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In/Out/Side: Positioning the Researcher in Feminist Qualitative Research (1).

This article considers issues of "outsiderness" and "insiderness" that arose in the context of a feminist qualitative research project on the experiences of academics, especially women, in faculties of social work, education, pharmacy and dentistry. Members of the research team had connections to the four fields, and originally believed that their insider status in that regard would facilitate access to the participants, rapport in the interviews, analysis of the data and communication of the results. The article identifies some of the problems and puzzles that emerged around the determination of who is an insider or outsider and who has the greater insights in which situation. One possibility is that the insider-outsider question cannot be fully resolved, but that we can try to work creatively within its tensions.

Cet article examine des questions d'appartenance et de nonappartenance survenues dans le contexte d'un projet de recherche feministe qualitative sur les experiences d'universitaires, femmes surtout, dans les departments de travail social, d'education, de pharmacologie et de dentisterie. Les membres de l'equipe de recherche avaient des liens aux quatre champs d'etudes, et croyaient que leurs associations faciliteraient l'acces et le rapport aux participants lors des entretiens, l'analyse des donnees et la communication des resultats. L'article identifie certains des problemes et questions lies a l'identification des personnes de l'<<interieur>> ou de l'<<exterieur>> et lesquelles de ces situations etaient plus propices. Une possibilite est que la question de l'appartenance ou la non-appartenance ne peut jamais etre totalement resolue, mais que les tensions qui en sont issues peuvent ouvrir la voie a des approches creatrices.

As a sociologist, I am used to that uncomfortable feeling of distancing myself from what is happening around me, whether it be a party, a meeting, or a dinner with relatives -- all potential grist to the mill of sociological analysis. As a woman, I have been in many situations where I have been acutely conscious of being the "other" in a world dominated by men. What does it mean to be an outsider or insider? Might it simply be a fleeting aspect of subjectivity, like the discomfort at the start of a social occasion? Alternatively, when does it mark all one's perceptions and actions? When is it a key to insightful analysis? When does it stand in the way of clear thinking? How do we even know when we are inside or outside or somewhere in between?

This paper is about issues of insiderness and outsiderness that arose in the context of a feminist qualitative research project on academic life. Although some quotations from the project data are used to illustrate the arguments, the results of the study itself are not featured here as the purpose is to focus on a particular issue rather than to report study findings, some of which can be accessed elsewhere (see, for example, Acker & Feuerverger, 1996; Acker, 1997, 1999a; Wyn, Acker and Richards, 2000).

Questions around insider/outsider standpoints are readily found in sociological writings, especially those concerned with the methodology and epistemology of qualitative research. For example, a major concept for Max Weber (1947), a founder of sociology, was Verstehen, which is sometimes translated as "understanding." It concerns the extent to which we can imaginatively project ourselves into the position of another person, in order to try to comprehend the reasons that person has for her/his actions. Comprehending a situation and explaining it to others is at the heart of qualitative research, though it has been much troubled in recent years by an increased sensitivity to the problems inherent in such an exercise (Britzman, 1995). Several other classical sociologists (Simmel, 1908/1971; Schutz, 1944) have considered the role and special perceptions of "the stranger," and in the early 1970s, Robert Merton (1972) directly tackled the question of insider and outsider perspectives in research. More recently, Pat ricia Hill Collins (1991) has developed the concept of "the outsider within" with regard to Black women sociologists, and James Banks (1998) has identified a number of possible insider/outsider categories. Feminist researchers regularly raise questions about the positioning of the researcher and the researched (Stanley & Wise, 1983, 1990; Smith, 1987; Cook & Fonow, 1990; Reinharz, 1992; Harding, 1993; Edwards & Ribbens, 1998).

Despite the work that has gone before, in some ways my colleagues and I felt that we were in new territory. One reason for this belief is that we were conducting team research. Team research has its shares of disasters but many consider its strengths to outweigh its problems (Woods, Boyle, Jeffrey & Troman, 2000). Nevertheless, it is one thing to reflect critically upon one's own self in relation to one's work, and quite another to reflect upon relationships among colleagues in a research team and upon colleagues' relationships to the other academics we are studying. We had to think about the subject positions of five researchers and the various permutations of their connections with a range of participants. In/out/side questions surrounded us.

A Feminist Research Project

Since 1995, five women academics have been involved in a study of Canadian academics in the four professional fields of social work, education, pharmacy and dentistry. Our project, which was titled "Making a Difference," is unusual in its comparative focus and its basis in a combination of face-to-face semi-structured interviews and site visits. The existing research on women academics has tended to use either large-scale surveys or personalized autobiographical experience. We believed that a middle way would produce findings that could be generalized but that would still have authenticity and a vivid "slice of life" quality. Although all of us had done ethnographic research in the past, we were aware that we would not have the time available for lengthy immersion in the culture of a university department. Further, we likely would have encountered practical difficulties in gaining access and doing participant observation in these settings. Instead, we hoped that our "insider" experiences in our own academic f ields would provide a richness against which to frame the interviews as well as expediting access to individuals in the various departments and faculties.

