Researching from the inside — does it compromise
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
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.
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:
Does Foster's insider status compromise the validity of her life
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:
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: