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International Journal of
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Power and positionality:
negotiating insider/outsider
status within and across
Sharan B. Merriam , Juanita Johnson-Bailey ,
Ming-Yeh Lee , Youngwha Kee , Gabo Ntseane &
Mazanah Muhamad
Published online: 11 Nov 2010.

To cite this article: Sharan B. Merriam , Juanita Johnson-Bailey , Ming-Yeh
Lee , Youngwha Kee , Gabo Ntseane & Mazanah Muhamad (2001) Power and
positionality: negotiating insider/outsider status within and across cultures,
International Journal of Lifelong Education, 20:5, 405-416
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What does it mean to be an insider or an outsider to a particular group under study? Can women understand men’s experience? Can Whites study Blacks? Straights study gays? The colonized study the colonizer? Early discussions in anthropology and sociology of insider/outsider status assumed that the researcher was either an insider or an outsider and that each status carried with it certain advantages and disadvantages. USA YOUNGWHA KEE Myungii College. International Journal of Lifelong Education ISSN 0260-1370 print/ISSN 1464-519X online http://www. J. USA MING-YEH LEE San Francisco State University. postmodernism. In DOI: 10. Korea GABO NTSEANE University of Botswana MAZANAH MUHAMAD Universiti Putra Malaysia Early discussions of insider/outsider status assumed that the researcher was predominately an insider or an outsider and that each status carried with it certain advantages and disadvantages. and representation proved to be useful concepts for exploring insider/outsider dynamics. Asian graduate students in the US interviewing people from ‘back home’. Critical and feminist theory. Four case studies – a Black woman interviewing other Black women.INT. 405–416 Downloaded by [Computing & Library Services. More recent discussions of insider/outsider status have unveiled the complexity inherent in either status and have acknowledged that the boundaries between the two positions are not all that clearly delineated. power.tandf. participatory and action research are now framing our understanding of insider/ outsider issues. 20. University of Huddersfield] at 03:20 02 December 2014 Power and positionality: negotiating insider/ outsider status within and across cultures SHARAN B. multiculturalism. there is a good bit of slippage and fluidity between these two states. culture and other factors. class. an African professor learning from African businesswomen. gender. 5 (SEPTEMBER–OCTOBER 2001). In the real world of data collection. OF LIFELONG EDUCATION. the reconstruing of insider/outsider status in terms of one’s positionality vis-a` -vis race. NO. Positionality. MERRIAM and JUANITA JOHNSON-BAILEY The University of and a cross-cultural team studying aging in a nonWestern culture – are used as the data base to explore the complexities of researching within and across cultures.1080/02601370110059537 Ó 2001 Taylor & Francis Ltd . More recent discussions have unveiled the complexity inherent in either status and have acknowledged that the boundaries between the two positions are not all that clearly delineated. VOL. offer us better tools for understanding the dynamics of researching within and across one’s culture.

an African woman studied businesswomen in her culture. The more one is like the participants in terms of culture. and while race was never raised as an issue in the interview process. as all researchers have discovered. All of the women in the study possessed an understanding of societal hierarchical forces that shaped and determined their existence. guilt concerning time spent away from the family . situations to be observed. . Herself a Black re-entry woman. The participants and researcher held similar views on race and gender issues. There is a growing body of literature around issues of positionality. . researchers were challenged to examine their assumptions about access. In the following cases. socio-economic class and so on. we first present four short ‘tales from the field’ (Van Maanen 1988) in the voices of the researchers as they negotiate their insider/outsider status. and people to be interviewed. and oftentimes subtle ways. Johnson-Bailey assumed. that unites the black women studied and provides a common ground of understanding and analysis that benefited me as a researcher who shared the same racial background . Johnson-Bailey (1999: 661–662) comments: It is an understanding of race. knowledge construction and representation in qualitative research. a Black woman interviewed other Black women. two Asians in the US interviewed others in the US from their homeland. power relationships. University of Huddersfield] at 03:20 02 December 2014 406 S. in accordance with the literature. and validity of findings assured. but a more complicated scenario emerged with regard to class and colour. the more it is assumed that access will be granted. culture-bound phrases that did not need interpretation. race and the knowledge of living in a race-conscious society was a factor that researcher and participants shared. meanings shared. To anchor this discussion in actual practice.Downloaded by [Computing & Library Services. However. . The purpose of this article is to explore issues of power and positionality when conducting research within one’s own culture and across cultural boundaries. and non-verbalized answers conveyed with hand gestures and facial expressions’ (Johnson-Bailey 1999: 669). and commonality of experience. . there is no substitute for actual fieldwork where these issues are personally encountered in sometimes unanticipated. race. There were several main areas of similarity that linked the participant and researcher narratives: self-esteem. It was a shared issue of womanhood that the respondents and I spoke of in synchrony. This she found to be generally true for race and gender. ‘There were silent understandings. albeit through different means and at different ages. power. gender. . and a cross-cultural team investigated ageing in a non-western culture. A Black woman interviews Black women Johnson-Bailey examined the educational narratives of re-entry Black women. self-doubt. In each case. that there would be an immediate bond of sisterhood ideal for research. Tales from the Field All researchers begin data collection with certain assumptions about the phenomenon being investigated. MERRIAM ET AL. They identified racism as the specific dominating factor.

