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MODULE 3: PROCESSES OF EDUCATIONAL RESEARCH

Title: The ins and outs of insider and outsider research

Introduction

In this essay I wish to explore the question of insider and outsider research. This is an issue that falls broadly under the area of researcher positionality, that is to say, the relationship of the researcher to his/her field of research and to those whose experiences are the focus of the research.

About me Researcher, position thyself Although I accept the argument that research interests are biographicallylocated (Hammersley 2005), my own are largely defined by my professional identity as an educational technologist and academic staff developer. This does not exempt me from the need to reflect on my positionality and to locate myself in relation to my field of research and my research participants.

A few words about my professional situation will set the scene. I am currently a Principal Lecturer in Learning Technology at medium-size post-'92 university in the UK and am interested in a range of technologies used to support learning, teaching and assessment. One area of technology of particular interest to me
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are social media and the possibilities of using social media tools and environments in more formal educational settings. As part of my professional reflection on the use of social media, I talk to students - postgraduate but mainly undergraduate - about their uses of technologies, including technologies (e.g. Facebook, mobile phones) used in social domains. In so doing, I am aware that I am entering the private  - or semi-private in the sense of cordoned off from the gaze of academics - space of their use of personal technologies and services. I'm asking questions about what tools they use and what they use them for and am therefore asking them to disclose information about practices in their social lives.

I'm aware sometimes of the distance between myself and the students I meet. I spent my undergraduate years in the early- to mid-1980s in a pre-'92 university in the north of England. It was an era of elite higher education with around 6% of 18-21 year-olds going to university (Foskett in Molesworth et al. 2011: 25), of free tuition and, if you came, as I did, from a single-parent family of a relatively low income level, full maintenance grants. I studied modern languages and was one of a handful of males in a cohort that mainly comprised of young women. Does it go without saying that, in 1983, the university was predominantly white and middle-class? I feel I need to state this as this is one of the areas of difference I notice as I meet the students at my university.

The styles of being an undergraduate in the early- to mid-'80s were very different. The hard-drinking members of sports societies were a feature - then
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as now - but my memories were of a strong student subculture of post-punk 'alternative' music: listening to John Peel sessions on Radio 1, reading the NME, buying music from bands signed to indie labels (e.g. The Smiths), adopting a charity-shop chic dress code. As far as I can remember, none of my fellow students had part-time jobs during term-time (although, a rarity amongst my peers, I had a Christmas and summer job at Our Price Records) and none lived at their parental address during the academic year. It wasn't Brideshead Revisited, but it was an environment of relative privilege free from many of the pressures and constraints - mostly financial - experienced by students today. I can recognise my 18-year old self only sporadically in the students I see, although mainly from our Art and Design faculty where a middle-class, white 'indie' subculture holds sway.

Am I now too remote to claim to be an ‘insider’ to the technology-mediated communications of today’s undergraduates? Or is my embrace of digital tools and services (iPhones, iPads and Kindles; Facebook and Twitter) enough to let me still qualify and avoid ‘outsider status? Should I, in fact, worry at all about this? Even if I were to research the practices of academic staff would I still be an insider’? Or would my location in a central department responsible for, amongst other things the learning, teaching and assessment strategy, create a perception of my outsider status?

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Key questions in insider/outsider research You're not from round here are you? As a relative newcomer to educational research - someone ‘not from round here’ - I’m going to ask some basic - perhaps simplistic - questions. I’m positioning myself self-consciously here as an ‘outsider’ and, therefore as a ‘phenomenological stranger’ with license to ask ‘dumb questions’ (Sparkes 1994). One particular question that troubles me as I start to think about the types of practices and experiences I would like to research relates to the most appropriate position from which I might conduct my research. What advantages do ‘insider’ and ‘outsider’ positions hold respectively? Or, to articulate the question more crudely, is ‘insider’ research better than ‘outsider’ research’? I was relieved to discover, early in my reading of some of the research, that this had been a question research ‘insiders’, like Alison Griffith (1998), have asked too: ‘Does the biography of the researcher – their race, class, gender, sexual identity and history – privilege or disqualify their knowledge claims? (Griffith 1998: 361).

