The ethnographer as an outsider

19Apr06

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.

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4 Responses to “The ethnographer as an outsider”

  1. Having very briefly me Jan, I can confirm “his” is the correct word.

    I wonder about the evolution of the role, from outsider at the beginning, to insider as it proceeds along. And in consulting, I find there are two communities that I deal with – explicitly the “users” but implicitly my clients and their culture. It pays off more to be an insider with them, with an outsider’s perspective of their users. Or something like that. I’m sure I could cook up a brilliant (hah) essay on this but that’s my first shot at it.

    Great blog!

  2. 2 Asha

    Thanks for this discussion. I think being an insider or an outsider is dynamic. Noone can fully be an insider nor an outsider. The culture that you grew up in is but one thing that defines you…you are also defined by your gender, religion, race, education, etc. So a Jewish woman from Israel speaking to a
    group of Jewish boys in NY may be an insider in some ways….but a christian man speaking to a group of Jewish boys be may be more of an insider in other ways…

  3. 3 utpal rakshit

    I think sometime outsider’s objectivity lacks the subjctive digging of the memory and past of a place and sometimes insider’s subjectivity lacks required objective perceptions. The problem is of lacking something , the sene of lacking makes one to assume the role of an insider or outsider.This problem shows the way .Otherwise how ?


  1. 1 FieldNotes: Notes on the Anthropology of British Columbia » Insiders and Outsiders in Ethnography

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