to manage the risks of insider research, but also allow outsider research to be more authentic and representative (Corbin Dwyer & Buckle, 2009). It is through being genuine and authentic that the researcher can give justice to their participants’ stories (Corbin Dwyer & Buckle, 2009).

It is important to have both epistemic and methodological reflexivity, to reflect on the theoretical implications of the researcher conducting insider or outsider research, as well as the ability to reflect on the researcher’s methodological choices (Brannick & Coghlan, 2007). Reflection throughout the research process can assist the researcher in identifying more probing questions, become aware of their reactions to participants’ experiences, which in turn may help the researcher acknowledge their own sensitivities while reporting the findings (Berger, 2013).

Ways in which the researcher can maintain reflexivity is prolonged engagement with participants, multiple interviews with the same participant, speaking with a group about the findings or ideas, or journaling (Berger, 2013).

Finally, reflexivity may help to ensure that an outside researcher does not present the participants in a patronizing manner, as they have taken the time to reflect on their own assumptions and the stories of the participants (Berger, 2013).

Importance of addressing researcher positionality

Addressing researcher positionality within the dissemination of the research enhances the rigour of the study. Additionally, it allows the reader the opportunity to understand where the researcher stands within the research. Through reflection, and sharing this reflection within research, readers are able to see how researchers reflected on and addressed their potential biases or viewpoints within the research. Providing readers with the researcher’s reflections and changes in their perspectives over time strengthen the reader’s engagement and confidence in the research (Hellawell, 2006).

The reader may also be able to form their own conclusions about how they see the researcher’s positioning influencing the research findings (Corbin Dwyer & Buckle, 2009). Providing such an account also allows for the opportunity to discuss the potential weaknesses and strengths that one’s positioning may have on the research project (Berger, 2013; Hellawell, 2006).

References

Berger, R. (2013). Now I see it, now I don’t: Researcher’s position and reflexivity in qualitative research. Qualitative Research, 15(2), 219–234. doi:10.1177/1468794112468475

Brannick, T., & Coghlan, D. (2007). In Defense of being “Native”: The case for insider academic research. Organizational Research Methods, 10(1), 59–74. doi:10.1177/1094428106289253

Braun, V., & Clarke, V. (2006). Using thematic analysis in psychology. Qualitative Research in Psychology, 3(2), 77–101. doi:10.1191/1478088706qp063oa

Corbin Dwyer, S., & Buckle, J. L. (2009). The space between: On being an Insider-Outsider in qualitative research. International Journal of Qualitative Methods, 8(1), 54–63. doi:10.1177/160940690900800105

Freeman, D. (1998). Doing teacher research: From inquiry to understanding. Pacific Grove, CA: Heinle & Heinle.

Hellawell, D. (2006). Inside-out: Analysis of the insider-outsider concept as a heuristic device to develop reflexivity in students doing qualitative research. Teaching in Higher Education, 11(4), 483–494. doi:10.1080/13562510600874292


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