When researching in the area of digital technologies and digital literacies is being an ‘insider’ more likely to enable the complexities of new and emerging technology-enabled practices to be fully understood? Do I need to be a blogger, a Facebook user or a Kindle owner to properly understand the different significance of these technologies in the lives of their users?

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Later in this essay I would like to question the usefulness of such terms as ‘insider’ and ‘outsider’ in describing researcher positionality. Is the spatial metaphor implicit in the terms ‘insider’ and ‘outsider’ - and associated notions of proximity and distance, boundaries and thresholds - a meaningful way of capturing the complex and often dynamic relationship between the researcher and his/her chosen field of study?

Defining insider and outsider research It's a black/gay/woman/youth thing; you wouldn't understand. I want to begin my exploration of what it means to conduct insider and outsider research by going back to some ‘core’ or ‘source’ texts that define the terms and articulate some of the arguments surrounding them. As part of my literature search, I discovered three particularly thought-provoking articles, all by US-based sociologists from the 1970s, that are frequently referenced in more recent scholarship. One is a position paper on the the insider/outsider binary (Merton 1972) and the other two are practitioner accounts of the complexities of doing insider research (Styles 1979; Zinn 1979).

Robert Merton position paper on the insider/outsider binary

An early and much-cited definition of insiders and outsiders comes from ‘Insiders and Outsiders: A Chapter in the Sociology of Knowledge’, an article
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by American sociologist Robert Merton published in 1972 from a paper delivered in 1969. Merton defines insiders and outsiders thus: Insiders are the members of specified groups and collectivities or occupants of specified social statuses; Outsiders are the nonmembers. (1972: 21)

He argues that what he calls insider and outsider ‘doctrines’ are defined by the conviction that ‘one has a monopolistic or privileged access to knowledge, or is wholly excluded from it, by virtue of one’s group membership or social position’ (1972: 15). His article is critical of these doctrines, describing them as leading to a ‘balkanization’ of knowledge of the social world subdivided into ‘separate baronies kept exclusively in the hands of Insiders bearing their credentials in the shape of one or another ascribed status’ (1972: 13).

Merton is critical of the outsider doctrine, which, he claims, is the traditional perspective of objectivist sociology, and focuses on ‘the corrupting influence of group loyalties on human understanding’ to which the outsider does not fall prey (1972: 30). However, Merton is far more critical of the insider claim of privilege because it limits the work of the sociologist to those groups of which he/she is a member. The insider doctrine has a particular epistemological perspective: outsiders cannot understand or represent particular experiences as they come from backgrounds so different as to preclude this. They also bring with them baggage and cultural frameworks that inhibit proper understanding. As Merton notes, this is a new criteria for evaluating knowledge based in the ‘credentialism of ascribed status in which understanding becomes
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accessible only to the fortunate few or many who are to the manner born’ (1972:14).

Merton recognizes the different kinds of knowledge available to insiders and outsiders and attempts to articulates  the limits and possibilities for knowledge constructed from those perspectives. His claim is that neither position is adequate for a social science claiming to investigate and understand the social world in its complexity. His preferred option is a the development of a ‘theoretical and technical competence [...] which transcends one’s status as Insider or Outsider’ (1972: 41). Merton’s solution to the polarisation or balkanisation of knowledge that results from both insider and outsider doctrines, therefore, is the (quasi-Positivist?) ambition of stepping beyond the insider/outsider binary - and the socially-situated subjectivities of individual researchers - through intellectual discipline and methodological rigour.