When we embarked on this research, we believed that we were doing feminist qualitative research. It did not seem necessary to explore in detail our possibly varying ideas of what that phrase meant. Looking back, our bond was not so much based on a shared and specified feminist epistemology, but on other commonalities. For example, we were committed to the concept of qualitative research. We wanted to study women, although after some debate we agreed that we needed to study men as well, in order to make informed comparisons. We expected to enjoy the interviews and achieve significant rapport, because we would be women interviewing mostly women. The research was also supposed to be "for" women in a number of ways. We were working collaboratively as a team of women. We often met in each other's homes, with food and friendship. Finally, all of us had feminist commitments.

As a team, we had both strengths and weaknesses in terms of reflecting the range of perspectives and experiences held by academic women. One of the weaknesses was the lack of a visible minority perspective, although two of us are Jewish, and we vary in other ways such as ethnic heritage, social class origin and regional roots. Another weakness was a relatively restricted age range, as we are all in our forties and fifties. All of us are heterosexual and married; three have children; none has a disability. One of our strengths, we believed, was the spread of our disciplinary and professional affiliations and the match to the fields to be studied. Indeed, our team was intentionally composed as a multidisciplinary group, in part because that was one of the requirements for SSHRC strategic grants. (See Acker, 1994, and McKenna & Blessing, 1998, for discussions of how funding bodies' requirements shape research aims.) Our group included a sociologist of education, a social work professor who has studied the histor y of women in social work, a dental professor who has taken a special interest in dental education and women in dentistry, a medical sociologist who has worked in a pharmacy faculty, and a specialist in multicultural and multilingual education.

Conducting almost 200 in-depth interviews was intended to help us determine whether the representation of women in the student body (highest in social work, lowest in dentistry) has any consequences for women academics and for feminist scholarship. We called our project "Making a Difference" because we wanted to explore the concept in several ways. First, we intended to assess whether women faculty continued to have inequitable experiences in academia and whether the climate would be less "chilly" in fields where women are present in relatively large numbers. Second, we wanted to know whether an increased presence of women made a difference to departmental or faculty culture, creating an atmosphere that was more woman-friendly or changed in some other respect. Third, we questioned whether the presence of women made a difference to the curriculum, faculty research topics, or other aspects of scholarship.

Having someone on the team who was knowledgeable about each subject area seemed an obvious advantage. It would assist us in getting access to lists of potential participants, with the relevant individual making the necessary contacts in each university. It would aid dissemination of our results, ensuring that persons in each field would hear our results through appropriate conference presentations and articles and might consequently work towards change that would benefit women in those fields. The interview and analysis stages would presumably gain as well, although at this point we did not think through these consequences in great detail.

At the start of the project, determining who would interview which participants seemed a technical and practical decision. We thought that it made sense for people to interview mainly in their own subject field, but also to gain some experience interviewing in the other field(s) in order to make the project more coherent and because we could learn about each other's subject areas. That strategy would also help us when it came to cross-field analysis, we believed. Writers such as Douglas (1976) have argued that insider and outsider perspectives balance and complement each other. Interviewing academics in fields not one's own did not seem to present insurmountable difficulties and there were many precedents for it in the literature (e.g., Becher, 1989). Pragmatic considerations loomed large; for example, if someone was visiting a university for a conference, we often tried to add some interviews to her stay, to avoid travel costs to the project that might take us beyond our budget.

Academic Small Worlds

Academic fields have been regarded as communities, disciplinary cultures, or small worlds (Clark, 1987). Tony Becher (1989) calls his book about faculty in four contrasting subject areas Academic Tribes and Territories. The small-world nature of academic disciplines in Canada was relevant to our project. Had this been a study of academics in the United States, identities might have been easier to disguise, as individuals might have been drawn from any one of hundreds of institutions. Even in our largest field, education, there were less than fifty potential sites in Canada. Promises to informants about anonymity and confidentiality needed to be taken seriously when narratives about their lives might be recognized by their colleagues. A particular concern was how to ensure the recruitment of visible minority faculty participants to the study, when their very rarity threatened to make them identifiable if any but the haziest generalizations were mentioned in papers or publications;

Another feature of the small worlds was that we, as academics and researchers, had a location within them that had to be taken into account. The case of pharmacy can be taken as one example. Pharmacy is a relatively small field, with only about 155 tenured or tenure-stream Canadian faculty in 9 schools. Although pharmacy has the greatest ethnic minority representation of the four fields under study, it has very few tenured and tenure-stream academic women. As a result of the small size of this particular disciplinary community, we needed to include in our study a large proportion of the tenured/tenure-stream women in the field. To do this kind of coverage meant visiting all or most of the pharmacy schools, located in 8 provinces across the country.

