With the development of globalization and the mobility of academics, there is an increasing opportunity for cooperation in intercultural research. This however raises questions about the advantages and disadvantages of being a cultural insider and outsider in such an endeavour. This paper considers the methodological complexities of intercultural research revealed during the collaborative research undertaken in rural China by the two authors, one English and one Chinese. Questions emerged about how to maintain objectivity, integrity, and confidentiality within intercultural settings. As such, it provides many useful insights for researchers carrying out collaborative research in intercultural settings, whether as an insider or outsider. This study also contributes to the English literature on methodological studies in rural China.
Two scholars, one Chinese and the other English first met whilst they were both working at the same university in the west of China. At the time, A was a member of staff planning to study for a research degree in London and B was a visiting professor from the UK. B was working at the university with small teams of graduate students undertaking anthropological research for their MA studies. Chinese statistics reveal the amazing reduction in poverty that has taken place in China, but B was interested to study how this had occurred in the lives of the poorest communities in rural areas. Several ethnographies of Chinese rural communities have been written in recent years looking at the transformation in the way of life and values in rural China (Ruf, 1998; Oxfeld, 2010; Steinmuller, 2015). B wanted to draw upon family histories with their traditions and stories to explore how peasant families relate their own stories of change. This presented some major challenges the foremost of which was that of language. Although B was familiar with Putonghua (Standard Mandarin), in the southwest Province of Sichuan the provincial dialect (Sichuanhua) was generally used, but in the remote villages, the dialect was even more distinct from Sichuanhua. The second major issue was that of access to such a community. A tall grey-haired Englishman could not suddenly turn up in a remote village and begin to ask personal family questions. Not only would the villagers be suspicious of the sudden appearance of a foreigner, but so also would the local authorities when he met A.
A had been brought up in a rural village in the south of Sichuan, and so was fluent in the local dialect and conversant with the colloquial words and phrases used in general conversation. A was eager to work alongside a more experienced colleague to prepare for her future studies and gather local oral histories. B was able to outline areas of study and that oral history can take on various forms including life stories, life history, personal narratives, and memoirs. A and B agreed to collaborate on a study in A’s home area.
It was in 2012 that together we made our first visit to the village of Ji’e in the south of Sichuan province. Sichuan is known for the extensive region of fertile lowland irrigated by the Yangtze River and its tributaries and surrounded by mountains. Jin’e is located to the south of the lowlands in the foothills that lead across to Yunnan Province in the south and the Tibetan region in the west. Our first visit helped us both to gain a better understanding of the local community and to build on A’s existing contacts in the area who became key people in the interviews used in our research. Together we visited the village on a further occasion in 2015 and A visited the village again in 2018. We discussed the local history with the people, how the village had recently developed, and how this had changed the lives and destinies of individuals and their families. As researchers, we realized that we entered the place with different perspectives and positions of authority. One of us was seen by the community as an ‘insider’ whilst the other was clearly an ‘outsider’.
This paper considers the methodological complexities of intercultural research during the collaboration between the two authors in rural China. Throughout the project (Liu and Burnett, 2019), questions arose about objectivity, integrity, confidentiality, and informed consent of research in intercultural settings. The article begins with a discussion of the literature on the cultural insider/outsider distinction. The approach to the means of data collection and presentation will then be discussed, before considering matters of acceptance, use of the local language, and ethnographic style. It concludes with some reflections on collaborative intercultural research.
Cultural insiders and outsiders
Early anthropologists went to the field in the hope of gathering facts about the way of life of the local people, which was to lead to the image of the lone researcher studying remote people which the aim of explaining their way of life to a western audience. Nevertheless, in this enterprise, the researchers found they had to confront their own assumptions and role in society. It was in the 1970s that Scholte began to critique the ideology of value-free social science with its assumption that ‘there is, or should be, a discontinuity between experience and reality, and between the investigator and the object investigated’ (Scholte, 1974, p. 435). Scholte proposed the practice of reflexivity in which the self-reflecting anthropologist engages in interpersonal relations and questions the conditions and ways that knowledge is constructed about other cultures. Asad (1986, p. 162) regards that, “cultural translation is a matter of determining implicit meanings, not the meanings the native listener acknowledges, but those he is potentially capable of sharing with scientific authority in some ideal situation”. The ethnographer is therefore not merely a spectator, but one of the actors in the local culture who has a distinct role. They are effectively reinvented by their positions in the context and by their relations with the informants. Fieldwork has therefore come to be positioned somewhere between autobiography and anthropology in which the researcher is defined by a distinct age, gender, and outsider status (Okely and Callaway, 1992). This means that the ethnographer cannot remain purely objective as his or her lived experiences both enable and hinder certain kinds of insight.
