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

Author - Pauline Rooney

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3. An introduction to insider research and validity

The term `insider research' is used to describe projects where the researcher has a direct involvement or connection with the research setting (Robson 2002). Such research contrasts with traditional notions of scientifically sound research in which the researcher is an `objective outsider' studying subjects external to his/herself (Denzin and Lincoln 2000).

There are various ways in which a researcher can be categorised as an insider.
For example, professionals may carry out a study in their work setting — also called practitioner research (Robson 2002: 382)(note 4). Researchers may be a member of the community they are studying or they may become an accepted member after a period with the community (note 5). Collaborative research — where researcher and subject are both actively involved in carrying out research (Titchen quoted in Jarvis 1999) — exemplifies the `blurring of boundaries' between researcher and researched which causes allegations of invalidity. Such boundaries are obliterated when the researcher becomes the subject of study, as in personal narrative. Insider research could also be extended to include cases where the researcher is partisan to the emotional/political/sexual affiliations of the `subject(s)'. Examples include feminist research carried out by feminists (Devault 2004) and gay research carried out by homosexuals/lesbians (Leck 1994).

With insider research, the concept of validity becomes increasingly problematic because of the researcher's involvement with the subject of study. Positivists may argue that, because of this involvement, the researcher is no longer `objective' and their results may be distorted. Thus, from this essentially correspondence view of validity – whereby `valid' or `true' knowledge corresponds to an objective world – the validity of insider research is threatened (Kvale 1995). On the other hand, neopositivists and anti-positivists claim that, because complete objectivity is impossible, the researcher's biases threaten validity or trustworthiness. This raises questions such as:

  • Will 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?
  • Will the researcher's tacit knowledge lead them to misinterpret data or make false assumptions?
  • Will the researcher's insider knowledge lead them to make assumptions and miss potentially important information?
  • Will the researcher's politics, loyalties, or hidden agendas lead to misrepresentations?
  • Will the researcher's moral/political/cultural standpoints lead them to subconsciously distort data?

There are also many cited advantages of insider research. Some argue that insiders have a wealth of knowledge which the outsider is not privy to (Jones quoted in Tedlock 2000). It is argued that interviewees may feel more comfortable and freer to talk openly if familiar with the researcher (Tierney 1994) (note 6). From an anti-positivist perspective therefore, insider research has the potential to increase validity due to the added richness, honesty, fidelity and authenticity of the information acquired.

Promoters of anti-positivism and anti-positivist qualitative research claim that arguments against insider research are applicable to all research. For example, one can never guarantee the honesty and openness of subjects, and our research is always coloured by our subjectivities. Complete objectivity is thus impossible. The task is to minimise the impact of biases on the research process, to carry out research in consciousness of its socially situated character and to make the researcher's position vis-à-vis the research process transparent (Hammersley 2000). By making the research process transparent and honest, it is argued that readers can construct their own perspectives which `are equally as valid as our own' (Cohen et al. 2000: 106).

Thus the arguments surrounding insider research and concepts of validity are complex. To illustrate how these issues arise in practice, the following sections provide three case studies of insider research.


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