Most of the pharmacy interviews were conducted by the team member who had been a professor in a pharmacy faculty for eight years. Given the small size of the field, it was inevitable that she knew or knew of many of those being interviewed. This colleague's interviews produced some qualitatively different results than those of others on the research team interviewing in pharmacy faculties. A small number of her interviews were very emotional, perhaps because the interview situation provided a unique opportunity for these women in science to express their grief at being misunderstood in a field to which they had made such a strong commitment A few were in the process of leaving the field and shared their emotions about this prospect with the interviewer, who was also about to leave the field. It appeared that the interviewer's extensive knowledge of the field and the people in it, plus her own experiences, put her in a better position to generate trust, sharing, and emotional expression than was the case for i nterviews conducted by "outsiders," i.e., the rest of us. The situation resembled what Ann Oakley (1981) identified some time ago as feminist interviewing, where the interviewer refuses to stay detached and carries an obligation to reveal some of her own feelings in order to introduce greater reciprocity into the interaction.

What eventually arose through team discussion of this case and others were several related, and sometimes troubling, issues. Were some of our interviews more trustworthy than others and was the quality of the interview related to who did the interview, an insider or outsider to the field? Was the insider's ability to see between the lines a useful interpretive tool or a potential bias? Did an insider interview have additional ethical consequences, as participants might reveal more of their personal pain than they might have intended? Should insider status be used in the analysis of the data, and if so, how? Conversely, was the outsider in a better position to take an overview or might she be more readily palmed off with polite untruths? What were the more subtle consequences of studying "people like us"? In fact, to what extent were the participants really "people like us" in cases where, apart from subject field, they differed from ourselves in other respects such as gender, class origins, sexual orientation or race?

Insiders and Outsiders

We began to recognize that at least some of our questions were related to discussions in the broader literature, especially the sociological and anthropological literature, about insiders and outsiders and their respective claims to degrees of insight. Traditional ethnography depends on a process of lengthy immersion in a culture until its parameters and the perspectives of the members become clear to the researcher, who then translates or interprets the result for an audience of readers. In studying cultures matching or similar to one's own, researchers are exhorted to make the familiar strange (Hammersley & Atkinson, 1995, p. 9). "Defamiliarization" (Wolf, 1992, p. 131) means cultivating an attitude of distance that enables one to see cultural arrangements as worthy of analysis rather than as taken for granted features of social life. Presumably an insider researcher has to make greater efforts to create that distance, or else reject the notion that distance is required.

An outsider has a different set of dilemmas. Originally so much is strange that it is hard to know where to look or what to hear. Gradually, as the outsider becomes a relative insider, that sense of strangeness wears off and it is easy to forget that certain ways of doing things -- now familiar -- might still be important for the analysis. The keeping of careful and detailed field notes over time is meant to serve as a protection against this inevitable loss of sharpness of perception as the researcher becomes a more central member of the community under study.

The meaning of a researcher being "inside" or "outside" a community, and even more the ethics and problematics of attempting to represent a culture to a different audience, have been hotly debated in recent years (Clifford & Marcus, 1986; Wolf, 1992). Poststructuralist critics have attacked the notion that there is a "reality" that a suitably assiduous researcher can convey (Britzman, 1995). Groups on the margins of mainstream society have protested the realist accounts (Van Maanen, 1988) that outsider-ethnographers tell "about" them. There is a tension between, on the one hand, the desire of and need for marginalized groups to come to voice, and, on the other, the inevitable role of the researcher in co-constructing such accounts (Bloom 1998; Lather 1998).

Feminist writing has been keenly concerned about related issues. In general, feminists have argued that as insiders, women are the best informants about their own lives. Grounding an analysis in the everyday lives of ordinary people, especially women, could be the start of an improved understanding of social forces as they operate to confirm and continue inequities and privileges of dominant groups (Smith, 1987). Perhaps paradoxically, women as outsiders are also said to be insightful informants about the activities of mainstream society or of dominant others. So, for example, the secretary knows more about the boss than the boss knows about the secretary.

But even if the "people at the bottom" do not have full knowledge of those who are arranging social life to their disadvantage, "the experience and lives of marginalized people, as they understand them, provide particularly significant problems to be explained or research agendas" (Harding, 1993, p. 54, italics in the original). Certainly there is now a growing body of autobiographical accounts of being a marginalized and minoritized woman in academe (e.g. Bannerji, 1991; Carty, 1992; Ng, 1993; Monture-Angus, 1995; Chouinard, 1995/96; Lock, 1997).

