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

Author - Pauline Rooney

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4.2. 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 12).

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'.


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