The question of objectivity has been much debated not only within Social Anthropology but within different disciplines that have made use of such methodological research. These include corporate management, health care, education and issues of race and gender (Hayfield and Hukley, 2015). In these disciplines, organizations and institutions have been seen as having their own cultures or sub-cultures which have their own insiders and outsiders (Khanna and Lakhani et al., 2019). Institutions, therefore, have their own insiders and outsiders beyond that of language or ethnicity. These insiders in corporations, hospitals, and schools enjoy a privileged position in research when self-disclosure is allowed to the participants (Perry et al., 2004).
Insider research refers to instances where researchers conduct research with the social group to which they also personally belong on the basis of their shared characteristics (Gair, 2012). Being better accepted, they are able to conduct research ‘in a more sensitive and responsive manner’ than an outside researcher (Bishop, 1998). Insiders are privileged in creating knowledge about that group with a more complete and less distorted knowledge of the social world (Heath et al., 2009) which enables them to gather a richer set of data (LaSala, 2003; Dwyer and Buckle, 2009) and hence they are often confronted with problems of undue bias (Serrant-Green, 2002). The insider has more knowledge and understanding of the social and cultural characteristics of the local institutional community than an outsider because they share the same social background, culture, and language (Merriam et al., 2001; Coloma, 2008). This allows insiders to form a relationship with people, learn things, behave like the local community, and understand new institutional sociocultural contexts (Suwankhong and Liamputtong, 2015). They are able to rapidly develop rapport with participants (Mahmud, 2021; Aburn et al., 2021) and can also more easily undertake research on sensitive topics through knowledge of what is appropriate and are better placed to gain the trust of the local people because of their cultural commonalities (Suwankhong and Liamputtong, 2015; Falzon, 2016). As a result, researchers can benefit from their insider status considering they have a better awareness of the lives of the researched groups, which enables them to gather a richer set of data.
Insider researchers have long been challenged by the difficulty of separating their personal experiences, feelings, and ideas from those of the researched, and hence they are often confronted with problems of undue bias (Kanuha, 2000; Abalkhail, 2021). Therefore, the insider’s strengths become the outsider’s weaknesses and vice-versa.
Being embedded in a particular context means the insider has their own pre-formed biases and conclusions, while an outsider may be more objective and freer from such personal bias, which carries fewer inaccuracies into their findings and accounts (Brannick and Coghlan, 2007). It may raise issues of ‘over-identification’, ‘over-rapport’, and ‘going native’ (Glesne, 2016). The insider also tends to be concerned with uncovering knowledge of a special phenomenon while an outsider is more interested in generalizable knowledge that is more attached to the objects of research (Bartunek and Louis, 1996). Although an outside researcher holds different beliefs from the community and their relationship with the local people might be superficial, nevertheless they might be able to achieve a deeper investigation of the research target (Al-Makhamreh and Lewando-Hundt, 2008). This is because they realize that they do not have enough knowledge about the world of the participants and need to scrutinize certain issues more closely rather than only seeing them as common phenomena. Outsider researchers are not necessarily immune from personal bias, whilst they are also able to appreciate and adequately represent the researched participants (Dwyer and Buckle, 2009).
Some qualitative researchers value outsider research for its relative emotional distance, whereby taken-for-granted practices are more likely to be questioned (Gasman and Payton-Stewert, 2006). Many scholars have echoed the advantages of outsider research by contributing various cases in which outsider researchers have shown superiority over insider ones by asking ‘naive’ questions and noticing features of data that may be overlooked or taken for granted by insiders (Hellawell, 2006).
