It goes without saying that the impression a researcher gives can be extremely important when recruiting research participants and gaining access to a research setting.
But what if that impression has already been made when you have been in the setting previously, under different circumstances?
What if you want to give a different impression?
What if you are entering the field where your previous position was unclear, blurred, confused?
When working for a charity assisting those with acquired brain injury (ABI), I worked alongside healthcare professionals in the hospital. The way I was viewed varied a huge amount, from medical expert to knowledgeable layperson to interested party with no real expertise. In sociological terms, I often found myself positioned as somewhere between insider and outsider.
When I later returned to the setting as a researcher, I found that this blurry status had important implications for my new position as researcher. There were also departments where I had not previously worked. This meant I saw the full spectrum, from complete outsider to well-known and trusted insider, and the associated benefits and pitfalls of each position.
My previous work in ABI was a definite plus when applying for ethical approval. During this process, the NHS Research Ethics Committee commented that they were pleased that I had this prior experience. They viewed my previous role as one of expert. I could show a degree of lay expertise that allowed me to pass, in the eyes of the REC, from a position of outsider to that of insider.
At other points in the research process, too, this insider status proved useful. Being seen as trustworthy meant that the leading neurology consultant was happy to provide backing for my research, which proved essential for recruitment. This immediate invitation to the intimate workings of the hospital would not have been available had I not previously worked onsite.
Finally, it was commented at various points during my research that some individuals only chose to be involved as they knew who I was. This might seem like a positive point. However, it brings me to some of the pitfalls of being considered an insider. My previous work in Acquired Brain Injury was a definite plus in the eyes of the Research Ethics Committee.
As an insider, I sometimes felt that I was receiving answers that people felt I wanted to hear. This was done both subtly and less so – see the title of this blog, for example. Individuals would ask what I would like them to write or try to second-guess what I might think was useful.
Additionally, being seen as an insider meant that I sometimes felt I was lacking authority as a researcher, seen as a friend rather than a professional. I would often be greeted with the response, “sorry Tim but you’ll have to make it quick; you know what it’s like round here”. In contrast, in the new departments, where staff had no preconceived ideas of me, it seemed more thought was given to areas of my research such as feasibility of access. Rather than kindly agreeing to help me out before instantly forgetting, staff in these departments would ensure that time was given for a proper course of action to set things up.
Negotiating ‘insider’ and ‘outsider’ status can be complicated.
Many of my former colleagues seemed to assume I continued to have certain affiliations with them. I would be offered ‘backstage’ information – gossip about which department had fallen out with another, and didn’t I agree that they had it coming? Whilst the data was very useful, I agonised over the ethical issues of separating my insider and outsider role.
This stood in sharp contrast to my experience in departments where I hadn’t previously worked. My positioning as outsider meant that many staff were very cautious about what I was allowed to see. They would maintain a very strict performance and very rarely let me gain access to their true feelings towards other departments or the patients.
Despite these limitations, though, it was useful to see this front stage presentation of the workings of the hospital, the sort of impression that might greet families and ABI survivors. It being a conscious act didn’t make it less valuable, and seeing this helped me consider the setting from a different perspective.
Blurry doesn’t have to be bad
Reflecting on my experiences has made me reconsider whether it’s really necessary to try so hard to establish a clear distinction between ‘insider’ and ‘outsider’. My position was clearly blurred but this was not harmful to data generation.
And why should this be surprising? We construct our worlds based on the many interactions and performances that make up everyday life. This does us no harm in our normal lives and there is no reason why this should be a problem in the research setting. We have multiple understandings of events and this in turn creates multiple truths. The difference is that as a researcher, it is necessary to be reflexive of the position and consider what this does to the data collected.
So it seems there was, and is, no need for me to try and reposition myself as an outsider looking in. Firstly, it would just be an identity shaped and understood in relation to the previous conceptions others had of me. Secondly, it wouldn’t lead to any more of a truth than any other position.
In fact, maybe there is no defined insider or outsider position, more a continual movement between the two where different sorts of data, all equally important and valid, can be generated. I will be considering this further as I continue with data collection – watch this space!