Insiders, outsiders, and insider-outsiders: Navigating positionality in community-based research

By Gloria Fraser

When asked about my sexual orientation I tend to hesitate, offering up an answer ranging from a firm “straight” to a questioning “pretty much straight?”, depending on who I’m with. It’s become a joke amongst my friends—after years of doing research as a (mostly?) straight cisgender woman about rainbow peoples’ experiences and wellbeing, I’ve become less sure of my answer over time. And maybe this is what we’d expect: that the more time we spend thinking about the labels people use to describe themselves, the more our own labels shift and change.

And we as researchers in critical health psychology should be thoughtful about the words we use to describe our identities, because our positioning really matters. Doing community-based research as someone with lived experience is vastly different from doing the same research from an ‘outsider’ perspective. To be clear: neither is better or worse, but we must reflect on how our identities and subject positions impact our participants’ experience of research, and on the knowledge we produce.

So, what do I mean by ‘insider’ and ‘outsider’? And what about ‘insider-outsider’? An ‘insider’ researcher is generally considered one that shares the identities and experiences of their participants, while an ‘outsider’ researcher does not. A heterosexual cisgender researcher is, for example, an ‘outsider’ to rainbow communities. You might have already noticed a flaw in the logic here—that we as researchers are not one dimensional! Our identities are multifaceted, so we will always share some identities and experiences with our participants and not others. This is where the concept of the ‘insider-outsider’ comes in; that we can exist in a third space, “a space of paradox, ambiguity, and ambivalence”.

My students have historically not appreciated the invitation to exist in a space of ambiguity and ambivalence. It’s murky and confusing and doesn’t provide easy answers. They want to know how to do research right, how to make sure they don’t hurt anyone in the process, or inadvertently speak on behalf of a group they’re not a part of. I, for one, remember sleepless nights all the way through my PhD research grappling with the same concerns. I haven’t figured it all out (and, perhaps, we should be wary if anyone claims to have done so!) but I do have a few tips to share on navigating positionality in community-based research:

1. Don’t wait to engage with community members

It’s in the name, isn’t it—community-based research involves getting out there in the world and building relationships with the people you want to do research with. And ‘with’ is the key word here: we do research with people, not on them. When we’re worried about our level of knowledge or we feel nervous we’ll mess up, we can put off community engagement. My advice is, don’t wait! Start reaching out to community members, activists, and leaders at the beginning of your research project. Building relationships takes time, and respect and openness is much more important than how many papers you have read.

2. Act with humility and respects peoples’ time

Good community-based research involves a lot more listening than it does talking. Sometimes as researchers we have an urge to demonstrate that we’re a good person for the job by talking about all we know on a topic. Remember that academic literature is no trade for lived experience, and that community members’ time is valuable. Do your homework, but balance this with asking open-ended questions and really taking in the answers. Showing your appreciation through sharing food or buying the coffee can go a long way, and homemade baking always goes down well. When you get feedback about a mistake or how you might do things differently, apologise, take it on board, and move on.

3. Get engaged beyond your research

Community-based research isn’t just about the research, it’s about showing that your care extends beyond your own work by getting involved in a community itself. This can mean volunteering, protesting, or attending community events. If you are not a member of the community you’re working in, double check who an event is for. In the rainbow community, non-rainbow allies are welcome at many events, but some spaces are just for rainbow people, so be sure to respect that.

4. Keep a reflexive journal and get comfy with discomfort

Discomfort with navigating positioning shows that you are thinking carefully about the intricacies of identity and experience. Pay attention to what you are feeling and ask yourself: am I feeling uncomfortable because I am learning something new, or am I feeling uncomfortable because I need to do something differently? Good supervision and writing out your thoughts can really help with this process.

5. And perhaps most importantly….

You don’t need to know all the answers, and you get to decide how to describe yourself. It’s also okay to give different answers in different contexts. We are people first and researchers second, and our identities are allowed to be fixed or in a state of flux. So, I will continue to give my many and varied answers to the sexual orientation question as I navigate that ‘insider-outsider’ space of ambiguity and ambivalence, but I don’t presume to share the experiences of my research participants. And I think they would say that that is okay too.    

About the author

Gloria Fraser (she/her, Kāi Tahu) is a teaching and research fellow at Victoria University of Wellington and also works as a clinical psychologist.

Her research and teaching focus on youth wellbeing, identity, and cultural competency (particularly for Māori and rainbow communities). 

When not at mahi you’ll find Gloria baking bread and running on Wellington’s south coast. 

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