colourism is examined and debated in Black communities in a less open manner than class. In a particularly anxious moment in the research. or ‘this is the least I can do for a fellow Taiwanese Chinese’. the mutually perceived homogeneity can create a sense of community which can enhance trust and openness throughout the research process. proved difficult. University of Huddersfield] at 03:20 02 December 2014 POWER AND POSITIONALITY 407 Disproportionately more Black women and their children are below or just slightly above the poverty level than White women (Hacker 1992). Youngwha’s status as a doctoral student in the US was perceived as more prestigious than that of her respondents. it was noted in the analysis that the remaining women in the study unknowingly related instances of how they had benefited from colorism. Youngwha Kee from Korea. compared to her. the accounts were not taken at face value as the race and gender stories had been. This intra-racial discrimination among Blacks gives preferential treatment to those who have lighter skin shades. gaining access to non-Christians. Several respondents related growing up poor and when the researcher related similar be peered across or broken down. especially Buddhists who represent Korean traditional religion. Three of the eight women in the study raised the issue in an effort to determine its importance in the researcher’s life. insinuating that the researcher would not have had similar problems because of her lighter skin colour and ‘good hair’. Instead the women responded with. and straight hair texture. Also. perhaps because she was studying their reasons for not participating in adult education. and sexism. Many told her ‘it’s my pleasure to help out another person from the homeland’.Downloaded by [Computing & Library Services. While only three overtly addressed colourism. other factors. While access was assumed to be relatively easy due to a common language and culture. a few were illegal immigrants. thin facial features. Interviewing ‘my own people’: Asians interviewing Asians away from home As part of their graduate work in the United States. . evidentiary of a patriarchal system’ (Johnson-Bailey 1999: 666). Her ‘outsider’ status was further underscored by being a Christian. then issues of color were most certainly occasional landmines in our mutual process of discovery’ (Johnson-Bailey 1999: 668). When interviewing ‘away from home’. Colourism was a complicating consideration in this study. and Ming-Yeh Lee from Taiwan interviewed people from their own culture also living in the US. or ‘Really?’. ‘Well. several refused co-operation and some treated Youngwha as an outsider to their community. you wouldn’t know it to look at you now’. . In the rigidly hierarchical Korean culture. one of the respondents described problems she had had as result of her dark skin. including certain cultural values. and class became an inevitable component in the investigative process. ‘If class was a wall . Thus class is inextricably tied to the situations of Black women and their families. . the respondents were from a lower economic status and had relatively low levels of education. Drs. Ming-Yeh found she had an endless list of potential interviewees referred by acquaintances. Youngwha did not have such easy access to Koreans living in the US. created problems in collecting and interpreting the data. As an issue of concern among Blacks. ‘Colorism is a vestige from slavery much like class is a function of a hierarchical capitalistic society.

