Researching from the inside — does it compromise
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
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
- 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.