Zinn on the complexities of insider research into minority communities Only Jewish people can tell Jewish jokes. Maxine Baca Zinn’s article, ‘Field Research in Minority Communities’ (1979), published seven years later continues Merton’s debate but from the perspective of a sociologist whose life experience includes participation - as a Chicana or US citizen of Mexican descent - in the Latino minority groups she studies. The case Zinn makes for insider research is both epistemological - she is arguing that insiders have insights into research communities that outsiders
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do not - but also ethical insofar as she views the presence and activities of research outsiders as exploitative and, in some cases, disrespectful. The relationship between researchers and the researched is particularly sensitive when those researched perceive themselves to be part of excluded, marginalised or disempowered groups for whom the intervention of the researcher is seen to be an intrusion. Zinn’s ethical argument will find an echo two decades later in the ‘nothing about us without us’ principle of some disability rights researchers (Charlton 1998).

Zinn reframes the insider/outsider debate in terms of the asymmetrical power relations that characterise most, if not all, social research. Zinn claims that ‘relations of inequality [...] implicate both Insider and Outsider in the process of exploitation’ (1979: 211). For example, it is the researcher who is named in publications while those researched are mostly anonymous, their voices conflated in categories and themes. The researcher has control and authority over academic discourse produced as s/he sets the agenda, defines the research problem, identifies the questions to be answered, and decides whose voices are heard and whose to be marginalised. Zinn claims that Merton’s article must be situated in a history of social science that has distorted, neglected and exploited the knowledge held by minority groups although, in fairness, Merton describes this in some detail in his article. Zinn is particularly critical of Merton’s appeal to insiders and outsiders to unite which, she claims   ‘ignores the larger context of race relations within which research is really carried out’ (Zinn 1979: 211).
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Merton conceives of the researcher as either inside or outside ascribed social statuses and his discussion only considers researchers’ self-definition of their status as either insiders or outsiders. Zinn, on the other hand, argues that is the researched group who are best qualified to define whether a researcher is an insider or an outsider. It is the researched, therefore, who ascribe insider or outsider status to the researcher; insider status cannot be conferred on the researcher by self-description alone. In researching, for example, amateur runners I might describe myself as an insider insofar as I run two or three times a week. This self-ascribed insider status may be accepted by some runners, such as those I run with on a Sunday morning as part of a loose community connected to a local sportswear shop. However, the fact that I’ve never run a marathon or participated in some of the major local events may well debar me from being accepted as an insider by other runners. Indeed, attempts to present myself as an insider may well backfire and lack credibility in the eyes of those whose confidence I am attempting to gain. My self-definition as insider or, for that matter, outsider, is not necessarily shared by those whose experiences I wish to research.

Moreover, Zinn argues that the perception minority groups have of research activity is sometimes distrustful and even antagonistic (Zinn 1979: 210). Zinn claims her status as a Chicana enabled her to be perceived by her research participants as an insider and gave her a different kind of access to the Mexican-American community studied than would have been available to a
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researcher who was considered to be an outsider. Moreover, Zinn argues against Merton - for a degree of ‘privileged access’ (Merton 1972: 11) or epistemological privilege in being an insider: People in minority communities have developed so many selfprotective behaviors for dealing with outsiders, that it is quite reasonable to question whether many real behaviors and meanings are accessible to outsiders of another color. The issue here, again, is not only that minority people would consciously mislead white researchers (though they may well do so), but also that those researchers often lack insight into the nuances of behavior. (1979: 212)

Zinn’s claims as to the superiority of insider research appear to informed by a crypto-realist epistemology that assumes a unitary truth about those researched and their social practices in which insiders are always the best placed to ‘discover’? After all, who better to collect data and construct knowledge than a researcher, a Chicana, who looks like the researched, the Chicano community?