MERRIAM ET AL. . She stressed. she faced a validity issue due to her topic of asking about a major life event. gender. MingYeh feels that her years of overseas experience and feminist identity had compromised her insider status. As one woman said. Or was it that when interviewed by a highly educated woman from the native culture. . did they tend to ensure the presentation of a less-distorted picture of their reality? Or did they over emphasize the part that seemed irrelevant to their story just because of the strong impact of the cultural value of saving face? Finally. requiring her participants to provide additional persuasion or instruction to assure her understanding.young people like you have no idea’. Some of her female participants often began their stories of gender discrimination with caveats such as ‘You may not see this. a professor at the University of Botswana and doctoral student in the US. . One middleaged woman told her how she had worked her way through junior college. ‘[the junior college degree] is equal to a doctoral degree in my generation’. educational background and seniority’. Ming-Yeh raises the following question about the education-related data: It happened so frequently that I pondered whether the educational event indeed meant a great deal to them because of the education-focused nature of Chinese culture. Gabo Ntseane.’ or ‘You may not understand but many families in my community .Downloaded by [Computing & Library Services. encountered some unanticipated problems as an insider. Four men told her that since childhood their families had found them the best schools and they were truly ‘the best’. University of Huddersfield] at 03:20 02 December 2014 408 S. African businesswomen instruct the professor In attempting to understand how semi-literate women moved from unemployment and poverty in rural Botswana to owning and managing successful small businesses in urban settings. the emphasis on their own degrees and education would add more weight to their side of the power equation? Ming-Yeh also discovered that in a culture that places greater value on age and being male her status as a young woman created other interesting dynamics. rather than telling their stories. respondents preferred to give Gabo . Gabo had no problem gaining access and establishing rapport with the businesswomen. but in the isolated village I used to live in .’. . like many from third world countries. Further. . Ming-Yeh concludes that she had ‘oversimplified the binary power relationship between the researcher and the researched. . Chinese highly value education and degrees and many chose a life event that was education-related. Or perhaps. Ming-Yeh questioned whether these comments were to demonstrate their expertise based on seniority. One of her older interviewees said many times at different points in the interview: ‘Only people of my age could understand this . Another participant insisted on sharing her current luxury life style in length because ‘this is important for you to tell the Americans about our life now’. she was seen as a confidant for much unrelated information. While Ming-Yeh did not have the same access problems. Being female and of the same culture. ‘switch off the tape because what I am going to say is just woman to woman talk’. At the same time. and overlooked the multi-dimensional power relationship shaped by the prevailing cultural values. with a sense of pride in her tone.

the extension agent. not her. we learned to draw on the strengths of insider and outsider positions. the two men. ‘these cultural meanings are themselves multiple and contradictory . gender and power. and their explanations were for them. whose ‘story’ is being told? ‘Do all these people have to be here?’. This led Gabo to step out of her ‘insider’s boots’ and emphasize that her professors at the university in the US where she was studying knew little about their culture. In fact. collecting data as a cross-cultural team The driver took us to the warehouse cum office where we were scheduled to interview a semi-retired tobacco curer. ‘When you finish writing our book at the university. had to work at in conducting a study of older learners with my ‘insider’ colleague Mazanah. and not on one person’s account. minimizing. Gabo was expected to accept group interviews.. Group interviews have a direct impact on translation and interpretation. As a cross-cultural team. As we pulled out our materials. we hoped. proverbs and non-verbal expressions to explain new business concepts was assumed to convey meaning to the researcher. and three others lingering nearby all sat around the picnic table. ready for us to begin. Upon arrival both interviewees and the local extension agent met us. I am the owner of the business and general manager but other people are responsible for other things in this business’. Often older businesswomen offered suggestions on how she could best talk to the younger ones and what information was important for the ‘book’ about their stories. . During fieldwork the researcher’s power is negotiated. With group interviews. if so. The businesswomen also felt that Gabo’s questions were trivial – as a middle-aged woman in their culture she should already know these things. University of Huddersfield] at 03:20 02 December 2014 POWER AND POSITIONALITY 409 advice on how to survive in their context. Similarly. Gabo’s academic status was not a threat to the women who had comparatively low levels of education. the credibility of the information rests on how many people approve of it with convincing comments. the driver. But as Kondo (1990: 300–301) observes. Mazanah could . as the outsider. a tobacco farmer. her being at the university was perceived as less rewarding than being a small businesswoman. my becoming comfortable with the collective. those younger than the researcher expected her to spend more time giving them advice on unrelated topics. the researcher has to determine if responses from other people are part of the interview. In Botswana. As an insider. ‘Do all these people have to be here?’ Indeed. Yet another cultural norm influenced the data collection. . the use of cultural understandings through language. As one woman put it. group-oriented culture of Malaysia was something that I. Age was also a factor. I whispered to Mazanah.Downloaded by [Computing & Library Services. Being an insider was not without problems because of the interlocking nature of culture. and later. some of the drawbacks. ‘I can not answer questions for the other person when they are here. As one sewing businesswoman stressed. They cannot be understood without reference to historical. and what information she should have to sustain her family. not given. political and economic discourses’. As an insider then. For example. you should come back here to learn how to manage a business’.

