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Insiders and Outsiders in Ethnography

As I gear up to teach another section of Introduction to Cultural Anthropology this summer, I am pleased to direct my students to the discussion at MindSpace about insider-outsider dilemmas in ethnographic research. It’s good fodder for the first few classes and discussions about what anthropologists do.

I appreciate particularly the post’s concluding thought:

And irrespective of what the researcher’s origins are, he/she needs to play the role of both an outsider and insider in the course of ethnographic inquiry.

The distinction between expert and ethnographer is, however, considerably more grey than the post would have us believe. Oftentimes ethnographers are considered experts because they can move back and forth between outsider and insider roles. I think particularly of ethnographers who testify in court. In that context, the court recognizes the expertise of the ethnographer on the basis of training and research, usually to the exclusion of community members themselves. In these situations, community members are insiders without outsider status or standing.

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6 Comments

  1. charu wrote:

    thanks for this mention! just a couple of thoughts – about what I meant by experts in this context was someone, a researcher, a guide, assistant, with “expertise” or deep understanding of the local culture… I am not sure but I was not thinking on the same terms as you here – the outside (to the community) ethnographer as an expert…?

    (and you know we’ve had this disucssion before) – but in commmercial research, the ethnographer may be considered an expert (in whatever sense of the word) due to more immersive nature of the method, as opposed to a researcher who merely skims the surface with say, interviews…

    Thursday, April 20, 2006 at 5:10 am | Permalink
  2. I recognize that we … and perhaps others … use the terms expert and ethnographer differently. That’s what’s so interesting about our conversations! In my experience, the ethnographer tries very hard to become an insider, but never fully makes it. Still, the perspective of long-term participant observation combined with the fresh eyes of an outsider gives credibility and validity to ethographic research.

    (And I don’t quite know what to make of the idea that interviews ‘just skim the surface’ … in my mind, interviews in a variety of formats are part-in-parcel of a complete ethnographer’s toolkit. Any single method on its own will be limited in scope.)

    Thursday, April 20, 2006 at 8:31 am | Permalink
  3. Mikaele Paunga wrote:

    An ‘expert ethnographer’ whatever this may mean who is an ousider can never become an expert in another culture. Even if I am armed with a long-term participant observation, I may understand many things but I cannot feel the other culture. I have lived and studied in a foreign culture, speak the language very well, but I do not understand the culture fully. Culture is not just about how people think or rationalize, it is about the way people feel about things. An outsider can never feel like an insider no matter how long he or she may stay in a country or culture. I think the ethnographers are just trying to justify their profession.

    Wednesday, April 16, 2008 at 1:12 pm | Permalink
  4. Thanks for the comments, Mikaele. In short: I don’t being an insider is the goal of the ethnographer. Moreover, I wouldn’t think anthropologists believe it is even possible to become an insider. I certainly don’t. (I suppose we agree on this point.) I’m not, however, sure what the distinction between an ethnographer and an expert ethnographer is … is there a meaningful one?

    To elaborate a little, ethnography is more than the attempt to become a complete insider. Ethnography is a presentation of another culture from the point of view of someone acknowledged to have come from the outside. Anthropology has a history, in fact, of looking down on the ethnographer who ‘goes native.’ Ethnography must certainly include a continued recognition by the ethnographer that he or she is not an insider and will likely never be one. (Don’t you think?)

    Perhaps another question worth considering is how far ‘inside’ you actually have to go to be an effective ethnographer?

    Wednesday, April 16, 2008 at 3:07 pm | Permalink
  5. From Thelma (with apologies for hitting delete and not approve):

    got here a little late! Can I add an interesting comment/question? I’m currently doing ethnographical fieldwork observing canadian rituals (citizenship ceremonies). I changed to a single site in Toronto (I had proposed multi-sites). I am aboriginal (Dene) – northwestern AB. Am I an Insider or Outsider? How will I know if I “go native”?
    Can I claim “expertise” of ‘whiteness’?
    Hope your class goes well. : )

    Sunday, August 3, 2008 at 6:51 am | Permalink
  6. Thelma … fascinating questions and observations. Are you able to answer any of the questions yourself? What is your experience telling you?

    Are you, perhaps, finding that the new citizens(?) look at you as an expert on Canadianna? Surely there are aspects of your work that make you a naive and unknowing outsider. If not, would you be doing the research?

    I’d love to hear more of what you find and decide. Thanks for writing.

    Sunday, August 3, 2008 at 6:54 am | Permalink