However, Zinn is also aware that she is an outsider at points in the research process too: for example, on entering the field site (Zinn 1979: 214) or in her interactions with older Latino women who saw her as lacking the skills of a ‘proper Mexican woman’ and therefore perceived her as not one of them (Zinn: 1979: 214). At points in her research Zinn had to adjust her behaviour - to perform the role of an older generation Mexican woman - in order to conform to her research participants’ expectations of a Chicana. What interests me about Zinn’s account of her insider status is how potentially volatile it is; her
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‘insiderness’ is not fixed but shifts to ‘outsiderness’ according to those with whom she interacts and the social context of the encounter. Although Zinn was a Chicana - and, therefore, an insider to the group of Mexican Americans she was researching - she was also a young, middle-class academic which placed her outside of that group too on the grounds of age, class and the fact of her pursuing an academic career. The Mexican-American experience is not a homogenous, monolithic one; although Zinn gains access to and is able to develop a rapport of trust with her participants by dint of her ethnic and cultural identity, it is clear that other aspects of her identity - as a young female academic pursuing a career - make her an outsider. David Bridges (2001), in his article on ‘The Ethics of Outsider Research’ reminds us that the more we refine descriptions of a particular group being researched - for example, black, female undergraduates - the greater the possibility that the researchers will be simultaneously insiders (on the grounds of being female undergraduates) and outsiders (on the grounds of being white rather than black). It is interesting to note that although Zinn acknowledges the instability of insider identity due to the heterogeneous nature of the community being studied - not all Chicana women have the same experiences and expectations - she nonetheless asserts privileged access to understanding this group based on shared Chicana identity.

The experience of a much less homogenous research community than initially envisaged has been encountered by other researchers. In their description, as, respectively, Korean-American and Chinese-British researchers, of their
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research into the experiences of Chinese-British young people, Song and Parker (1995) discuss a similarly complex and evolving set of research relationships. They claim that, in spite of what initially appeared to be a significant degree of insider status in relation to respondents, their levels of proximity were in practice ‘not a priori readily apparent or defined’ (1995: 243). As they describe it: Dichotomised rubrics such as ‘black/white’ or ‘insider/outsider’ are inadequate to capture the complex and multi-faceted experiences of some researchers such as ourselves, who find themselves neither total ‘insiders’ nor ‘outsiders’ in relation to the individuals they interview. (Song and Parker 1995: 243)

Perhaps just as significant is the fact that even insiders become outsiders by engaging in research activities into their group. Razavi (1992) claims that ‘[b]y virtue of being a researcher, one is rarely a complete insider anywhere’ (Razavi 1992:161). There is an echo of this idea in Todorov’s (1988) argument that the ethnographer is always in exile from his or her community however much an insider s/he considers him/herself to be. The activities of observing, asking questions, taking notes all all place themselves between the research insider and his/her participants. Two other examples further illustrate this point. First, Gary Armstrong’s (1993) experiences of researching Sheffield United fans led him to discover a disjunction between his belief in his own insiderness grounded in his Sheffield roots and love of football and the perceptions of his research participants: Because I was often out and about with the ‘core’ Blades confusion over my true role could arise: one would joke when I was talking to him:
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‘Are we talking Blade to Blade? Which head have you got on, your journalist’s or your hooligan’s?’ (Armstrong 1993: 30)

Second, Paul Hodkinson’s research into goth youth culture is an interesting case study of dual identity and the journey from what he terms insider to insider researcher. Because of the interesting points made, I’m going to cite Hodkinson’s itinerary at length: I had become interested in the goth scene as a 16 year old in search of belonging, distinctiveness and status, and over the years that followed it had maintained a central role in my sense of self, cultural tastes, consumer habits and social patterns. [...] Both in my own perceptions and in those of other goths, I clearly occupied the position of insider in respect of an element of identity central to the lifestyles of most respondents and at the heart of the concerns of my research project. [...] At the same time, like other insider researchers, from the moment I had finalised my doctoral research topic, this relatively clear position as subcultural insider operated alongside the equally important role of ethnographer. I was now observing, interviewing and analysing the goth scene and its participants in relation to continual reading, writing and academic discussion. Importantly, while the nature and character of my personal involvement inevitably were affected by such academic activities, I continued to participate as an enthusiast as well as a researcher, something made easier, perhaps, by the aforementioned compatibility between the values of the goth scene and those of education and academia. My viewpoint was widened and focused in particular ways according to my academic background and aspirations, but without compromising my level of involvement. In other words, I made the transition from insider to insider researcher. (2005: 135-6)