her position as an insider was most clear when interviewing Malay Moslem women. her insider status was decentralized even more. It requires maintaining tension and distinctness among the standpoints’. depending on the interviewee. Further. For example. language. Mazanah was something of an ‘outsiderwithin’. Crossing experientially and cognitively different standpoints creates this lens. both Mazanah and I were outsiders dependent on our translators for understanding. In another interview. You know’. especially as it plays out in a highly patriarchal. utilize her knowledge of this status and hierarchy-conscious culture to negotiate access through village elders. we sought the assistance of the ‘true’ insider in the interview. for these groups (which together constitute 40% of the population of Malaysia). in a colloquial sense. In our research. Islamic culture was another factor that affected Mazanah’s position. To assist this process. They go on to point out that ‘in insider/outsider pairings. . I learned to take a more active role in asking questions in English. The parties. was wanting to know. Mazanah was afforded a general insider status. who was assumed to ‘already know’. Since Mazanah is Malaysian and Moslem. she is in a peripheral position compared to the ‘true’ insiders who had remained. in our interview with an elder statesman and devout Muslim. but they had to help explain it so that I. keep each other honest – or at least more conscious than a single party working alone may easily achieve’ (1996: 62). so that it was clear that I. Because she had left her village and moved to the city. getting the last child married was mentioned as an important task yet to be accomplished. her education and social class rendered her more or less of an insider.Downloaded by [Computing & Library Services. work supervisors. This was true even when we went to the village where she was born and raised. At the same time. Being Malaysian and a Moslem. Mazanah’s follow-up question of ‘Why?’ elicited a ‘You’re one of us. However. Mazanah’s efforts to have him elaborate on why he felt contributing to society was his most important task at this stage of life was met with a look of disbelief and the comment. would understand. By virtue of her Western education and university affiliation. it seemed ludicrous to them to have to explain to her what they meant. and understood much of the customs and religions of Chinese and Indian Malays. a foreigner to their culture. whether or not respondents knew any English. my outsider status rendered me something of a curiosity and some agreed to be interviewed so they could have a close encounter with a ‘white lady’. Mazanah was more of an insider than at other times. and revered family members. and cognitive frames are made explicit in the insider’s questions and vice-versa. My outsider status became an asset with regard to eliciting fuller explanations than would have been given to Mazanah. the insider. In functioning as an insider/outsider team in conducting our study of older adulthood in Malaysia. a position Collins (1986) has identified with regard to African-American academic women who make creative use of their marginality as intellectuals to study African-American women. the outsider’s assumptions. And although she had the Malay culture in common with other Malaysians. Gender. rather than Mazanah. our interaction created what Bartunek and Lewis (1996: 61) call ‘a kind of marginal lens through which to examine subject matter. but unless one actually lives in a particular village or town. MERRIAM ET AL. In some situations. At these junctures Mazanah would point out that of course she knew. University of Huddersfield] at 03:20 02 December 2014 410 S. For the few interviews with elderly Indian Malays that were conducted in Tamil. ‘Why do you ask this? You should know!’. one is somewhat of an outsider to the community.

