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

Author - Pauline Rooney


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A common criticism of qualitative research is that it is particularly prone to bias and invalidity because `the researcher' is `the research instrument' (Hammersley and Gomm 1997: 3). With insider research, the issue of bias becomes more salient because of the researcher's involvement with the research context. Fraser acknowledges that some may accuse her of being `biased towards establishing the effectiveness of a programme for which she is responsible'. There was a danger that her interest in the programme's success may have prompted her to probe for information that she wanted to hear, or gloss over information that did not suit her agenda.

Fraser defends her study, claiming that her `professional responsibilities' offset the potential for bias (note 10). The reader must take her word for it. One practical step that she took to minimise the impact of biases was to enlist the help of an external academic supervisor. Although useful, this strategy does not ensure the elimination of biases. Another useful technique is respondent validation — asking participants to review the reported information to check that it corresponds to their own `subjective reality'. Although Fraser mentions this technique, she does not confirm whether she used it. A useful method of evaluating the reliability of qualitative data is obtaining different researcher perspectives on the same situation (note 11). Again, Fraser does not state whether she used this technique.

When conducting research in one's professional context, ethical dilemmas arise which threaten the collation and reporting of data. Fraser mentions some dilemmas and describes her attempts to overcome them. She acknowledges that, like all action research, individuals and institutions stood to gain or lose by the transmission and utilisation of knowledge acquired. Thus she was aware of the consequences of her research on colleagues. Did loyalties to colleagues force her to omit hurtful, but important, data? In defence of editing data, Fraser suggests that it is ethical to do so, if `they could have significantly adverse consequences' (Fraser 1997: 165). But what does Fraser consider to be an adverse consequence? Could it be something that impacts on herself? Although she states that House's basic values of `moral equality, moral autonomy, impartiality and reciprocity' guided her, it is possible that what she might consider an `adverse consequence' might not be considered so by another working in the same context (House quoted in Fraser 1997: 165).

One final, practical issue which Fraser identifies as a potential insider threat to her research was lack of time. Carrying out detailed research is a time-consuming task which can be difficult to balance with full-time employment. As Eliot says, `insider research tends to be viewed as a teaching versus research dilemma which gets resolved in favour of the former' (quoted in Fraser 1997: 169).

4.1.1. Conclusions

We return to the original question: did Fraser's insider status compromise the validity of her action research study?

Before answering this, it is useful to consider the meaning of validity in this study. Fraser attempted to capture participants' subjective construction of reality within hospital wards. Through her depiction of these realities, she was exercising her subjective interpretations of participants' responses. Thus in this case we might use criteria of authenticity (Guba in Cohen et al. 2000) and credibility (Denzin and Lincoln 2000). In such interpretive research, Radnor states that `consciousness that there is evidence to support the interpretation generates confidence in the bases of the researcher's interpretation' (Radnor 2001: 40). From such a perspective, Fraser's insider position could be viewed as potentially enhancing validity for various reasons. She has valuable knowledge and experience of the research context which outsiders will not have — for example, she is aware of internal jargon, legitimate/taboo subjects, internal politics and so on. When conducting her enquiries she can use this knowledge to obtain richer data (Coghlan 2003).

However, as outlined, there are many factors which may have compromised the validity of her research. Although she tried to minimize the effect of these factors, it is difficult, if not impossible, to fully evaluate the success of her attempts.

 


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