Nevertheless, none of these benefits can completely outweigh the counterarguments, whereby outsider researchers are considered incapable of accurately understanding or representing the experiences of the researched. Therefore, researchers might need to enable opportunities for empowered interaction to negotiate potential power divides by using flexible strategies (Ahmed et al., 2022). This is an issue brought out in Hayfield and Hukley’s research into lesbian and bisexual women (Hayfield and Hukley, 2015). Hence, some researchers, although advocating outsider research, call for attention to maintaining the necessary psychological and social relationship between themselves and their participants.
A binary approach to insider/outsider research might be overly simplistic and should be replaced by a possible dialectical approach that allows the preservation of the complexity of similarities and differences. Researchers’ identities are never fixed. They are often relative and constantly changing according to the research topic, the time and place, and the personalities of the researched; even the significance of certain characteristics which are relatively stable, such as gender and race, vary depending on the context (Mercer, 2007). In some contexts, the position and identity of the researchers may shift over time, and the researchers can be both insiders and outsiders. This has resulted in the need for the researcher to be aware of their ‘Positionality’. Herr and Anderson (2014) provided an insider–outsider continuum that offers six different positionalities researchers may have insider, insider in collaboration with other insiders, insider(s) in collaboration with outsider(s), reciprocal collaboration, outsider(s) in collaboration with insider(s) and outsider(s) studying insider(s).
Knowledge is, “always mediated by our perspectives and the interpretative framework through which we organize our perspectives” (Balarin, 2009, p. 295). This will affect how participants share their narratives with the researcher and how they select and use the information. Personal experiences will also influence the analysis of the data and the way that theory is applied. Bourdieu refers to this as he explains ‘participant objectivation’ as the ability to recognize and admit one’s own experiences being brought into the research journey (Bourdieu, 2003, p. 281).
In this current study, the model used by the researchers could best be defined by what Herr and Anderson (2014) call reciprocal collaboration. In this study, the partnerships between the two researchers are respectful, balanced, and mutually beneficial. They work together to explore expectations and uncertainties. They acknowledge the importance of what each other brings to the collaboration, and value different expertise and multiple types of knowledge and skills.
Access and acceptance
As previously mentioned, the first challenge for an outside researcher is usually that of gaining access to and being accepted by the local people who are unused to receiving outsiders. This is usually achieved by the researcher finding a ‘gatekeeper’ who can open the door to a particular community or topic. This is frequently the key to success in doing fieldwork in traditional communities like the more isolated rural communities in China. The village we had chosen for the study is five hours drive from the provincial capital. As B was a foreigner, after checking in at the little hotel it was necessary to report to the local police station to show documents, and complete forms giving details of the journey including the length and purpose of the visit in terms of the local regulations. An official letter from our university authorizing the research was accepted. The local officers seemed to be only interested in research on politically sensitive topics and not the life stories of farming families. When one of the officials realized that a colleague of his was a relative of the Chinese researcher any suspicion was dispelled. China is an acquaintance society and ‘relationship’ often plays an important role when dealing with daily arrangements while relationship means trust and understanding (Liu, 2018).
The day after our arrival we visited the village head and explained our plans which we asked him to approve. With his approval, it was not difficult to visit different people in the village and contact others by phone, and set up appointments. Although A was familiar with the region, she had not lived in the area for many years. In a community where foreigners have rarely seen her return to the village with B as a foreigner changed how people reacted to her. She was obviously no longer just a village woman, but one who had succeeded in leaving the village to go to a university in the provincial capital and now had international friends.
They were initially uncertain about how they could relate to her in her new role. She could no longer be considered an ‘insider’ like others even though she spoke the local dialect and had family in the village. To overcome this, A drew upon the help of teenage friends who were well known to local people to rebuild her links with many in the local community. For example, she phoned Ai, with whom she had kept in contact, to say she had returned to the village and explain the purpose for which she had come. Ai was happy to spend time with us telling the stories of their family members and the village. Ai went on to introduce authors to other neighbours, which led to further visits to other homes. The snowballing effect meant that news of who we were and why we were here quickly spread through the community. In a matter of days, we were able to commence collecting data from a wide range of sources. In contrast, Hans Steinmuller gives an honest account of the issues he faced when seeking to undertake research in rural China.