Positionality The notion of positionality rests on the assumption that a culture is more than a monolithic entity to which one belongs or not. insiders have been accused of being inherently biased. More importantly. religion. interpreter. these positions can shift: ‘The loci along which we are aligned with or set apart from those whom we study are multiple and in flux. and nephew. The most amusing example of this was an interview with an elderly Indian barber with the usual entourage of contact person. The five of us were squeezed into a corner of his small shop while less than five feet away his assistant cut hair.POWER AND POSITIONALITY 411 Downloaded by [Computing & Library Services. the ability to ask more meaningful questions and read non-verbal cues. and most importantly. in exploring the relationship between her Chicana cultural background and her relationships with both the Latino community of study. my ‘positionality’ as an uncomfortable outsider shifted. A number of writers have addressed this notion of positionality vis-a` -vis culture. 25). Banks (1998: 5). Factors . Further. Recently. we can be insiders and outsiders to a particular community of research participants at many different levels and at different times’. points out that we are all members of cultural communities where the interpretation of our life experiences ‘is mediated by the interaction of a complex set of status variables. and being seen as non-aligned with subgroups thus often getting more information. Positionality is thus determined by where one stands in relation to ‘the other’. and chatted with customers. for example. arguing from a multicultural perspective. power. To say that one is an insider raises the question of ‘What is it that an insider is insider of?’ Aguilar notes that ‘a more realistic model of the situation would view the local ethnographer as relatively inside (or outside) with respect to a multiplicity of social and cultural characteristics of a heterogeneous population’ (p. and region’. and representation – are relevant for framing the insider/outsider debate. and the dominant English-speaking community of power and authority. age. Three themes in particular – positionality. Villenas (1996: 722). as the above scenarios demonstrate. such as gender. The insider’s strengths become the outsider’s weaknesses and vice-versa. I began to expect others to be present and activities to be going on simultaneously with the interview. The outsider’s advantage lies in curiosity with the unfamiliar. social class. shaved. one’s position vis-a` -vis the culture can change. power. group-oriented nature of Malaysian culture characterized nearly all of our interviewing sessions. postmodernism and multiculturalism offer us a deeper understanding of our experiences in the field. For example. ‘All cultures (including subcultures) are characterized by internal variation’ (Aguilar 1981: 25). political affiliation. University of Huddersfield] at 03:20 02 December 2014 Positionality. these characterizations of insider/outsider are far too simple. Recent discussions drawing from critical and feminist theory. realizes that ‘as researchers. the ability to ask taboo questions. authentic understanding of the culture under study. be able to project a more truthful. as the collective. and representation It has commonly been assumed that being an insider means easy access. On the other hand. and too close to the culture to be curious enough to raise provocative questions. However.

and knowledge of his or her indigenous community’ and ‘who can speak with authority about it’ (p. Finally. In this typology there are four possible positions. however. Once perceived as a regular client who was ‘known’ to them. Both discovered. racial. The external-insider both rejects much of his or her indigenous community and endorses those of another culture to become an ‘ ‘‘adopted’’ insider’. calling upon her US professors who. this last position in the typology characterized my participation in the study of ageing and learning in a non-western culture. she should have known what they knew. The indigenous-outsider. From their perspective. beliefs. 7). gender. Johnson-Bailey as a Black woman interviewing other re-entry Black women would be considered an indigenous-insider. she told them. a long-time resident of the US but still also Taiwanese Chinese is the best example of this category. University of Huddersfield] at 03:20 02 December 2014 412 S. the external-outsider is ‘socialized within a community different from the one in which he or she is doing research’ (p. would also fall into this category. points out that as an African-American woman researcher she was an insider studying African-American women. although Youngwha. however. Gabo. including research activities where these inequities are framed in terms of powerbased relationships between the researcher and the researched. social class and education rendered them less of an insider than they had anticipated. Johnson-Bailey (1999). creating tensions in the interview process. that age. The indigenous-insider is one ‘who endorses the unique values. ‘has experienced high levels of cultural assimilation into an outsider or oppositional culture’ but remains connected with his or her indigenous community. In the mid- . gender. perspectives. Banks (1998: 7) has proposed a typology based on ‘the assumption that in a diverse pluralistic society . sexual orientation. Similarly with Mazanah when interviewing Malay Moslem women. Ming-Yeh Lee. they permitted an interview. Youngwha shifted her position to more of an insider by becoming a regular customer at Korean restaurants and shops of several potential interviewees. Gabo was viewed as an outsider to whom it was laborious to explain the seemingly obvious. Other ‘positionalities’ are possible when focusing on insider/outsider variations. individuals are socialized within ethnic. To get the needed information she had to assume an outsider status. such as education. class.Downloaded by [Computing & Library Services. behaviors. . As a frequent visitor and short-term resident of Malaysia. by virtue of having studied for a doctoral degree outside of their own culture. MERRIAM ET AL. 8). Gabo assumed since she was a middle-aged woman from the local community that the businesswomen would see her as an insider. and Mazanah. for example. differences in social class and colour (whether she was lighter or darker than her interviewees) made her less of an insider. knew nothing of their culture. . a second position. or sheer duration of contacts may at different times outweigh the cultural identity we associate with insider or outsider status’ (Narayan 1993: 671–672). race. and cultural communities’ and share knowledge ‘that can differ in significant ways from those individuals socialized within other microcultures. But as a university woman. Ming-yeh and Youngwha considered themselves insiders interviewing people from their respective cultures. This is of course true whether one is studying one’s own or another culture. Power There is a growing literature on the inequities present in all phases of social life.

