Academic journal article Journal of Rural Social Sciences

Insider, Outsider, or Somewhere in Between: The Impact of Researchers' Identities on the Community-Based Research Process*

Academic journal article Journal of Rural Social Sciences

Insider, Outsider, or Somewhere in Between: The Impact of Researchers' Identities on the Community-Based Research Process*

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT

Sociologists and qualitative researchers have engaged in an extensive debate about the merits of researchers being "outsiders" or "insiders" to the communities they study. Recent research has attempted to move beyond a strict outsider/insider dichotomy to emphasize the relative nature of researchers' identities, depending on the specific research context. Using the Institute for Community-Based Research in Mississippi as a case study, this article presents findings from qualitative interviews with academic researchers and community partners involved in four different research projects. These findings examine how researchers and community partners characterize researchers' identities and the impact that those identities have on the community-based research outcomes in different research contexts. The article also includes recommendations for researchers who are working in communities where they are likely to be considered outsiders.

Community-based researchers often enter communities as "outsiders," whether by virtue of their affiliation with a university, level of formal education, research expertise, race, socioeconomic status, or other characteristics. Many of these traits - such as level of formal education and access to resources - also connote a more privileged and powerful status in the larger society (Wallerstein and Duran 2008), such that community-based researchers approach communities not simply as outsiders but as privileged ones.

Simultaneously, a primary goal of community-based research is to democratize research (Stringer 2007) - to dissolve the traditional boundaries between "researcher" and "subject" and to involve community members fully in the research process. As the boundaries between academic researchers, hereafter called "researchers," and community members are broken down, the issue of trust emerges as critical to creating and sustaining successful partnerships. Building relationships of trust between researchers and community partners often means reaching across racial, ethnic, and economic divides, among others. Thus, as a first step, it is important for researchers to reflect upon the identities (Mercer 2007) and "status sets" (Merton 1972) that they bring to a research project, the ways in which those identities may affect the development of partnerships with community members, and how they may affect the research process and its outcomes (Wallerstein and Duran 2008).

Recent research has attempted to move beyond a strict outsider/insider dichotomy to emphasize the relative nature of researchers' identities and social positions, depending on the specific research context. Using four projects sponsored by the Institute for Community-Based Research in Mississippi as case studies, this article presents findings from qualitative interviews with researchers and community partners involved in those four projects. This analysis examines how researchers and community partners characterize researchers' status as insiders, outsiders, or some of both; and the impact that those statuses have on communitybased research outcomes in different research contexts.

INSIDERS, OUTSIDERS, AND THE SPACE BETWEEN

Sociologists and qualitative researchers have engaged in an extensive debate about the benefits and drawbacks of researchers being from the communities they study. Robert Merton (1972), for example, summarized two opposing views as the Outsider Doctrine and the Insider Doctrine. The Outsider Doctrine values researchers who are not from the communities they study as neutral, detached observers. Similar to Simmel's (1950:405) portrayal of the stranger, outsider researchers are valued for their objectivity, "which permits the stranger to experience and treat even his close relationships as though from a bird's-eye view." The Outsider Doctrine challenges the ability of insider researchers to analyze clearly that of which they are a part. The Insider Doctrine, on the other hand, holds that outsider researchers will never truly understand a culture or situation if they have not experienced it. …

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