Patricia Hill Collins (1991) added another dimension to these discussions by locating them in a specific case of sociological knowing and its operation by Black women sociologists, whom she called the "outsider within." She described the culture from which this group gained some of its uniqueness, and the way in which the combination of marginality derived from participation in interlocking systems of oppression together with the experience of socialization into the field as a pathway to a heightened sensitivity to anomalies, distortions and invisibilities. Other writers also locate this sensitivity in the experience of disjuncture or bifurcated consciousness (Smith, 1987). Harding (1993) notes that it is the experience of a contradictory subjectivity -- for example, being a feminist scientist -- that generates feminist knowledge (p. 66).

Recently, James Banks (1998) has delved further into the insider/outsider question with regard to research on African-American communities in the United States. He identified two dimensions, the first of which reflects the origins of the researcher in relation to the community studied (indigenous or external), and the second the perspective taken during the research itself (insider or outsider). Putting the dimensions together results in a typology with four categories: indigenous-insider; external-insider; indigenous-outsider; external-outsider. (In the discussion that follows, I have added italics and initial capitals to the four "types.")

The Indigenous-Insider and External-Outsider contrast strongly with each other. An Indigenous- Insider would be someone from the community, perceived as a legitimate member by others, and promoting the well-being of that community through the research; while an External-Outsider would have been socialized within a different community and would lack deep sympathy or understanding for the community which has become a target for the research. The other two categories are more complicated. The Indigenous-Outsider was socialized within the indigenous community but has been assimilated into a different culture so becomes seen as an outsider if s/he studies the community of origin. The External-Insider has been socialized within a different culture from the one where the research is conducted, but through particular experiences (perhaps of marginality in the original community) comes to identify strongly with an adopted community that becomes the research site.

Banks illustrates these categories with the lives and work of scholars who have made contributions to discussions of prejudice and racism, some African-American and some not. The need in our own project seemed to be for something similar to Banks' typology, but one that would pertain more precisely to disciplinary or subject field identification. Collins (1991) uses the phrase "community of practitioners" in writing about a disciplinary community such as sociology, which suggests that Banks's notion of community could be adapted for our purposes. The concept of "indigenous" in our context was possible as an analogy but not literally so. No one is born a sociologist or historian, or a dentist or pharmacist. The difference is important: one becomes a specialist through a long process of socialization and indoctrination. Disciplinary identification can be regarded as an ideology, and perhaps because it is learned, some cling to the ideology with the passion of conversion. Staying a member in good standing of the disciplinary community generally requires the (minimal) exercise of certain behaviours, such as teaching, publishing and serving the field (Collins, 1991). Yet there are always some people who are more central than others to the prevailing thinking in a field, who come to stand for what that field signifies at a given time. There are factions and subgroups that espouse different versions of the field; there are persons on the margins who seem closer to a different discipline than their ostensible home. Who are the insiders and outsiders in these cases? In our case there were further complications given that our discipline, work location, and subject studied were not always congruent. Professional faculties often have members with disciplinary identifications in the social sciences. Our team reflected this situation, including members with sociological or historical affiliations but with positions in professional faculties.

Many questions arose for my colleagues and myself. What does it mean to belong to a discipline or field - who is the insider? How can a discipline study itself? What are the complications of the positioning of the individuals according to race, class, and so forth? Can one be marginalized in one's discipline but not socially -- or vice-versa? Is insider-outsider status more a continuum than a clearly delineated affiliation? Or is there some other model or metaphor that is more appropriate, something that will reflect the shades and degrees of difference we were beginning to appreciate?

A Typology For Our Purposes

In the rest of the article I shall work through some of these questions by adapting Banks's typology to our situation. using other perspectives such as Collins' analysis and our own experiences to trouble it somewhat, note contradictions, and raise further questions. Following Banks's lead, I will explore the situations of the Indigenous-Insider, the External-Outsider, the Indigenous-Outsider and the External-Insider in the context of our project. The first term in each case refers to the field or subject affiliation of the researcher, analogous (but of course not identical) to the community of origin, while the second refers to the perspective taken during the research. Table 1 sets out the typology.