My biggest mistake was that I had not contacted the government offices…if only to greet them briefly and let them know that I was there…As an outsider and a visitor, I was also a potential intruder and troublemaker…. I had ‘lost’ three months because of this incident, and then had to start anew at another field site (Steinmuller, 2015).
When one of the researchers is an ‘insider’, he or she functions as the gatekeeper and authenticates the trustworthiness of the ‘outsider’. After the outsider has gained the trust of the local people, it was not difficult to keep an objective perspective and raise questions concerning matters which the insider might not initially realize. In this way, the insider and outsider duo can provide explanations to the research questions based on their individual backgrounds and experiences.
During the periods of fieldwork, we lived in the village which allowed us not only to observe the daily life of the people but to be seen by them and interact with them. The people of the village knew who we were and why we had come, and any suspicion they may have first had turned to curiosity. People saw us visiting different places and were happy to add information especially as the outsider showed interest in what they had to say. The value of ‘walk and talk’ method provided useful research insights whilst eliciting information about the environment that might have been otherwise overlooked if the interview was merely in a fixed context (Evans and Jones, 2011). This helped us not only to talk with more local people but to construct clearer scenarios about how everyday life had changed during past years.
Trust is an important aspect of qualitative research in all contexts. The more trust is established with local people, the more insightful and valuable the information shared. As Goodson (2016) points out in the first instance the researcher should encourage a ‘flow’ in talking, with limited interrogation, to let the informants control the sequencing of their stories rather than the researcher. When the informant moves the ‘interview’ towards a ‘grounded conversation’ and away from the singular narrative of the initial life story, it can signal the move from the life story to life history. In this process, knowledge of local history and the local dialect is an essential element in meaningful interviews.
We gathered general life experiences, the important events in their lives, memories about different historical events, and used diverse open-ended questions to explore impressions of life stories. In addition, careful notes were made by both researchers and key methodological decisions and the potential questions discussed. All original conversations in the local language were recorded and kept, with the agreement of the interviewees, as a reference to the context and meaning of these conversations, and the answers were carefully committed to writing. This is because narratives and stories are always set in the context of everyday life and are not the response to a standardized set of questions. This procedure helped to decrease the risk of inaccurate assumptions and interpretations by the researchers’ subjective understandings. As a result of the collection of this material, it became clear that the stories from the 35 key informants aged 86 to 14 could make up the content of a useful academic text.
In the research process, the role of identities and power between the researcher and participants is important (Norton and Toohey, 2011). Fieldwork usually presents unique methodological challenges because of imbalances of power that existed between the local system and the researchers. It should be remembered that the local people are knowledgeable on the topic which the researchers would like to understand, and so might determine and edit which topics are mentioned and which to avoid (Liu, 2018). They might take the initiative and issue directions and assert themselves when talking about the topic that they like. This suggests a shift of power in relations such as controlling what knowledge we can know between the researchers and the local people with whom we worked.
To understand the local languages is a key part of research fieldwork. Language is not only a technical means of communication but also an important factor in conveying values and beliefs which include cultural meanings (Temple, 2002). The accuracy of cross-cultural qualitative research is therefore threatened if the researcher(s) are not able to speak the local language (Tsai et al., 2004). Even if there are local translators, the risk of misunderstanding an informant’s responses is still high, and the meaning of the data may not be accurately captured (Chiumento et al., 2018). Researchers could misunderstand the meaning of the data if they are not able to accurately capture informants’ responses.
In China, Mandarin is the standard Chinese that is taught in schools, but as has already been mentioned, each area has its own dialect. It was therefore difficult for B to speak directly to farmers who had little schooling. As Steinmuller (2015) discovered, ‘My language skills also limited my access to local people…For a very long time, I had more contact with those who could speak standard Mandarin’. Moreover, as Wong and Poon (2010) point out, translation is a key component of cross-cultural research and the richness embedded in the research data can only be uncovered by making translation visible and through open dialogue. Translation and back-translation are particularly important when studies are made across linguistic boundaries (Reyes, 2018). A practical issue in multilingual research is how to find and work with a translator who is often unfamiliar with the aims and methods of fieldwork.
