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Researching from the inside — does it compromise validity?
A discussion

Author - Pauline Rooney

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1. Introduction

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 posed.


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