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Organizing Your Social Sciences Research Paper

Offers detailed guidance on how to develop, organize, and write a college-level research paper in the social and behavioral sciences.

Definition

Insiderness is an approach to conducting research in which the researcher is positioned within the setting where they are gathering and analyzing information. The insider researcher is a member of the group, organization, or community where they are conducting the study and, as such, may be assumed to have greater access to information, respondents, and data than a researcher who is external to the research setting. Although the concept of insiderness is applied primarily to qualitative methods of observation, interviewing, ethnography, and other normative techniques of gathering information, an insider researcher can also be positioned to gather quantitative forms of data.


Labaree, Robert V. "The Risk of ‘Going Observationalist’: Negotiating the Hidden Dilemmas of Being an Insider Participant Observer." Qualitative Research 2 (April 2002): 97-122.

Advantages and Disadvantages

In the social and behavioral sciences, it is assumed that an insider researcher has greater access to information because they possess a deeper and more nuanced understanding of the setting in which they are conducting the research. For example, a teacher studying the impact of standardized testing on the mental well-being of minority students at the high school where they work should already have preceding knowledge about the school's student support culture, access to classrooms to observe students, access to statistical data, such as, grades and attendance records, and working relationships with school administrators, counselors, and parents who could be participants in the study. A researcher who is not an employee of the school would have to negotiate and maintain this level of access in order to conduct the research.

If you are conducting insider research, you must describe how your position as an insider facilitated access to information, documents, places, objects, or any other elements of the setting relevant to addressing the research problem and, conversely, how you managed your insiderness in a way that avoided unintentional bias, misuse of personal data, and potentially false conclusions based on unsubstantiated suppositions.

With this in mind, here is a summary of the advantages and disadvantages of being an insider researcher, framed in the context of values versus assumptions.

ADVANTAGES

  • The Value of Shared Experiences -- as an insider, the researcher has experienced many of the same situations, events, issues, or problems as other members have within the research setting. This provides a common frame of reference between the insider researcher and other members of the research setting. Shared experiences also help establish a foundation from which to launch the study and build productive relationships with potential respondents. In this way, shared experiences helps build trust, which can facilitate obtaining information from other members within the setting that the researcher might otherwise have never been exposed to.
  • The Value of Greater Access -- an insider would have greater access to people, places, data, and materials within the research setting. They would already having relationships with others in the setting; they would understand the physical layout of the setting; they would be aware of places where, for example, people interact or gather; and, they would be familiar with the how and by what means information in the form of documents, email, statistics, and other types of data are produced, distributed, and shared within the setting.
  • The Value of Cultural Interpretation -- an insider would be familiar with the beliefs, values, rules, material traits, and customs that define the unique culture of the research setting. This level of interpretive access provides insights into the unique ways of thinking, behaving, working, or other forms of behavioral interaction that exists among people within a group, organization, or community. An insider would also be familiar with specific sub-cultures within the setting and how they relate to each other.
  • The Value of Deeper Understanding and Clarity of Thought -- related to cultural familiarity, an insider researcher would be better able to interpret, critique, and draw appropriate inferences or conclusions about what is observed or learned in a way that an external researcher would have to learn from respondents or from analyzing secondary sources to help verify the accuracy of information. An insider would already understand and draw meaning from the contexts by which phenomena occur relevant to the research problem being investigated.

DISADVANTAGES

  • The Assumption of Absolute Access -- insiderness is not unequivocal or without limit. Any level of access exists within a given moment and contextualized around the level of access available to others. Access varies because the circumstances in relation to the gathering of information is different each time you enter the setting, who you interact with, what you observe, and when. Access also varies in relation to the people you rely upon for information. Everyone within the setting will possess varying degrees of their own access to information that is relayed to you.  Always be cognizant of the fact that, just because you have insider access, it does not mean you already possess a comprehensive understanding of the research setting.
  • The Assumption of No Effect on Others -- the transition of your position from member of a group, organization, or community to a member/researcher can influence people's perceptions of you and, by extension, their relationship to you acting as a researcher. Given this, you may need to place greater emphasis on building trust within the setting than an external researcher would need to. An external researcher does not possess prior knowledge or have prior interactions with others in the setting, therefore, they may be viewed as being more impartial and behaving as a neutral entity while conducting their research.
  • The Assumption of Unbiased Perspectives -- as an insider, you must guard against making predetermined judgements about the information you have gathered or any aspect of the research setting because you already "know" the group, organization, or community. The nature of being an insider requires controlling for any unintentional bias by applying on-going reflexivity to the interpretation of your analysis of information. This means deliberately and critically turning ideas and concepts back onto yourself in order to reveal and clarify your own beliefs about the information you have gathered.

NOTE:  A potential form of biased behavior in insider research is confirmation bias. This refers to an unconscious tendency to search for or interpret information that is consistent with or validates your existing beliefs, ideas, or hypotheses about the research problem. This type of bias is based on the idea that people have a predilection to more readily accept information that supports their existing worldview while, at the same time, being suspicious of information that challenges that worldview. As an insider, you must be critically aware throughout your study of any potential assumptions made about the group, organization, or community that, upon reflection, appears to only confirm existing beliefs about the research setting.


