Academic journal article The Geographical Review

"Do You Really Live Here?" Thoughts on Insider Research (*)

Academic journal article The Geographical Review

"Do You Really Live Here?" Thoughts on Insider Research (*)

Article excerpt


One summer Saturday I was sitting at the living-room table in a run-down old house in the gold-mining ghost town of Bodie, a California State Historic Park located in the high-altitude desert east of the Sierra Nevada. Signs on the outside walls of the house identified it as an "Employees' residence." A nearby number post linked the building to the park's self-guided-tour brochure, which described it as "the Gregory House" and detailed the lives of the home's historic inhabitants. I was busy writing when small running footsteps approached: children, some of the 200,000 or so annual visitors to Bodie. A brown-haired girl of about eight and her towheaded kid brother strained to pierce the relative darkness inside the house. What they saw was me. Turning away from the window, the girl hollered to her parents, "There's a guy in there! And he's dead! Lie died writing!"

Being taken for dead--and for a man--may seem shocking to some, but this was not the only time that I was seen as a ghost--or as a man--during the fourteen summers that I worked and did fieldwork in Bodie. (1) But experiences like this one led me to contemplate the interactions between my physical presence and my role as insider in the public place that I was trying to study.

As a researcher I was interested in how visitors and staff understood Bodie's past and made room for it in their present, in how they made meaning in and from the landscape. But as a staff member and part of the Bodie community, I myself was part of that process. An important aspect of my work became understanding how I was a part of my own research and negotiating the challenges that being an insider" presented.


Because gaining perspective on something you're in the middle of poses distinct challenges, texts on qualitative research methods often advise students not to study communities or situations of which they are already part. Robert Bogdan and Sari Biklen warn that since qualitative researchers regularly focus on the taken for granted, starting with an insider's perspective can make research harder rather than easier (1998, 52). "You may fail to notice pertinent questions or issues because of the inability to step back from a situation and fully assess the circumstances," add Rob Kitchin and Nicholas Tate (2000, 29). The insider researcher may be "over-familiar with the community," leading to "too much participation at the expense of observation," cautions Mel Evans (1988, 205). Furthermore, that can lead to other problems: Anselm Strauss warns that those who literally "live" a study may "know too much experientially and descriptively about the phenomena they are studying and so [end up] literally flooded with m aterials" (1987, 29). Those with a preexisting role can find that role in contradiction with the separate status of researcher; the transition between roles may cause personal difficulties; and ethical issues may arise when studying coworkers, particularly if a researcher is in a position of power over them (Bogdan and Biklen 1998, 52).

Flying in the face of all that good advice, some researchers, like me, find topics close to home, or close to our hearts--topics so compelling we can't leave them alone--and we try to find ways to use our "insider" status to help, not hinder, insights. Of course, the distinction between insiders and outsiders is not a simple one. (2) When anthropologists are "adopted" by their communities, they may be criticized for "going native" (Tedlock 2000), and warnings against this are probably even more prevalent than are those against studying one's own community (Strauss 1987; Reinharz 1992). To me, the difference seems significant: Those who "go native" begin as outsiders, whereas those of us who study our own communities start as insiders and are "natives" before the research begins--a distinction not widely acknowledged in the literature. Some writers who describe "complete participation" (Kearns 2000) or a "complete member researcher" (Ellis and Bochner 2000) fail to distinguish between researchers who start by studying their own communities and the really quite distinct circumstance of growing deeply involved in a community after research is begun. …

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