The ethnographer as an outsider
I keep coming across this debate in ethnography methods about which kind of researcher is better:
an external expert, researcher, observer, stranger to the local context. providing an etic perspective to the research and data needs?
or a local informant – researcher, comfortable and familiar with the socio-cultural context, informing the research process with an insider’s view and knowledge – if not quite providing, but supporting the emic worldview that would emerge?
Here is a case I had made earlier for the importance of using local knowledge. Sure, there is a lot to be said for understanding a culture or a society from the inside. What remains inaccessible or arcane to the external researcher suddenly becomes clear in the presence of an insider.
However, what can a researcher completely removed from the research context bring to an ethnographic study?
I have been following Jan ChipChase’s accounts of his(?) recent research trip to Delhi with fascination. And I have come to understand the value of an outsider’s eye in ethnographic research. Chipchase has photographs and thoughts from street life and everyday experiences of Delhi, of India itself – and interesting insights emerging from those. Like this one on control of shared usage of phones.
I look at these photographs and say to myself, so what is new? I have seen these – people, occasions, products, usage patterns – all my life. Then, I look at them through Chipchase’s eyes – and mind? – and see them as if for the first time. Notice them. Think about them. For instace, what makes a fake a fake?
And that is the difference between an “outsider” and an “insider” in ethnographic research – looking at the everyday, the mundane and the normal with fresh eyes. As a local “expert” sometimes we tend to take things for granted – or ignore the more obvious and the ordinary in the course of our research. Whereas, ideally the ethnographer looks at all artefacts or behavior as “anthropologically strange” – or adopts an attitude of vuja de that I came across (and keep mentioning whenever I discuss ethnographic methods!).
I am not trying to pick up the debate here; I have only tried to think briefly about what each of them brings to the field. Is it alright then to say : the outsider notices, picks up and questions the obvious – and the insider inquires, digs up more from memory and past understanding and explains. 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.
Filed under: Ethnography and anthropology | 4 Comments