Labaree, Robert V. "The Risk of ‘Going Observationalist’: Negotiating the Hidden Dilemmas of Being an Insider Participant Observer." Qualitative Research 2 (April 2002): 97-122; Chavez, Christina. "Conceptualizing from the Inside: Advantages, Complications, and Demands on Insider Positionality." The Qualitative Report 13 (February 2008): 474-494; Collins, Heidi and Yvonne McNulty. "Insider Status:(Re) Framing Researcher Positionality in International Human Resource Management Studies." German Journal of Human Resource Management 34 (2020): 202-227; Irgil, Ezgi. "Broadening the Positionality in Migration Studies: Assigned Insider Category." Migration Studies (2020): https://doi.org/10.1093/migration/mnaa016; Kanuha, Valli Kalei. "“Being” Native Versus “Going Native”: Conducting Social Work Research as an Insider." Social Work 45 (October 2000): 439-447; MacCoun, Robert J. "Biases in the Interpretation and Use of Research Results." Annual Review of Psychology 49 (1998): 259-287; Mercer, Justine. "The Challenges of Insider Research in Educational Institutions: Wielding a Double‐edged Sword and Resolving Delicate Dilemmas." Oxford Review of Education 33 (February 2007): 1-17; Savvides, Nicola, Joanna Al-Youssef, Mindy Colin, and Cecilia Garrido. "Journeys into Inner/Outer Space: Reflections on the Methodological Challenges of Negotiating Insider/Outsider Status in International Educational Research." Research in Comparative and International Education 9 (2014): 412-425.

Structure and Writing Style

In general, the amount of details describing your status as an insider depends on three factors:

  1. How deeply embedded your position was in the research setting and, as a result, the level of access you had to information relevant to examining the research problem,
  2. The amount of time you were involved in researching the setting, not just in totality, but variance of time spent in different spaces of the setting, and
  3. The complexity of the setting, which can include factors, such as, the spatial distribution of people, the number of sub-cultures within the setting, the types of information needed for the study, the size of the group, organization, or community, and the level of interconnectedness and interdependency among various elements of the setting.

These details should be well documented so that the reader has a complete picture of how your insiderness facilitated effective information gathering techniques. However, focus on only those elements of complexity that relate to studying the research problem. For example, if you spent time observing teachers in the classroom, there is no need to describe their interaction with objects in the setting [e.g., technology] unless the research is designed to include this in the study.

Regardless of your level of embeddedness or the complexity of the setting, you should describe the following aspects of being an insider researcher in the methodology section of your paper. These are in the general order in which they should be described in the methods section of your paper.

  • Describe the reasons you designed the study in this way. In short, answer the "So What?" question. Frame the reasons for choosing to study the setting as an insider by describing why did you choose this approach rather than another setting in which you would not an insider. Explain the circumstances under which you chose to reveal yourself as a researcher or remained silent and describe what advantages or disadvantages your choice had in terms of access and understanding the research problem.
  • Explain the process of how you presented yourself transitioning from being a member of the group, organization, or community to being a researcher of that entity. Describe how you negotiated this and note if any limits were placed on you in terms of access to people, places, material items, or sources of quantitative data.
  • Explain the ways in which your insiderness was advantageous in gathering the information needed to address the research problem. If applicable, document any information, materials, or data you were able to access that would otherwise be unavailable or hidden to an outside researcher and how this enhanced your ability to examine the research problem.
  • Highlight any limitations you encountered in terms of access, particularly as it relates to your position within the research setting. For example, if you are conducting research as a student intern in an organization, explain why you did not have the same access to historical data as a long-term employee would have.
  • Conclude your description of being an insider researcher by describing how you controlled for unintentional bias using methods of self-reflexivity, such as, keeping a journal of personal thoughts and observations during the research process or critically questioning your voice in the text as you write the paper. This part of your methodology section should also describe any ethical dilemmas you encountered while being an insider researcher.

NOTE:  Convenience is not a valid reason for conducting insider research! You must justify your choice to be an insider researcher in a way that reflects issues of not only access, but in terms of obtaining greater insight and understanding of the research problem. You must explain why your degree of closeness to the group, organization, or community specifically addresses the research problem that could be attained by an external researcher. Convenience is never the justification for why a research problem should be investigated in the social and behavioral sciences regardless of the method chosen.

ANOTHER NOTE: Insiderness is not just a methodological approach to doing research but defines your position as an author within the entire investigative and interpretive process of the study. While the details about your insiderness should be described primarily in the methodology section of your paper, you must first present yourself as an insider researcher in the introduction. The literature review should highlight any other insider research studies or, if none exist, provide documentary evidence as to why an insider approach is crucial to building new knowledge about the research problem. In the discussion section, you should also note how your position as an insider helped [and perhaps, in some cases, hindered] your interpretation of the findings.


Labaree, Robert V. "The Risk of ‘Going Observationalist’: Negotiating the Hidden Dilemmas of Being an Insider Participant Observer." Qualitative Research 2 (April 2002): 97-122; Chavez, Christina. "Conceptualizing from the Inside: Advantages, Complications, and Demands on Insider Positionality." The Qualitative Report 13 (February 2008): 474-494; Collins, Heidi and Yvonne McNulty. "Insider Status:(Re) Framing Researcher Positionality in International Human Resource Management Studies." German Journal of Human Resource Management 34 (2020): 202-227; Irgil, Ezgi. "Broadening the Positionality in Migration Studies: Assigned Insider Category." Migration Studies (2020): https://doi.org/10.1093/migration/mnaa016; Kanuha, Valli Kalei. "“Being” Native Versus “Going Native”: Conducting Social Work Research as an Insider." Social Work 45 (October 2000): 439-447; Mercer, Justine. "The Challenges of Insider Research in Educational Institutions: Wielding a Double‐edged Sword and Resolving Delicate Dilemmas." Oxford Review of Education 33 (February 2007): 1-17; Savvides, Nicola, Joanna Al-Youssef, Mindy Colin, and Cecilia Garrido. "Journeys into Inner/Outer Space: Reflections on the Methodological Challenges of Negotiating Insider/Outsider Status in International Educational Research." Research in Comparative and International Education 9 (2014): 412-425; Walsh, Russell. "The Methods of Reflexivity." The Humanistic Psychologist 31 (2003): 51-66.