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

Author - Pauline Rooney


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Foster notes the delight of one participant on realizing that she was black. `I've been waiting a long time for somebody Black to come and hear my story' (Foster 1994: 142). Does this suggest an expectation that a black person is more willing to listen? Does this mean that they will share more information about their life? It is possible that the common political and social backgrounds of researcher and researched will lead to a more authentic and richer account. Although possible, this cannot be confirmed.

Foster's accounts of interviews indicate that `insider' status does not guarantee that subjects will feel at ease and free to express themselves. She notes how participants' use of language changed during the course of the interview — from Standard English to the use of more colloquialisms and black markers of English as the interview progressed (note 16). Thus Foster's insider status as a black American teacher did not automatically give her a privileged `insight' into the teacher's lives. Her insider status was negotiated during the course of the interview. However, it suggests that, as participants became comfortable with Foster (accepting her as an insider?), they became more open. Again this may have enriched the data collected.

4.2.1. Conclusions

Cohen at al. describe validity in life history as `its ability to represent the informant's subjective reality, that is to say, his or her definition of the situation' (2000: 133).

Does Foster's insider status compromise the validity of her life histories?

A survey of life histories shows that it is an interactive and co-operative technique where the roles of researcher and researched overlap (Edwards 1993; Errante 2004). Thus the researcher is automatically an insider, regardless of their ethnic/professional/political background. In fact one could argue that such a relationship is necessary for the researcher to adequately capture and represent the informant's subjective reality.

Thus the nature and depth of the relationship between researcher and researched determines the nature and quality of the data acquired. As Tierney states in his account of conducting a life history of a friend suffering from AIDS: `who I was and my relationship with Robert unalterably set the terms of the text ... I entered the situation as Robert's friend ... I also became a confidante' (1994: 102).

In Foster's case, she started as a stranger to participants — a difficult position to be in considering the nature of the project. The common ground she shared with participants was a starting point. It may have made participants feel more comfortable and more receptive. They may have felt more comfortable talking about `black issues' with a black researcher (note 17). From this perspective Foster's insider status is likely to have enhanced the validity of her research.

However, although shared experiences can be important, many factors including personality, familial circumstances and sexual orientation, will inevitably impact on relationships, and thus on data acquired. For example, did Foster become personal friends with any of the teachers? Did she remain in contact with them outside the assigned `interview time'? Such factors are not described by Foster and therefore raise questions for the reader.

To conclude, it is clear that in this case, and in the life history genre in general, the researcher's insider status in itself does not compromise validity. As this case demonstrates, it could be argued that it is an important factor in aspiring to validity.

However as Foster states, `Research conducted by insiders cannot capture the total experience of an entire community. But neither can research conducted by outsiders.... No one commands the power to know all things' (Foster 1994: 144).

 


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