In our fieldwork, A, the Chinese researcher was not only trained in research methods but was able to talk with the participants in their local dialect and translate this to the English researcher. We were able to sense when it was appropriate to pause the conversation for translation and when to continue from how the conversation was flowing and various nonverbal cues such as eye contact or distraction. If the interviewee looked confused or remained silent the Chinese researcher would translate brief summaries of the conversation to the English researcher before making any follow-up questions. More of the richness of the original responses were captured as the researchers reflected on the interview later. Participants felt more comfortable in expressing themselves knowing that the Chinese researcher would correctly understand what the person was meaning and was trustworthy and familiar with their situation.
For example, an elderly lady was telling us that her father had died because of an illness during the 1930s. The conversation continued as follows:
Chinese researcher: ‘Did your family have food to eat?’
Lady: ‘You a, You a’ (‘we had, we had’).
Later in the interview. Chinese researcher: ‘What was your childhood like?’
Lady: ‘E a, e a’ (‘be hungry, be hungry’).
Silent for about 15 s
Lady: ‘Ta si la, mei you dong xi chi’ (‘He - her father - died because we had no food’).
An outsider might easily have ended the conversation when the first answer was given, but the reality was different in that her father had died of a sickness brought about by hunger. This could easily have been lost during translation. People may initially be vague, especially about distressing situations and are only willing to go deeper if the person realizes the researcher is willing to take time and listen.
Chinese researcher: ‘How was the life during the famine time?’
Participant: ‘Food became rich in the commune canteens and people were hungry to look for things to eat.’
Chinese researcher: ‘Do you mean food was rare?’
Participant: ‘Yes, it was rich and even not any food in the canteens.’
‘Becoming rich’ is a very local expression meaning things are ‘getting short’, ‘running out’ or even ‘nothing left’. The local people avoid saying ‘nothing’ or ‘run out’, because they consider it to be unlucky, and so they use words and phrases with the opposite meaning to express what they want to say. A translator unfamiliar with the local context would have easily been confused and misunderstood what was being meant. Care needs to be taken when relying on cultural mediators since there is a high risk of the informants’ conversation being distorted.
During our visits to the village, we met many people in different occupations and places. The discussions were nearly all in the local dialect and covered a wide variety of subjects relating to their daily life. All these discussions were recorded with the permission of the informants. We then spent time together transcribing these accounts into Hanzi (Chinese characters) and then into English sentence by sentence. For most dialects, it is often difficult to find appropriate English words to accurately express the meaning of a phrase in the local context, and this might sometimes require a special explanation.
To ensure the content was not only accurate but also conveyed the tone the speaker intended, the English translation was later orally translated back into the local dialect and authenticated by the specific participants. In this process, some historical events including the great famine of 1959–60 and the cultural revolution (1966–76) were mentioned in the conversations. We could search documents and literature both in Chinese and English to understand more of the social background of these events locally. This method produced further questions that were followed up and helped us to be better prepared for future and follow-up interviews.
Ethnography is not a story for a story’s sake, but an account of a human group, institution, or cultural setting (Clifford, 1986). Nevertheless, ethnography is destined for a particular audience—usually academic. In order to enable the participating informants to express their recollections and opinions, we decided to write the narrative in the first person as if the person was telling their own story. We believed that the content would not only be of interest to an academic audience, but also to the general reader. With this in mind, we adopted a narrative approach written in the first person and allowed each of the major informants to have their own voice even if there was some overlap and even contradiction in their stories (Liu and Burnett, 2019).
The study employed oral history as the basic research tool as this record’s personal experiences and life stories, and so allows the researchers to explore the interpretations and meanings of different individuals. Oral history is one of the basic tools for the social scientist as it records personal experiences and life stories, and so allows the researchers to explore the interpretations and meanings of different individuals (Banks-Wallace, 2002). It has different forms including life stories, life history, personal narratives and memoirs (Yow, 2014). Storytelling is a pervasive mode of everyday communication in which we hear and tell stories all day long. In everyday storytelling there is not often a well-organized chronology of events; the narratives are selected and evaluated as meaningful for the audience at a particular situation and time. Some stories may have been recounted many times over and have become crafted by the teller to produce the desired impact. We, therefore, sought to allow the narrator freedom for a flow of thought, taking care to avoid making any unnecessary interruptions or requests for clarification. Our aim was to allow the reader to see how the narrators made sense of their world and the experiences they have known. Nevertheless, for the reader to make sense of the account, the specific narratives had to be laid out along their timeline to provide continuity, structure, and locate them in the historical events of the country.
