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

Author - Pauline Rooney

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5. Conclusions

Concepts of validity in any research are complex and are dependent on various ontological and epistemological assumptions about the nature of reality and truth. The validity of insider research, particularly in qualitative studies, is subjected to endless debate and scrutiny and it presents numerous unanswered questions.

With the case studies presented here, positivists may argue against their validity because, from their perspective, the researcher's subjectivities have inevitably distorted their findings (Kvale 1995). Their research cannot be taken as `fact' or truth' because it does not correspond to an objective reality. Their results are not reliable or generalisable. Triangulation will not present the same results. Neopositivists and antipositivists may argue that because complete objectivity is impossible, it is the insider researcher's biases and assumptions that threaten validity or `trustworthiness'.

Does the researcher's relationships with subjects have a negative impact on the subject's behaviour such that they behave in a way that they would not normally? The case studies presented here demonstrate that this is possible. Because she was a senior staff member, Fraser's students may have told her what she wanted to hear, and colleagues may have feared that she would use information for other purposes. On the other hand, because they were familiar with her they may have felt more comfortable and freer to talk openly and honestly. Foster's insider status as a black woman may have made participants feel more comfortable talking about `black' issues and thus may have enhanced the validity of her study.

Did the researcher's prior, tacit knowledge distort results by leading to misinterpretations or false assumptions? Possibly. Did Fraser fail to probe important issues on the wards? Did Foster falsely assume the existence of commonalities between herself and her subjects because of their similar ethnic and professional backgrounds? On the other hand, insider knowledge may have enabled the researcher to probe pertinent and relevant issues.

Did hidden politics, loyalties and other agendas lead the researcher to misrepresent or disregard important data? Fraser defends editing data if it `avoid(s) any adverse consequences' (Fraser 1997: 165). But what is an adverse consequence? Did Foster have a subconscious anti-racist/feminist agenda which influenced her direction of the interviews? Convery acknowledges that he `created' an attractive moral identity for himself through his narrative. Does this mean that it is invalid? Such questions, while important to ask, are extremely difficult, if not impossible, to resolve.

While these issues are important to consider with insider research, it is argued that they should be considered in all research regardless of the researcher's position. As May states, `the knower (researcher) is now implicated in the construction of the known' (2002: 2). If, as Hammersley (2000) argues, our research is inevitably coloured (consciously and unconsciously) by our subjectivities and our social, historical and cultural backgrounds, what constitutes validity? If, as postmodernists argue, our research is just one representation of a multiplicity of realities, how can we guarantee that it is valid and trustworthy?

This paper has attempted to illustrate that there are no definitive answers to these inherently difficult questions. However, many researchers will agree that it is important to be aware of them and to realise our own limitations — and potentials — as researchers (Hammersley 2000). Taking these issues into account, can we only aspire to an ever-elusive concept of validity in qualitative research? For the moment, Deem and Brehony's suggestion seems a useful guideline for this difficult period: `Perhaps then, validity is best regarded as something which is to be worked towards rather than fully achieved' (1994: 165).


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