Academic journal article The Qualitative Report

Conceptualizing from the Inside: Advantages, Complications, and Demands on Insider Positionality

Academic journal article The Qualitative Report

Conceptualizing from the Inside: Advantages, Complications, and Demands on Insider Positionality

Article excerpt

The debate on insider/outsider positionality has raised issues about the methodological advantages and liabilities between the two, yet no clear account exists for what insider scholars can expect when they enter the field. First, I conceptualize how insider positionality can dually benefit and disadvantage the insider. Using a partial review of insider studies, including my study of my multigenerational Mexican American family, I also present a practical discussion on specific insider advantages and complications. In conclusion, I present a new approach to training novice insider scholars that will help them mediate between insider perspective and researcher position, an approach that promises greater rigor to insider research that will serve the goals of qualitative research for social justice in minority and indigenous communities. Key Words: Insider Positionality and Insider Research


The "insider/outsider" debate has been largely that, a debate. In line with the positivist tradition, the outsider perspective was considered optimal for its "objective" and "accurate" account of the field, while insiders, who possessed deeper insights about the people, place, and events, were believed to hold a biased position that complicated their ability to observe and interpret. However, scholars (Banks, 1998; Merton, 1978; Naples, 1996) have argued that the outsider-insider distinction is a false dichotomy since outsiders and insiders have to contend with similar methodological issues around positionality, a researcher's sense of self, and the situated knowledge she/he possesses as a result of her/his location in the social order (1).

Post-structuralists and post-modernists have criticized the notion that a qualitative researcher has a bounded and impenetrable sense of self that can be used as an objective tool in the field. Instead, a researcher is co-participant as she/he positions her-/himself in relation to participants, and participants position themselves in relation to how a researcher is perceived or behaves (Ellis, 2004; Gergen, 2000). The notion of a single researcher self or position has given way to "polyvocality ... where we are encouraged to recognize that both within ... scholars and within those who join ... as participants in ... research the multiplicity of competing and often contradictory values, political impulses, conceptions of good, notions of desire and sense of our 'selves' as person" (Gergen & Gergen, 2003, p. 595). As a result, qualitative researchers, outsiders or insiders, cannot be assured that their observations, interpretations, and representations are not affected by their various identities or positionalities.

Nevertheless, the debate around insider-outsider has stagnated by the heavy focus on the differences between types of bias associated with either being an insider or an outsider. For an outsider, the danger is the imposition of the researcher's values, beliefs, and perceptions on the lives of participants, which may result in a positivistic representation and interpretation. For an insider bias may be overly positive or negligent if the knowledge, culture, and experience she/he shares with participants manifests as a rose-colored observational lens or blindness to the ordinary. These assumptions about insider positionality are theoretical, supported by little empirical evidence, and neglect the current trends of thinking in social construction and polyvocality. In truth, little insider research and a lack of development of an insider methodology have failed to systematically describe what insiders actually experience.

Theoretically, the insider positionality, the aspects of an insider researcher's self or identity which is aligned or shared with participants, has gone without definition, since to date no single articulation exists that describes what configuration or degree of social experience warrants the designation of insider. …

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