Researching from the inside — does it compromise
Life history (as an insider ethnographer)
This case study looks at Foster's
(1994) ethnographic research into the life history of black
American teachers. Before detailing Foster's project, it may help
to uncover characteristics of the life history genre.
Life history is a form of biographical research in which the researcher
tells the story of a person's life. Plummer (quoted in Cohen
et al. 2000: 165) describes how it is often gathered over a
number of years with the researcher encouraging the subject to write
down or tape-record episodes of their life. This is backed up by
intensive observation, interviews and scrutiny of relevant documents
such as diaries and letters. Essentially it is an `interactive and
co-operative technique directly involving the researcher' (Plummer
quoted in Cohen et al. 2000: 165).
Foster identified herself as an insider to the community of black
American teachers on various levels. She too is a black American
and has been a teacher for most of her professional life. Foster
also refers to the common political and social background in which
researcher and researched grew up (note
Foster describes how her insider position facilitated and enriched
the collection of data. It is likely that her insider status was
a major factor in enabling the project to be carried out. Practical
issues such as gaining access to subjects were easier because she
had direct access to black communities. The subjects were unknown
to her and were approached to participate via letters and telephone
calls. Throughout this initial contact, Foster emphasized their
shared characteristics, hoping that this would encourage participation.
All those approached agreed to participate. Although it cannot be
confirmed, Foster suggests that her professional affiliation with
subjects minimized social distances and may have influenced their
decision (note 13).
The teachers' acceptance of Foster as an insider was reinforced
by the fact that many invited her to their homes for interviews
(note 14). In this
intimate setting, Foster observed participants interacting with
families and friends, and took part in community activities with
them (note 15).
Several suggestions regarding validity could be made at this stage.
By conducting interviews in an informal setting where participants
are likely to feel comfortable and `in control', subjects may have
been more open. Thus, data would be richer and more authentic. Observing
participants interacting with family and friends and taking part
in community activities with participants is also valuable. Such
interaction can create a more personal relationship between researcher
and researched which, in life history, is important for collecting
rich, honest data. However these suggestions cannot be confirmed.
One can never be sure if data is reliable and honest. It depends
on the building of trust and confidence between researcher and researched.
From this account we cannot be sure about the depth of the relationship
between Foster and her subjects.
Foster gathered data using methods commonly implemented when compiling
life histories — face-to-face interviews and observation.
But are accounts authentic and honest? How detailed are they? Do
they provide a faithful portrayal of the subject's life history?
Foster is convinced that her insider status as a black person shaped
her subjects' expectations and responses during the interview process.
She notes that when participants discovered she was black, their
behaviour and expectations altered. She describes how one participant
presumed that the interview would be longer — `White folks
want to interview you, but they don't really want to hear what you
have to say' (Foster 1994: 142).
Does this mean that her responses were more detailed? Does it mean
that the data was richer? Perhaps, although Foster does not confirm
this. However, even if the interview is longer, it does not ensure
authentic accounts. But the comment above does seem to indicate
that the participant is willing to `tell her story'.