for example. Likewise. teacher research is ‘based on the notion that knowledge for teaching is ‘‘inside/outside. University of Huddersfield] at 03:20 02 December 2014 POWER AND POSITIONALITY 413 seventies anthropology itself went through a crisis when it began to realize how exploitive it could be. Her position as a highly educated. Cotterill 1992. and of course what information was shared. Participants are colleagues in the research process. More recent analyses have exposed the power-based dynamics inherent in any and all research and have suggested that power is something to not only be aware of. power is a factor and Mazanah and I were conscious of the balance between my greater methodological knowledge and her greater cultural knowledge. Both verbally and non-verbally. who else would be present. people we interviewed and often others present would express their amusement or disbelief at our questions. feminist scholars are concerned with foregrounding women’s experiences. and the culturally embedded interview context constructed by both. with participants having an equal relationship with the researcher. cites Galtung’s concept of scientific colonialism as ‘the idea of unlimited right of access to data of any kind. In any team research. but to negotiate in the research process. or because they were being interviewed by a highly educated woman from the native culture. Ming-Yeh positions the power dynamics of the interview process within the cultural context. Lewis (1973: 584). and seniority – the same elements that structure Taiwanese Chinese society. with the research experience being empowering. Ming-Yeh wondered whether the frequent reference to education-related events was due to these events being truly significant in their lives. emphasizing their own education would accrue more weight to their side of the power equation. university-affiliated woman carried little weight . Gabo also had to subtly negotiate the power dynamics of her situation. and with a more interactive relationship with the reader/consumer of the research (Lather 1991. For example. As noted earlier. the interviewees. the sister of one interviewee sat next to our respondent but with her back to us. Reinharz 1992). On the other hand. are subject to the influences of gender. educational background. Her strong feminist orientation also made for a complex interaction with her more traditional respondents (Hsiung 1996). more experienced. thus deserving of more status than the younger researcher. she observes. The power of our position as ‘professors’ at the university facilitated connecting with gatekeepers to gain access to participants.’’ a juxtaposition intended to call attention to teachers as knowers and to the complex and distinctly nonlinear relationships of knowledge and teaching as they are embedded in the contexts and relations of power’ (CochranSmith and Lytle 1993: xi). Age was another factor in that interviewees would position themselves as older. equally in control of the research (Merriam and Simpson 2000). those we interviewed subtly negotiated our power as researchers by determining where and when the interview was held. The power relationships embedded in the interview context. Ming-Yeh also observed how the power dynamics of the interview process are negotiated by the interviewer. In this model the researcher holds all the power. Participatory action research also focuses on the political empowerment of people through participation in knowledge construction. the researched are colonized and oppressed (Sanjek 1993).Downloaded by [Computing & Library Services. In particular. punctuating our interview with loud chuckling and asides to her sister about the silliness of the questions. just as the colonial power felt it had the right to lay its hand on any product of commercial value in the territory’.

