Researching from the inside — does it compromise
The concept of validity in social research is
the subject of much debate. It is a complex and problematic issue,
especially because it is difficult to define validity.
In traditional studies, validity usually referred to the degree
to which the study accurately reflected the issue or topic that
the research was attempting to measure (Feldman
2003). More specifically, this type of validity also referred
to the role of research instruments and their appropriateness for
collecting data that answers the research questions (Black
and Champion 1976). Such positivist accounts assumed that science
could produce objective knowledge and thus the researcher's goal
was to accurately capture an objective reality or `truth' (Hammersley
2000). However, with changing ontological and epistemological
frameworks, criteria for validity changed. It was no longer deemed
possible to produce objective knowledge through research —
instead criteria for validity changed to include factors such as
credibility, believability and reliability (Guba quoted in Cohen
et al. 2000).
With changes in the philosophical foundations of social research,
the role of the researcher also changed. While positivists viewed
validity as being dependent on the researcher's objectivity, neopositivists,
acknowledging the impossibility of complete objectivity, espoused
the importance of eliminating researcher biases. At the other extreme,
postmodernists argued that researcher's subjectivities were central
to the research process and must be recognized as such.
Considering these complexities, it is not surprising that insider
research — where the researcher has a direct involvement or
connection with the research setting (Robson
2002) — has been the cause of much debate and scrutiny.
Questions that frequently arise include: What effect does the researcher's
insider status have on the research process? Is the validity of
the research compromised? Can a researcher maintain objectivity?
Is objectivity necessary for validity?
This paper aims to cast light upon these problematic and complex
issues. While it is recognized that insider researchers, and the
issues that surround them, are also the subject of debate in quantitative
research, this paper focuses primarily on qualitative research.
It is not the aim of this paper to provide definitive answers —
indeed, many would argue that this is an impossible task. Instead
this paper aims to raise awareness of the issues involved when considering
the validity of qualitative research, particularly when the researcher
is an insider to this process.
The paper begins with an introduction to concepts of validity and
the role of the qualitative researcher. It continues with an overview
of the expanding field of `insider research', describing what constitutes
insider research and outlining notions of validity within this area.
To illustrate some of the complexities involved, three case studies
from qualitative research will be provided. Each study will be analysed
from various perspectives, examining how the researcher's position
impacts on the research process, and thus on the validity of that
process. Finally, a range of arguments for and against the validity
of each study will be considered with questions for further thought