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‘Being native/‘going native’: Styles on researching bathhouses

Another often-quoted research article from the same year as Zinn’s article is Joseph Styles’s ‘Outsider/insider: researching Gay Baths’. Styles describes his research into gay men’s bathhouses in the mid 1970s. His initial choice of field site came from a combination of convenience, a commitment to qualitative field research and his being a gay man. He writes that: I believed that I, as an insider, was in a position to conduct research that would be close to the experience of gay men themselves. [...] I thought my gayness an asset in some ways. I would have easy access to the baths; I was, naturally, sympathetic toward gay people; and I was not disturbed about being around gay sexual activity.” (Styles 1979: 136)

For Styles, being an insider is associated with positive virtues: easy access to field site, empathy with participants and a non-judgemental attitude to the practices observed. In this respect he joins Zinn in her advocacy of the insider perspective. Styles began his research by adopting the ‘watchqueen’ role or kind of non-participant observer. Styles therefore positioned himself as a ‘nonparticipating insider’ (Styles 1979: 137). However, Styles’ research encountered a range of difficulties: the crowded state of the bathhouses on weekends made observation of activity and the description of the physical division of space difficult. Moreover, approaching respondents with a view to interviewing them was perceived to indicate sexual interest and therefore impeded data collection.

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Although Styles positioned himself as an insider it became clear to him that he was a novice to the expectations and practices of the field site which he learned about through a process of trial and error: His sense of the superficiality of the data he was collecting as well as his growing sexual arousal  - an exemplification of Hammersley’s later argument that all researchers are ‘embodied agents whose work arises out of their biographies and engages their emotions and identities’ (Hammersley 2005: 148) - led to decision to ‘plunge fully into the sex life of the baths’ (Styles 1979: 142)

It is only when Styles becomes a full participant in the sexual practices of the baths that he begins to fully understand the nuances and complexities of verbal and non-verbal cues, the organisation of the social space and its meanings, and the relationships of participants outside the space of the baths. He writes: I learned to flow with situations rather than try to fit them into some preconceived notions of what field research is really about. And I began to use myself - my own experiences, my perceptions, my desires, my interests - as a way of clueing myself into the concerns of other bath-goers. After all, I was now a ‘real’ insider. (Styles 1979: 142)

Styles moves beyond his initial thesis that visiting bathhouses is about finding a lover, to the view that bathhouses are arenas for multiple, impersonal sexual acts before developing a more sophisticated model of relationship escalation. Styles concludes his article with a highly critical discussion of his earlier belief in the insider’s putative ‘privileged’ access to knowledge:

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Insider and outsider myths are not empirical generalizations about the relationship between the researcher’s social position and the character of the research findings. They are elements in a moral rhetoric that claims exclusive research legitimacy for a particular group. They are also notorious logical fallacies, ad hominem arguments that attack the character of a researcher rather criticize the nature of the research. [...]  If, as an insider, I did have some strange epistemologically privileged position, I cannot point to any of its manifestations, for I continued to make erroneous assumptions throughout the course of field work. (Styles 1979: 148-9)

Styles makes for me two very interesting points. Firstly, that claims to insider status are essentially rhetorical, that is to say, that they are about persuading the reader that the research is more credible, more sophisticated and more authentic as a result of it being produced by someone on the inside and therefore ‘in the know’. Secondly, that sexual orientation didn’t give him a significant advantage in understanding bathhouse practices as those practices were a part of a specific gay male scene whose tacit rules and expectations needed to be learned - even by gay men.  