The Indigenous Insider

The Indigenous-Insider would be someone who is trained in, and studies, their own field or discipline. It might be argued that there would be relatively few individuals in this category, as most people who are insiders would not be particularly curious about their own territory, taking it for granted and comfortably inhabiting its mainstream circles. Patricia Hill Collins (1991) provides a nice description:

Group insiders have similar worldviews, acquired through similar educational and professional training, that separate them from everyone else. Insider worldviews may be especially alike if group members have similar social class, gender, and racial backgrounds. Schutz describes the insider worldview as the "cultural pattern of group life" -- namely, all the values and behaviors which characterize the social group at a given moment in its history. In brief, insiders have undergone similar experiences, possess a common history, and share taken-for-granted knowledge that characterizes "thinking as usual." (p. 48)

Mainstream insiders might be least likely to wish to share information with interviewers. Like the indigenous insiders of Banks's typology, their first allegiance is to the community, which means that they might well be suspicious of anyone from outside that community, including some with insider credentials but whose positioning as researcher might hint at outsiderness. For example, when we interviewed Deans or other senior administrators in the various fields and institutions, we asked questions intended to get an overview of the issues in the field, the strengths and weaknesses of the faculty, the gender balance of faculty members, changes such as restructuring, and so forth. For the most part, the Deans were pleasant, even charming, and willing to assist us. Nevertheless, these consummate insiders were rarely going to alert us to the divisions and conflicts within their faculties; their loyalties were to their institutions, not to our research.

At times, these encounters set up tensions for us when one of us knew or suspected, either from personal contacts and experience or from other interviews, that there was information that a Dean glossed over or omitted from his or her account. For example, there were times when a team member might question the validity of a colleague who was in the same field as the administrator interpreting the data in terms of her previous experience, especially if the others could not arrive at the same conclusion simply from the evidence in the transcript. On other occasions, when the interviewer was not in the same field as the administrator, the team member who was in that field might suspect that the interview had not been probing enough to unearth "the truth."

On the whole, interviews by persons in the same subject field as the participant usually displayed strong rapport and generated much sharing of feelings and experiences. Yet transcripts from these interviews were often the most difficult for other team members to interpret, as they relied on shared understandings that were not always spelled out. These interviews were also more likely to detour into discussions of persons known in common to the interviewer and the participant. For example, here are two extracts from an interview done by an interviewer in the same field as the participant. (In all of the quotations below, 'I' refers to Interviewer and 'P' to Participant.)

P: Here's our committee list.

I: Is [name 1] a student?

P: She was in charge of the admissions committee. She was brought, [name 2] decided that...and paid her...

I: And that continues on?

P: Ah, she's done that for two years....It's [now] [name 3], she works in [subject area].

P: That was part of the, that's what led to the grievance was that was a direct violation of my academic freedom.

I: Now are these things out of character? I mean, you had both [name 4] and [name 5] as your colleagues. Are these things that you would not have expected?

P: Ah-mm, I wouldn't have expected-well, I'd expect it from [name 4]; I wouldn't have expected it from [name 5]. But they're close enough as friends that it's unclear who's doing what. [Name 4] is a political player and one of my colleagues one time said the best way to describe [name 4] is that his favourite game is let's you and him fight, and he'll do everything he can to set up fights....[Name 5] I would say, from my view, is someone who, I think, is in over her head...

The External Outsider

Interviews conducted by persons unfamiliar with the subject field -- the External-Outsiders -- had their own problems, even if they did not feature discussions like those just quoted. In contrast, they were often marked by exchanges where the interviewer had to ask for clarification of information given (or sometimes by the greater difficulty in getting a conversation going on a particular topic, and moving more quickly to the next question). Interviewers had to struggle to understand technical terminology, for example when those of us not closely familiar with academic dentistry were interviewing in that field.

I: Hmm. So if you look back you don't regret this choice [of field]?

P: Not at all. Either this, or psychology even.

I: Psychology! Why would you pick psychology?

P: Well, I, a lot of my patients actually have psychological problems and physical problems.

I: Okay. But I'm not sure I know what you mean.

P: Ah, you know that about 80 per cent of patients who see family physicians do so because of emotional problems. Well, many of the patients I see, it's the same thing.

I: So it's not physical abuse or anything.

P: No, no, I mean just, some of them it may be that but I don't get into that depth of--

I: So you're working on their teeth--

P: No, no, I'm an oral pathologist. I don't work on teeth.

I: Okay, you have to explain, this is the stupid question part.

P: OK, I'm a specialist and my speciality is basically diseases of the mouth and surrounding areas that essentially have either little or nothing to do with the teeth.

I: I see. Okay.

In the above quotation, the interviewer is clearly struggling to get onto solid ground but is somewhat hampered by the understandable assumption that dental faculty members would study teeth. She attempts to solve the problem by adopting the stance of the naive observer and labelling her own query as a "stupid question." This approach does have the effect of stimulating the participant to give a layperson's explanation so that the interview can proceed. This interview and similar ones often contain a good deal of such explaining, perhaps detracting from other exchanges that might have been of greater relevance to the project.

