Academic journal article Social Work

"Being" Native versus "Going Native": Conducting Social Work Research as an Insider

Academic journal article Social Work

"Being" Native versus "Going Native": Conducting Social Work Research as an Insider

Article excerpt

The increasing cultural diversity among professional social workers has resulted in the need to examine critically some of the earlier notions about the epistemology, ontology, and methodology of social work research and practice. One outcome of these analyses about how and by whom research projects are carried out is the emergence of "native," "indigenous," or "insider" research in which scholars conduct studies with populations and communities and identity groups of which they are also members. This article reports the work of a native social work researcher who conducted an ethnographic study with her social identity group. The complex and inherent challenges of being both an insider with intimate knowledge of one's study population and an outsider as researcher are explored. Implications for social work research and practice with regard to native social work perspectives and methods also are discussed.

Key words: gay men and lesbians; multicultural perspectives; people of color; qualitative research

The phrase "going native" as a researcher is often attributed to Bronislaw Malinowski in his reflections on the relationship between the anthropologist and the objects of study in ethnographic fieldwork (Malinowski, 1922). On the basis of his extensive experience living in New Guinea from 1914 to 1918 Malinowski suggested that "to grasp the native's point of view, his relations to life, to realize his vision of his world" (p. 290) anthropologists should "go native"; that is, scientists in a foreign milieu should emphasize their roles as "participants" rather than "observers" to enhance their study of native peoples and cultures. Malinowski's intonation to go native was indicative of that historical period of the early 1900s in which social and political life saw race, gender, and sex as white, male, and heterosexual; academia and science reflected that same homogeneous state; and lands of the non-Western world were occupied by the objects of science commonly known as "natives" and "savages."

Over the seven decades since Malinowski first studied the Trobriand Islanders, researchers across disciplines have challenged the assumedly stable underpinnings and methods by which they understand and conceptualize the entire research endeavor and, more important, who is engaged in that endeavor. Where once even renowned researchers as Malinowski (1922) and Mead (1928) were thought to be "informants brought back from some primitive tribe" (Freilich, 1977, p. viii), the ethnographic methods they developed have gained such currency in the social sciences that they are considered essential to most multimodal research designs (Brewer & Hunter, 1989; Sherman, 1991). More important, however, the exclusive domain of academia once relegated only to white, male, heterosexual researchers has been integrated by scholars who are people of color, people from the barrio, and those whose ancestors were perhaps the native objects of study of their mentors and now colleagues.

This article is an account and analysis of the researcher's role vis-a-vis the research project based on my dissertation research. In particular, I discuss the roles and challenges of "insider," indigenous," or "native" research, which refers to conducting research with communities or identity groups of which one is a member (Hayano, 1979; Jones, 1970; Messerschmidt, 1981; Narayan, 1993; Ohnuki-Tierney, 1984; Reed-Danahay, 1997).

Origins and Critique of the Objective Researcher

Over the past 50 years, the Civil Rights and feminist movements in particular presaged a radical change in the way social life was constructed, structured, and enacted in the United States. The once unchallenged predominance of a particular race, gender, and class analysis of our social and economic lives became the complex and sometimes elusive target of our collective reforms. Where historically social scientists were supposed to be objectively removed from even their own "gaze" on the research project, theorists such as Minh-Ha (1989), Harding (1987), and Rosaldo (1989) challenged the essential nature of the researcher-subject dichotomy, daring us instead to "walk the hyphens of the Self and Other" (Fine, 1992, p. …

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