A more useful way of describing the 'ideal' research position might be to reject the spatial metaphor implicit in the insider/outsider polarity, and to think of it more in terms of becoming a practitioner within a particular setting or community. Perhaps a more fruitful way on considering researcher identity, therefore, would be to reject essentialist definitions - black, gay, Latina etc. and to conceptualise it, instead, as something both performative (Butler 1990) and participatory (Lave and Wenger 1991). In quasi-Sartrean terms, I’d argue that insiderness is more about doing then being.
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Styles gained insights into the complex social and sexual world of the baths not because he was a gay man  - he claims that ‘[a]s a gay man, I assumed I was among the "natural clientele" of the baths. It never occurred to me that I might not understand what was going on’ (Styles 1979: 151) - but because he became a participant in its social rituals. He moved beyond an essentialist conceptualisation of insider identity by ‘performing’ the role of a gay male bathhouse user, gradually becoming acculturated into the repertoire of activities and assumptions of this particular community of practice. Insiderness, therefore, might be more productively conceptualised as an ability to perform identity and to participate in a credible manner in a particular community of practice.

More recent arguments on the insider/outsider debate

The distinction between insider and outsider has developed in more recent years (Labaree, 2002:101). Early debates concerning insider/outsider research constructed a dichotomy between insider or an outsider researchers (Merton 1972; Merriam et al. 2000). Recent discussions have articulated a much less clear-cut and more complex relationship between the two terms. Numerous other authors (Breen, 2007; De Andrade, 2000; DeLeyser, 2001; Kanuha, 2000; Merriam et al., 2000; van Heugton, 2004) have pointed to the multiple and often conflicting roles that an individual may occupy, challenging the idea of
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the insider as ‘a single dimensional status’ (De Andrade, 2000: 270). More recent conceptualizations of a researcher’s insider/outsider status have therefore tended to eschew the polarised rubric of insider/outsider, preferring the idea of a continuum with multiple dimensions, along which ‘researchers constantly move back and forth along a number of axes, depending upon time, location, participants and topic’ (Mercer, 2007:1).

Where does this leave the researcher who is interested in studying a group to which they feel belong (an amateur running community, Apple fans, bloggers)? Does the term ‘insider research‘ retain any meaningful conceptual value or is it term that has outlived any possible usefulness to researchers? While accepting much of the recent critique of the insider concept, Hodkinson (2005) rejects any call for an abandonment of the term, suggesting instead that the notion of insider research remains appropriate in a variety of research situations, particularly those in which ‘a set of respondents are strongly and consciously united by the high overall importance to all of them of a particular distinctive characteristic or set of characteristics’ (Hodkinson, 2005:134). He proposes a definition of insider research as a ‘non-absolute concept’ intended to designate those situations where there is ‘a significant degree of initial proximity’ between the researcher and researched in terms of the issue being studied (Hodkinson 2005:134).

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Closer to home: researching digital cultures

In spite of the problematisation of the insider/outsider binary by many academics, it remains a common metaphor used by researchers to position themselves in relation to their research and to validate or support the credibility of the knowledge claims they advance in their publications. There is a distinct strand in research and work on research methodologies that continues to advocate the desirability of insider perspectives. In the area of digital technologies, for example, I have found many examples of academics invoking their insider status to validate their arguments. For example, Colin Lankshear and Michele Knobel (2006) have called for research that privileges insider perspectives. They argue that: There are serious limits to what 'outsiders' can understand of 'insider' experiences and of the artefacts and other discursive trappings that constitute these experiences from written reports alone - no matter how well conceived and presented the informing research may be. (Lankshear and Knobel 2006: 247)

It is through becoming a digital insider that ‘insights’ - which they remind us ‘are sights from the inside’  (2006: 247-8) - may be produced. They go on to claim that: ... the best way for those involved in education to pursue respectful and potentially fruitful 'intersections' across different literacies spaces is by actively pursuing personal experience of the phenomena being reported in the research. (2006: 247)