Another stance taken by the interviewers is to find areas which the two individuals do have in common, even if subject fields differ. In the following example, subject field differs and so do gender and ethnicity. Yet the interviewer manages to achieve a high level of rapport because there appears to be an agreement on and understanding of the arguments the participant is making.

I: But how does it work inside this faculty? Is that the way it works, that women look after women's s issues and you know, for example, you would look after other, say, racial issues, and so on? Or do people take it more as a common [goal]...[saying] we really do want that diversity.

P: There are a number of people who say they want that diversity, and they'll argue for it, but they're a minority.

I: I see.

P: The silent majority exercises its power very effectively ...

I: Yes, that's right.

The interview continues:

P: And we [ethnic minority faculty] feel very isolated. We never meet, you know.

I: What about across the campus, is there --

P: Across the campus pretty much the same.

I: Yeah? That's terrible.

P: It's really sad. Individually, we have acceptance. Individually, I have acceptance.

I: Yeah. And so it's based on really superlative qualifications and experience.

P: Yeah, you have to --

I: Like you have to be four times as good as the next one.

P: That's right. Unfortunately, that's correct. And it's as true for visible minorities as it is for gender.

In Banks's typology, the External-Outsider category contains persons who are doing research for reasons unrelated to the community's benefit, and who have little empathy or concern for that community. As described by Banks, this is an unattractive category, one which inevitably raises ethical issues. There is a sense in which some of our interviews might be placed under the label of External-Outsider interviews. If one of us in, say, education interviews someone in dentistry, there is not necessarily a deep understanding of the other field nor an intent to learn all about it. Nevertheless, our feminist commitments tended to keep us from seeing ourselves as doing research solely for outsider purposes, at least in our own eyes. We hoped that our work would (ultimately) make a difference, particularly in the lives of women academics in all fields. In the short run, we believed we made a difference when interviewees were enabled to speak about painful and difficult experiences and found the interview to be cathar tic, as we were sometimes told.

Certainly we identified with participants in all fields sufficiently that painful interviews were also very disturbing to ourselves: interviewing for this project could provoke many emotions in the researchers, too (see Acker & Feuerverger, 2000). It is possible that the participant is not all that unhappy when the interviewer is going to go away again after the interview, rather than popping up again (with all that guilty knowledge) at some inconvenient moment. Yet it is still important to question the extent to which we can achieve real empathy when we do not share the crucial characteristics of those we interview. Not all our interviews with persons different from ourselves seemed to transcend that difference to the extent apparent in the extract above; and we have no way of knowing whether even that interviewee had reason to suppress aspects of his experience that he believed the interviewer could not comprehend or should not be privy to.

The Indigenous Outsider

The remaining two categories in the typology are interesting for their ability to complicate the notion of insider and outsider research. I suggested earlier that an Indigenous-Insider researcher might hesitate to question and criticize or even to investigate her own territory. To do so might require an experience or perception of being de-centred, for example inhabiting a marginal status within the field by virtue of ideology, sub-specialization, temporarily becoming a member of a different group, or belonging to a minoritized or under-represented group. None of these experiences would guarantee special insights, but they could increase the probability of generating them. The researcher then moves toward the Indigenous-Outsider designation, someone who belongs to the category yet takes a different view than those fully encapsulated within the category and for that reason is seen by the community to be at least a partial outsider. The border might be a good vantage point for a critical perspective. We tended to believe that all of the members of our research team were able to attain this measure of insight when interviewing in their own fields by virtue of being women in male-dominated university disciplines.

In Banks's Indigenous-Outsider category, there is an inherent instability in the situation, as the person risks rejection from the original community because of their affiliation with a different community or their curiosity about and analytical approach to the original community. A degree of irony lies in the increased sensitivity of the insider turned outsider, coupled with her/his probable exclusion from inner circles where secrets are shared, and ultimately a lesser degree of insiderness and access (Banks, 1998). Any effort to interpret the inner workings of the field to outsiders (which would happen in publications about our research, for example) could result in accusations of betrayal, as confidences given to someone because of shared understandings and empathy are reframed, and even if no quotation can be traced, are nevertheless used for the researcher's purposes, which might not be the same as the purposes of the community of practitioners.

What might make a difference is the positioning of the informants vis-a-vis this researcher. The Indigenous-Outside; seen as border-dweller, might do well to interview persons who are themselves marginalized in some fashion from the community under study, who could be expected to experience a certain degree of rapport with this researcher. For example, the quotation below shows a high degree of rapport between two white women in the same field who had never met before the interview.

P: I always bring work with me to conferences because I see it as a way to catch up or time to catch up. Men were completely baffled by this -- that I would bring other work to do -- and the two women in the audience said of course you bring work to do and they had all brought reviews or other little things.

I: I always bring work to do even if I don't do it.

P: Well, apparently the men don't...

I: I have a lot of the same problems.