Nevertheless. The case descriptions presented earlier in this article all reveal the researchers’ struggles with ‘accurately’ interpreting their participants’ perspectives. Some of the assumptions underlying earlier. From a postmodern perspective. Constructivist and postmodern notions of truth and reality make for a much more complex understanding of the ‘truths’ insiders and outsiders uncover. Gabo struggled with understanding the African proverbs as applied to business concepts.414 S. JohnsonBailey (1999: 666–667) speaks of the ‘code’ Blacks use to discuss colour discrimination. if truth is possible. there is either no truth. Marcie let me know several times that my light skin stood between us as a source of tension by casually referring to the snobbishness of the ‘yella’ girls ‘like me’ at her exclusive all-women’s school. Representation Every researcher struggles with representing the ‘truth’ of their findings as well as allowing the ‘voices’ of their participants to be heard. In other words. . . when we were engaged in the obligatory pre-interview chitchat. and render a more objective portrayal of the reality under study. for example: Before my interview with Marcie. or truth for a particular culture. she inquired about my social background and my sorority affiliations. and how these stories could be helpful in their efforts for greater power in this highly patriarchal society.. I knew immediately that this was part of ‘our community’s code’ for ascertaining where color stood in our lives. Constructivists argue that knowledge/reality/truth is constructed by individuals and by human communities. it was thought. The outsider though. had better access to ‘the introspective meanings of experience within a status or a group’ (Merton 1978: 41). The insider. Ming-Yeh and Youngwha needed to consider how Asian cultural values were shaping the responses to their questions. Conflicting interests characterized some of the data collection. MERRIAM ET AL. ‘when it comes to truth. I assured her that this was not important to me and that I considered the idea of colorism as akin to having a slave mentality . She had to draw upon her personal skills and understanding of the Botswana family and group oriented culture to establish rapport with the women. could see things not evident to insiders. All claims to Truth are seen as arbitrary acts of power that include and exclude individuals and groups’ (Cunningham and Fitzgerald 1996: 49). asking what it meant to ‘successfully’ age was quickly dropped as . Mazanah and I had trouble conveying what we wanted to know because the topic of our research – ageing and learning – and the research methodology were foreign to our participants. it is relative . more static understandings of insider/outsider statuses were based on positivist notions of reality. how she would tell their stories. For example. . their interests were centred on what she would do with the information. . University of Huddersfield] at 03:20 02 December 2014 with the street-wise businesswomen of her study.. Downloaded by [Computing & Library Services. while postmodernists assert that there is no single truth or reality independent of the knower. Her doing research was unimportant to the women. She identified my sorority as having a preference for light-skinned women. many truths.

it will be necessary to approach the study . Tamil. Chinese. cultural nuances translate awkwardly. But as with most research. yet at the same time it is the translation of another text.through a multiplicity of perspectives as these are influenced by different interests and needs. ‘If anthropology is to adapt to the realities of the modern world. the reality of data collection and analysis involves compromise and negotiation. University of Huddersfield] at 03:20 02 December 2014 POWER AND POSITIONALITY 415 being incomprehensible in a culture that doesn’t think about ageing the way Western research has defined it. Ming-Yeh. During the interview itself. Conclusion What an insider ‘sees’ and ‘understands’ will be different from. and our contact person. Mazanah and I were further encumbered by the fact that the older generation of Malaysians has had little formal education and the Indian and Chinese Malay elderly more often than not have lived within their ethnic communities speaking their native language. Idioms. but as valid as what an outsider understands. The views of both insider and outsider must be accepted as legitimate attempts to understand the nature of culture’. metaphors. English). Mazanah translated into Malay. in addition to asking multiple variations of the same question. on the other as a growing heap of texts. our only option. we felt lent some measure of validity to the translations. and the nephew of our participant translated into the man’s Tamil language of south India. His answers were in Tamil. if at all. As Lewis (1973: 590) recognized more than 25 years ago. and Youngwha all interviewed in their native languages. In one interview with an 83-year-old Indian Malay who had spent his work life on a rubber plantation. would help clarify in Tamil. who was a role model for them for ageing. and then because each sign and each phrase is a translation of another sign. Of course we worried about whether the translation back to us of respondents’ answers had captured their meanings. That common patterns did emerge across interviews conducted in four different languages (Malay. each slightly different from the one that came before it. . We would argue that drawing from contemporary perspectives on insider/outsider status. not only will the researcher . . the world is presented to us as a collection of similarities. Translations of translations of translations. was to trust our interpreters. the findings from an analysis of these interviews (most of which were translated into English) were presented in English. No text can be completely original because language itself in its essence is already a translation first from a non-verbal world. that in the course of a study. and what learning activities they engaged in (Merriam and Mazanah 2000). the interview began with my asking a question in English. Paz (1992: 154) captures how a postmodern view of knowledge construction is underscored in the many truths in iterations of the same text: On the one hand. another phrase. trained bilingual or trilingual translators would have accompanied us on these interviews.Downloaded by [Computing & Library Services. and almost always need to be explained. Although Gabo. Ideally. Understanding and fairly representing participants’ perspectives is further complicated when language translation is involved. translated into Malay and then into English. We had similar problems with questions about what they valued most at this stage in life. Each text is unique. Occasionally the nephew’s son.

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