After visiting and talking with local people, we translated the conversations and organized the field notes. Conversations were translated from the local dialect into standard Chinese, and from there into English. The English researcher would then read aloud the English translation whilst the Chinese researcher listened for any lack of clarity in what was expressed in the original oral dialect. If anything seemed unclear, we would listen to the recording and seek a better translation. The Chinese translation was then read back to the informant in the local dialect to check the accuracy of the translation in Mandarin and in English. Through this cyclic process, we sought to ensure the translation both drew out the meaning the participants wished to convey to an English-speaking audience and make it meaningful and comprehensible to the English reader. What we learned from this process was that research can be designed in advance but there must be an allowance for it to develop during the fieldwork as the researchers interact with one another in the situation.
During the writing process, B often raised questions that had been ignored by the Chinese researcher as she assumed them as being obvious. For example, one interviewee mentioned a ‘substitute teacher’ for which she simply made a direct translation in the English text. However, the meaning of this word in the Chinese context is different from that in English and would have confused someone unfamiliar with China. This additional discussion and process not only helped make the research narrative more fluent but kept it more focused.
Reflections about collaborative intercultural research
As already mentioned, it takes considerable time for a cultural outsider to build trust with the local people. The researcher often has to wait until an appropriate opportunity to approach a sensitive topic and to be allowed into the details of complex social situations. The outsider needs to find a gatekeeper who can open the door to a particular topic or gain the confidence of the community as a whole. Once the outsider has gained the trust of the local people through their collaboration with an insider, they are better able to look at the issues with an objective perspective. He, or she, is free to raise questions to which the insider may be culturally ‘blind’. In this way, the insider and outsider are able to discuss the research questions from different perspectives based on their individual backgrounds and experiences. This allows them to explore certain issues more thoughtfully rather than seeing them in only one way (Merriam et al., 2001; Liamputtong, 2010), and as such this compensates for some of the weaknesses of the insider’s perspectives.
Nevertheless, the outside researcher is affected by the dominant narrative in which they were brought up and have adopted be it political, racial, gender or religious. Western scholars usually are convinced about the advantages of democracy, freedom of speech, human rights, and critical thinking. B, from his time in China, had already come to realize that for many rural people in China these western values were not of such high priority. For the people of Jin’e what was of greater priority were sufficient food and adequate accommodation, safety and security, and opportunities for all to make progress through hard work. It is easy for the insider to want to ensure any presentation gives a positive image of their country or society. The insider has their own pre-formed biases and cognition about the research data, whilst the outsider might be more objective and critical. A positive interaction between the two researchers therefore can result in more reliability and accuracy of the data.
While the insider tends to be concerned with specific knowledge in the field, the outsider is more sensitive and interested in general knowledge which is more connected with the objects of the research. This makes them better able to achieve a deeper understanding of the research target. The outside researcher lacks knowledge about the world of the participants and so needs to scrutinize certain issues more closely whilst the insider sees the issue as a common phenomenon. During our research, the English researcher often raised some questions that the Chinese researcher thought were somewhat irrelevant, but they were significant in providing meaning to an outsider. Similarly, the insider seems preoccupied with some local detail that appeared irrelevant to the outsider. Through such interaction, the conversations in the field work ensured that important concepts were not missed.
Ethical payments or social reciprocity?
One of the issues that came out during the fieldwork was that of making an ‘ethical’ payment to an informant. This could be criticized because a direct payment could affect the objectives of the research and, of course, the researcher may have only limited resources. Nevertheless, reciprocity is often an important element in the process of building relationships in this study. For example, some parents hoped their children could have the opportunity of speaking English with foreigners or have photographs taken with them because this was the first time their children had ever seen and spoken to someone from another country. One father said to the English researcher, ‘This is the first time I have seen a “living laowei”’ (A laowei is a foreigner, so the man was meaning he had only ever seen one before on television).