P: Oh, have you got solutions?

I: Well with age you get less able to do some of that stuff, like you get tired earlier and you can't keep those sort of hours up forever.

P: Yeah.

I: I quit some of that journal reviewing; for one thing it's fairly invisible.

P: Exactly.

This particular interview was enjoyable for the interviewer and there were many points of connection between the two women that could be regarded as shared marginalities. The dialogue revolved around ways in which both individuals found themselves treated in their departments by colleagues and students, ways that reflect the literature on the work of women academics (Acker & Feuerverger, 1996; Park, 1996). After a discussion of being extra-prepared for meetings and taking on service responsibilities beyond the norm, the participant commented: "I think we're just great department citizens and the question I have is whether we're ever going to be more than that. You know, I mean, that's the cost I think we pay by doing this, and I can't not do it."

However, shared marginality might not be sufficient to guarantee rapport, as there are so many other dimensions on which the individuals could differ (Merton, 1972). We also had a few experiences in the study in which we, as white interviewers, even within a shared subject field, received guarded responses from persons of colour. While we took such responses to be related to heightened concerns about anonymity, given the scarcity of academics of colour in universities, they may also have been grounded in an assumption that white researchers could not fully understand the experiences of minority faculty.

The External Insider

The External-Insider position is one that is difficult to attain in research like our own. Banks describes his comparable category as including persons who have been marginalized from their own communities and who adopt the new community instead as their home. None of us would be able to do that in subject field terms just for research purposes, although it might happen (and for one of us did happen) for other reasons. A traditional ethnographer operates in a similar way, immersing her/himself in a new community, but the immersion is rarely total and does not necessarily (or even typically) mean opposition to one's original (disciplinary) community. This individual, as a "stranger," may have the advantage of superior insight, but would have to work at getting access to inner circles and creating trust.

On the other hand, if we continue to think in terms of borders between categories, the researcher need not be a total stranger to the culture. Several writers recount the experiences of finding themselves in a position where they expected to rely on commonalities that in practice proved somewhat elusive. While expecting to be Indigenous-Insiders, they were treated at best like External-Insiders. Josephine Beoku-Betts (1994), for example, thought that her own West African heritage would assist her in achieving rapport with Gullah women who live on islands off the coast of Georgia and South Carolina, but found that "Black is not enough." In some respects, trust was easier to gain, and in others more difficult. Ongoing negotiation and reflexivity were essential to her research. Mehreen Mirza (1995) expected to be able to connect with British South Asian young women because of her similar origins, but discovered that her independent and non-married status, her residence in a different part of England and her rela tively short hair were all seen as marking her out as different from the community. The girls and women she initially approached were wary of her and she felt as if her "very presence was an implicit criticism of their lives and their social world" (p. 175). These accounts suggest that a typology such as the one explored here might be too limiting, given that "external" and "indigenous" may not be mutually exclusive categories. In the situation of our research, it is possible for an investigator to be trained in more than one field, or to pursue interdisciplinary studies at the margins, or to choose a field for study that is similar to one's own.

To the extent that external researchers undertake ethnographic research, conduct many interviews, or make site visits, their understandings are increased and their perspectives move closer to insider than outsider ones. But more often, the contact is relatively short, as in our 60-90 minute interviews. When working in fields not our own, rather than seeing the researcher as necessarily in opposition to her original community and trying to be accepted by a new community (External-Insiders), or simply remaining detached (External-Outsiders), we tended to adopt a category more like Collins's "outsider within." In that case the researcher retains her original commitments and values but makes use of them to understand a new community into which she is also being socialized. Special insights for outsiders who become partial insiders are at least possible, if less likely than for those who are insiders but on the margins of their own fields (Indigenous-Outsiders).


This excursion into the questions of insiderness and outsiderness that arose in a feminist qualitative research project has, in the cliched words of so many discussions in the literature, raised more questions than it has answered. I would have to say that I feel more at ease interviewing in my own field (education) than in the other three fields. I am less apprehensive that I will fail to understand the research or the departmental organization that the participant is describing to me, and that makes me more relaxed, which in itself may contribute to a better interview. That level of confidence has remained for me even when I have been acutely aware of some of the differences between the interviewee and myself. These differences can arise around attributes such as race or ethnicity, seniority, sub-discipline, gender or political views. I am thinking of the ethnic minority woman I interviewed who denied that discrimination against her ethnic group still occurred, or the man who attacked feminist research for being preoccupied by topics such as the situation of women academics rather than issues like poverty or homelessness. Despite these differences, there was still a shared insider status vis-a-vis "education" that facilitated those interviews. What was familiar was not so much the detail of people's research but the general lines of the workplace culture (see Acker, 1999b). For example, dilemmas such as the balance between graduate teaching and preservice teaching turned up regularly, and were easily recognizable, while the comparable tensions within other fields were harder for me to recognize and to probe in an interview situation. Nevertheless, I cannot know how much I might have missed because education academics may have assumed I would know about something and therefore there was no need to tell me.

