Research Methods (1) Interviews

14. Ethical issues in research interviews: Insider/Outsider researchers

  • The exercise of reflexivity includes acknowledging the differences between researchers and their participants and the impact of those differences on the interview. As feminist anthropologists, Davis and Craven remind us, “our identities as “insiders” and “outsiders”, and all the shades of in-between…always matter in the ethnographic encounter. It is our job as feminist ethnographers to be attentive to positionality as we embark on our research, and discuss the inevitable (and sometimes multiple) impacts of our identity in our writing” (2016, pp. 81-82).
  • Researchers who are from the same or similar cultural, age, gender, ethnic, racial or class background as their participants may use their status as ‘insiders’ to gain access, establish trust and rapport with participants. However, being an ‘insider’ may prevent researchers from fully understanding the experiences of their participants, by making it difficult for them to separate their own cultural assumptions from the narratives of their participants. The assumption of being an ‘insider’ may also obscure particular lines of difference between researchers and their participants, for example, along the lines of class (Gunaratnam 2003).
  • Researchers who are ‘outsiders’ to the community being researched need to be aware of the ways in which the differences between them and their participants impact on their engagement with that community. Outsider researchers may need to negotiate access to their participants in ways that are accountable for the power and privilege they exercise. Or they may need to engage in strategies, such as, conducting multiple interviews, to establish trust and rapport with research participants (Gunaratnam 2003). At the same time, outsider researchers may in some cases be better positioned to deal with topics without preconceived assumptions that ‘insider’ researchers may bring to the research.
  • A researcher’s status as an insider or outsider may be fluid and shift at different points in the interview. The exercise of reflexivity by researchers should include awareness of the intersecting nature of the various markers of their social positionality. Different elements of their positionality impact on their relationship with their participants in different ways. For example, while gender, or ethnic background might be a key similarity between researchers and participants, class and sexuality may emerge as key differences in the course of the interview (Hesse-Biber 2014, pp. 210-215; Mullings 1999; Davis and Craven, 2016, pp. 60-65).
  • The establishment of ethical research relationships could be based on a “worked-for connectivity” that recognizes points of disconnection but works towards making connections “with and through difference” (Gunaratnam 2003, p.102).

Case Studies:

  1. In her study on the segregation of Muslims in Delhi, Ghazala Jamil reflects on the way that her own identity as a Muslim woman who had lived her whole life in Muslim localities in Delhi positioned her as an ‘insider’ in the communities she was researching (Jamil 2017). Due to her insider status, she explains, she was able to understand her participants’ experiences at a level of complexity that it would not have been possible for other researchers to grasp in a short time frame. At the same time she reflects that she had to differentiate herself as a researcher in order to project herself as “worthy of initiating and facilitating a discussion about Muslims and Muslim localities in Delhi” (2017, p. 104).Jamil concludes that the “intuitive methodological tightrope act of balancing insider-outsider roles afforded to me a situated view that threw up insights and helped me access the complex and embedded knowledge of people about their own lives” (2017, p. 105).

B) In her paper, ‘Feminist Insider Dilemmas: Constructing Ethnic Identity with ‘Chicana’ Informants’ (1996, cited in Davis and Craven, 2016, p. 61), anthropologist, Patricia Zavella reflects on her experience as an ‘insider’ of the Chicano movement who was conducting research on Chicana working women. Zavella’s assumption of a shared ethnic identity with her research participants was challenged when she found that most of her participants identified as Spanish or Spanish American, rather than Chicana.

This example illustrates that “shared membership in a group does not automatically mean there is complete sameness within that group” (Davis and Craven, 2016, p. 61).

C) Anthropologist Kirin Narayan further points to the complexity of the hybrid position of insider/outsider researchers. In her article, ‘ How native is a ‘native’ anthropologist?’ (1993, cited in Davis and Craven, 2016, p. 61) she reflects on the problems of being seen by her colleagues as a ‘native’ researcher who could produce authentically ‘native’ knowledge.

This example illustrates that in the context of researchers who travel between the global north and south to return to their countries of origin and conduct research in postcolonial contexts, making assumptions about insider-researcher status “obscures the relations of privilege that they may have as an outsider as well, particularly vis-à-vis their education or class status” (Davis and Craven, 2016, p. 61).

D) Feminist geographer, Lorena Munoz, reflects on the role of her Chicana identity in positioning her as an insider with the community of Latina street vendors that she interviewed in Los Angeles (2010, cited in Davis and Craven, 2016, p. 61). Her identity as a ‘cross border Chicana’ in heteronormative spaces often conflicted with her queer identity. However, when one of her participants responded openly to her disclosure of her queer identity she found this point of difference “not only became a potential barrier, but also an opening to multiple ways of seeing the lives of women she studied” (Davis and Craven, 2016, p. 62).


This example illustrates an instance of finding connections with participants by working through differences that complicate the insider/outsider dichotomy.

Reflection Exercise:

  • Take 10 minutes to write down a series of ‘reflexivity points’ about how your social position (your biography, the social, political and economic context in which you live, as well as your embodied experience of the world) may influence your research, including:
    • the biases and assumptions you bring to your research
    • the questions you ask, and
    • your research style (from Hesse-Biber 2014, p. 202).
  • Conduct peer-to-peer interviews with your colleagues to test your listening skills.
  • Do a pilot interview with a volunteer to test your interview strategy and questions.
  • If you work in a research team, do a collective reflexive analysis reflecting on each other’s interviews, approaches to difference and interview strengths.


Anderson, K. and Jack, D., 1991. Learning to Listen: Interview Techniques and Analysis. In Women’s Words: The Feminist Practice of Oral History, eds. S. Gluck and D. Patai. London: Routledge, pp.11-26.

Davis, D and Craven, C., 2016. Feminist Ethnography: Thinking Through Methodologies, Challenges, and Possibilities. Latham, Boulder, New York, London: Rowman & Littlefield.

Hesse-Biber, S. N. 2014. Feminist Approaches to In-Depth Interviewing. In: S. N. Hesse-Biber (ed), Feminist Research Practice: A Primer, Los Angeles, London, New Delhi, Singapore, Washington DC: Sage.

Gunaratnam, Y. 2003. Messy work: Qualitative interviewing across difference. In: Y. Gunaratnam, Researching Race and Ethnicity: Methods, Knowledge and Power, London, Thousand Oaks, New Delhi: Sage.

Jamil, G. 2017. Real-life methods: Feminist explorations of segregation in Delhi. In: K Kannabiran and P. Swaminathan eds. Re-Presenting Feminist Methodologies: Interdisciplinary Explorations. London and New York: Routledge, pp. 91-112.

Mullings, B. 1999. Insider or outsider, both or neither: some dilemmas of interviewing in across-cultural setting. Geoforum, 30 (4), pp. 337-350.

Munoz, L., 2010. Brown, queer and gendered: Queering the Latina/o ‘Street-Scapes’ in Los Angeles. Queer Methods and Methodologies, 55.

Zavella, P. 1996. Feminist Insider Dilemmas: Constructing Ethnic Identity with Chicana Informants. In: D. Wolf (ed), Feminist Dilemmas in Fieldwork, Boulder: Westview.