We needed to remember that interviewees had their own agenda for collaboration, so the exchange is reciprocal. The two researchers were invited to teach some classes in English at the local school. In general, we were happy with such requests because they were often an important step in building relationships that often resulted in invitations to have tea or a meal with the family. These times gave opportunities to visit their homes and meet their families to gain more background information. In one case, we met a woman in the village who encouraged her daughter to stay with us for a weekend so she could speak English with us. After 2 days this lady invited us to a meal at her friend’s home. Throughout our time with her family, the atmosphere was relaxed, which encouraged the woman and her family members to talk more freely about their lives in the village. During the fieldwork some of the older people especially wanted their story to be heard and to express to an outsider what they had gone through in past years. This matched in with our overall objectives, although it often raised painful memories that required empathy and wisdom during the conversation.
How far does one retain anonymity and censorship in written papers and how transparent should one be with the data? These are questions often faced by the researchers which is an issue that came during the writing up of these life stories. The anonymizing of places and people is a default practice for qualitative research which keeps a degree of confidentiality whilst locating the discussion in a particular time and place. As Victoria Reyes writes,
Assigning pseudonyms does not always equate to our participants’ anonymity or include the protections that we intend…pseudonyms in research can provide plausible deniability…the participants are able to assert plausible deniability that it is them precisely because they are not explicitly named (Reyes, 2018, p. 212).
We chose to do this in the writing and used pseudonyms as these provide interviewees some element of protection of their identities and deflect any unintended harm that may occur. Meanwhile, another related issue emerges in exploring life stories in that they often expose issues that are by mutual consent unspoken because of shame or embarrassment; they are confidential to an individual, family or even the whole community. To some degree, these are found in all families and communities, and this is an ongoing challenge to narrative research. If the researcher was aiming at producing a purely objective historical account, he or she would consider that no relevant incidents should be omitted even if some individuals do not wish these to be published. This situation however affects the insider and outsider in different ways. For the outsider, once she or he leaves the field there may never be any further communication between the researcher and the interviewees, and so the researcher may be totally unaware of any repercussions in the family or community. For the insider, however, a failure to comply with the request could have wide social effects in which the insider becomes personally involved.
This article has understood ‘collaborative research’ as mutual research by a small team of two or three individuals that includes a cultural insider and outsider. Collaborative research has advantages for both insiders and outsiders, and for the nature of the research itself. For outsiders, it allows easy access and achieves trust and acceptance by the local community. This is important where authorities sometimes are suspicious of the motives of foreigners asking questions in their jurisdiction. It could be argued that this stifles the critical aspect of research, and although this may be true, through respect and trust many social issues of communal concern can be meaningfully addressed.
As mentioned previously, insiders have some pre-formed biases that may influence their objectivity, as can sometimes be seen, when working with an unqualified local translator. However, when the insider member of the team has been trained in ethnographic methods, they not only understand the objectives of the research but are able to appreciate the different perspectives raised by the outsider. The outsider member of the team can help the insider retain a critical distance from the subject. As a result, the researchers can question the research from different perspectives based on their different experiences and backgrounds. This mutual interaction means that there is not only two rather than one perspective, but the very engagement allows the possibility of a broader narrative and deeper understanding as these perspectives interact. This effectively allows the insider the freedom to engage in autoethnology whilst relating to outsider.
Such interaction between an insider and outsider depends on mutual trust, and what may be expressed as humility in appreciating the other's perspective. As shown already the relationship requires both mutual accountability and agreement with regards to how and which data is communicated in the ethnography written to the outside audience. By acknowledging this, ethnographers are better able to grasp a richer portrait of the social world they are studying. For both the insider and outsider, young researcher and older researcher, the collaborative process becomes a shared learning process of great value.
The datasets generated during and/or analysed during the current study are available from the corresponding author upon reasonable request.
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We appreciate all constructive comments from reviewers. We acknowledge the support of the National Education Science Funding (BIA210200).
The authors declare no competing interests.
Ethical approval was obtained from the ethics committee of Sichuan Normal University. The procedures used in this study adhere to the tenets of the Declaration of Helsinki.
Informed consent was obtained from all participants to publish this study. This article does not contain any materials which are not allowed by participants.
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Liu, X., Burnett, D. Insider-outsider: Methodological reflections on collaborative intercultural research. Humanit Soc Sci Commun 9, 314 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1057/s41599-022-01336-9