In contrast, one of my colleagues tells me that she was most at home interviewing in her native province, regardless of the subject field. Rapport was created out of knowing the local geography, recognizing familiar phrases, sharing a sense of humour, referring to prominent public figures, and so forth. Another colleague on the team believed that she achieved the greatest rapport with individuals who had to struggle in some way to achieve their current positions. These examples reinforce, once again, the argument that we are none of us always and forever either insiders or outsiders. Our multiple subjectivities allow us to be both insiders and outsiders simultaneously, and to shift back and forth, not quite at will, but with some degree of agency.

The third segment of my title "in/out/side" is "side," reminiscent of Howard Becker's (1970) question to sociologists, "Whose side are we on?," or the insistence of many feminist researchers on contributing to a better life for women. Typically, an interview situation requires an effort to find common ground and emphasize whatever "side" of oneself will make the best match to the other. As we are not chameleons, this search is not always easy. It may be especially difficult when interviewing someone with a greater degree of power than oneself, such as the Deans in our study or the British vice-chancellors Neal (1995) studied. In the analysis stage, we have a few more choices, and at that point we can reflect about whose standpoint -- whose "side" -- we wish to privilege.

I do not think the insider-outsider question can be fully resolved. We need to keep it bubbling away, like other troubling research issues, as part of our overall reflexivity about our work. As a research team, we have not yet resolved our different views as to what extent our personal experience should provide a context for data analysis. Perhaps it is not necessary to come to a final conclusion on such issues, but to find a way to work creatively within the tensions engendered by the debate. Collins (1991) reminds us of the privileged status of either/or dualistic thinking in traditional sociology, where categories are given meaning only in terms of their difference. Black women who experience oppression in a holistic fashion critique the way in which dualistic thinking asks them to identify as Black or female (p. 43). Similarly, Reinharz (1992, p. 262) gives some examples of feminist researchers trying to avoid the trap of being either "objective" or "subjective" towards their work but attempting to find a way to be both. In other contexts, writers have conceptualized the management of teachers' dilemmas in the school classroom in ways that avoid traditional dichotomous thinking, for example assuming that advantaging the girls necessarily equals disadvantaging the boys (Lampert, 1985; Lyons, 1990).

It follows that my typology will be most useful if not taken too literally as four discrete boxes, but as a heuristic guide, with plenty of allowances for work at the borders of the boxes and the presence of tunnels that allow crawling around from one to another. As Beoku-Betts (1994) explains, keeping a record and reporting our deliberations makes both a contribution to the reader's understanding of the specific research and to the larger dialogue about "conducting inquiry in marginalized cultural groups" (p. 431). If qualitative researchers typically praise the value of reflexivity (Ball, 1990), feminist researchers have taken the practice to heart, as is evident in almost any compendium of feminist writings on method or epistemology (Nielsen, 1990; Stanley, 1990; Alcoff & Potter, 1993; Maynard & Purvis, 1994; Ribbens & Edwards, 1998). Here I have been using my head and following my heart, in order to tease out the dilemmas that make a difference to "Making a Difference" and in feminist research more genera lly.


I would like to thank the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada for funding the project described here: "Making a Difference: Feminization and the Changing Climate of University-Based Professional Education." I would also like to thank Linda Muzzin for the discussions and ideas that led to the writing of this paper, as well as rest of the research team, including faculty members Carol Baines, Marcia Boyd, and Grace Feuerverger, students Mika Damianos, Lisa Richards and Amy Sullivan; transcriber Janet Ryding; and many others who have contributed in various ways to the project.

Sandra Acker is a Professor in the Department of Sociology and Equity Studies at OISE/UT. A recent publication is The Realities of Teachers' Work: Never a Dull Moment (London/New York: Cassell & Continuum, 1999).


(1.) This article was printed in the previous issue of RFR/DRF, but a formatting error created confusion in the text and we are reprinting it here.


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Table 1 Typology of Research Approaches

 Community/field of origin of

Perspective taken during Indigenous
the research

Insider Researcher belongs
 to the field under
 study and shares

Outsider Researcher belongs
 to the field under study
 but is marginalized
 and/or takes a critical

 Community/field of
 origin of researcher

Perspective taken during External
the research

Insider Researcher leaves
 original field and
 joins or affiliates
 with the field
 under study

Outsider Researcher does not
 belong to or join the
 field under study
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Author:Acker, Sandra
Publication:Resources for Feminist Research
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Mar 22, 2001
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