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Other writers working in similar areas have responded to this call or shared this position; for example, Julia Davies and Guy Merchant (2006) in a chapter on academic blogging argue that: Our position as research subjects-and-objects affords us maximum ‘insider access’ to the online and offline nuances and complexities entailed in producing-consuming our blogs. (Davies and Merchant 2006: 174-5)

In another article on Flickr, a photo sharing/social networking site, Davies (2007) also positions herself as an insider: I have been active on the site since it was launched in 2004. I am ‘embedded’ in the culture of the site; I have uploaded several thousand images to Flickr; I belong to more than 100 groups and have around 150 ‘contacts’ whom I only know from that space. (2007: 551) Her insider status has nothing to do with a genetic or cultural inheritance - the essentialist position - but is earned, as it were, by participating in and engaging with the culture of the online space through the various core activities of posting and annotating photos, joining groups and creating a network of contacts. Davies goes further, arguing for a degree of epistemological privilege that accrues to her as an ‘embedded’ participant: Insider knowledge is required in order to move beyond a fascination with the exotic, or the alienation sometimes experienced by ‘outsiders’ to digital cultures. That is, the practices need to be researched by those who see beyond the charisma or alienating potential of technologies. (2007: 552)

In a more recent article on eBay, an online marketplace, Davies (2008) is more cautious about her use of the term ‘insider’:

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The data presented in this paper reflects aspects of my own participation; I have been a member of the site for about four years and in this sense could be described as an ‘insider’. (Davies 2008: 229)

The use of scare quotes acts as a sceptical modifier to the term and, in conjunction with the modal auxiliary ‘could’, signals to the reader the reservations the author has about her use of ‘insider’ as it might commonly be accepted to signify.

It is clear, then, that the claims Lankshear and Knobel and Davies and Merchant make about their insider status is not the same as the claims initially made by Zinn or Styles. Their ‘insiderness’ has less to do with the relatively fixed and stable dimensions of identity - such as ethnicity, cultural background or sexuality - invoked by Zinn and Styles and more to do with performance and participation. This concept of insiderness is perhaps closer to Hodkinson’ idea of ‘initial proxmity’ insofar as it is based on a more flexible idea of temporarily shared interests and practices.

Conclusion The basis for claiming any kind of knowledge as asocial and independent of particular practices of knowing has come under attack, and ethnography has not been exempt. The naturalist project of documenting a reality external to the researcher has been brought into question. Rather than being the records of objectively observed and pre-existing cultural objects, ethnographies have been reconceived as written and unavoidably constructed accounts of objects created through disciplinary practices and the ethnographer’s embodied and reflexive engagement (Hine: 2000: 42)
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In this essay I have argued that insider research has, over the last few decades been conceptualised as preferable to outsider research in capturing the complexities of social experience. The rationale is practical - insider status enables easy access to the community being researched and the potential of enhanced trust and rapport; epistemological - insiderness afford insights more complex than those produced from outside perspectives; and ethical - nothing about us without us. However, I have also argued that the term has also been subject to a number of critiques that have problematised both the fixed (essentialist?) notion of identity that has often informed it as well as something of the claimed epistemological privilege of insiders.

In spite of this problematisation, it remains a frequently-used term to help researchers define their positionality. As a ‘new-to-research’ researcher, I feel the term will be useful to me although, when using it I would want to introduce a number of caveats alongside it. I’m drawn to Hodkinson’s claim that ‘the role of insider researcher may offer significant potential benefits’ but that ‘caution, awareness and ongoing reflexivity’ (Hodkinson 2005:132) is a pre-requisite.

As Hammersley (1992) and Davies (1999) have argued, although the ideal of absolute certainties and of exclusively correct ways of seeing and of knowing no longer appear credible, we need not necessarily abandon the idea that, on the basis of some broadly agreed-upon, criteria, certain forms of ethnographic interpretation - ‘constructed accounts’ (Hine 2000: 42) - might be considered to be more credible and nuanced than other constructions. Is it too fanciful to
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continue to believe that that insider constructions may well be preferable to outsider knowledge production?

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