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Revisiting Insider-Outsider Research in Comparative and International Education

reviewed by Anatoli Rapoport - June 08, 2017

coverTitle: Revisiting Insider-Outsider Research in Comparative and International Education
Author(s): Elizabeth McNess, Michael Crossley, & Lore Arthur (Eds.)
Publisher: Symposium Books, Oxford
ISBN: 1873927673, Pages: 264, Year: 2015
Search for book at Amazon.com

Researcher positionality has long been the focus of academic debate among social science scholars. The qualitative researcher’s role is one of the most important aspects (and many argue that it is the most important aspect) of any study’s validity. At the same time, ironically, the researcher’s insider/outsider perspective is the most sensitive, vulnerable, and unpredictable part of a study’s design. It is not surprising, therefore, that the positionality paradox remains a critical part of any qualitative research paradigm: Researchers must be acutely attuned to the experiences and symbolic systems of others while also being aware of how their own biases and preconceptions may impact what others try to understand (Maykut & Morehouse, 1994). As a result, researchers find themselves in a place where the boundaries between insideness and outsideness are blurred and easily passable.

This volume, which draws on papers presented at the inaugural Thematic Forum sponsored by the British Association for International and Comparative Education (BAICE), includes thirteen chapters written by researchers and education practitioners. The first four chapters present theoretical outlooks on the insider/outsider dichotomy in comparative and international education research, as well as current debates about these concepts and researcher positionality in general. The nine remaining chapters present a collection of studies that examine methodological dilemmas, the roles of culture and identities, and outsiders’ experiences in mainstream cultures from the perspective of the insider/outsider debate.

In recent decades, qualitative research has become vividly more inclusive, reflexive, and collaborative. Elizabeth McNess, Lore Arthur, and Michael Crossley discuss in Chapter One how these latest tendencies in qualitative research have influenced the theoretical concepts of “insider” and “outsider.” They argue that due to multiplicity, flexibility, and the changing nature of individual and group identities, the delineation between the insider and the outsider is murkier and less stable. A researcher’s perspective is shaped by multiple factors, such as language, gender, age, and experience, so being an insider or outsider has much to do with the researcher’s life, scholarship, and prior knowledge.  

The ambiguity and problematic nature of the insideness or outsideness dichotomy as an analytical tool in qualitative research is the point of departure for Anna Robinson-Pant’s investigation of the use of these concepts to enhance our understanding of learning and knowledge construction. In Chapter Two, using the example of three vignettes with different contexts from different parts of the world, Robinson-Pant demonstrates the challenge of moving beyond essentializing culture and the insider/outsider positionality, as well as the importance of informal learning in the professional development of educational researchers.

Being an insider or outsider involves the mixture of feelings that people experience when they participate in various collectives. In Chapter Three, Peter Kelly analyzes the in-group power relations that facilitate the construction of insiders and outsiders. Kelly contends that supporting individual reflexivity to challenge social convention is not enough; scholars should seriously consider the social in-group relations in which individuals exist. By looking at three idealized collectives, namely emergent, established, and exclusive, the chapter concludes that power relations in collectives are implicit because people define themselves through comparison with others, regardless of their position roles.

Nilou M. Hawthorne continues the discussion about researcher positionality by approaching the construction of an insider and outsider through discursive practices. Critical discourse analysis is proposed as a method of reconceptualizing the relationship between an insider and outsider in international and comparative education research. Thus, the position of the researcher will ultimately be decided not only by the researcher’s reflectivity, but also through negotiation and re-negotiation of professional subjectivities.

The subsequent chapters present multiple case studies in which authors address the problem of being an insider or outsider. Several studies draw upon Homi Bhabha’s concept of the third or in-between space, which explains how boundaries between social groups create new identities and “set(s) up new structures of authority, new political initiatives which are inadequately understood through received wisdom” (Rutherford, 1990). In Chapter Five, Claire Planel considers researcher positioning roles in an account of five projects in which she explored the embedded cultural values in England, France, and Denmark. Planel suggests using the hyphenated term “inside-outsider” to better capture the duality of meaning and the concept’s fluidity, inferring dynamics between two words and two worlds.

The fluidity and dynamics of researcher positioning is also the focal point of Chapters Six and Seven. In Chapter Six, Nicola Savvides, Joanna Al-Youssef, Mindy Colin, and Cecilia Garrido examine the theoretical and methodological considerations and implications of the insider/outsider debate, noting that identity and belonging emerge from fluid engagement between researchers and participants, therefore challenging the traditional discourses that rely on static conceptual categories. By operating in a fluid third space, the authors argue, qualitative researchers generate more credible and valid outcomes. Lizzi O. Milligan reflects in Chapter Seven on her positioning during four months studying secondary schools in Kenya, illustrating how the participative methods used in the research contributed to shifting many students’ perceptions of the researcher and her positionality. Milligan specifically stresses the necessity of an active participatory role in order for a researcher to be a real inbetweener. The fluidity of the researcher’s position is also observed in Chapter Twelve in the description of a study conducted in international schools in Hong Kong. The researcher, who at the initial stage of the project was a neutral outsider, moved through two additional phases to become an “alongsider” researcher, eventually taking on the perspective of an insider. The positioning here was challenged and shaped by the contexts of Hong Kong and the international schools. Authors Ed Wickins and Michael Crossley conclude that the fluidity of the researcher’s position made the methodology more distinctive, as it exemplified the dynamic use of contrasting perspectives and the researcher’s ability to employ contrasting theoretical interpretations. The multiplicity of researcher identities and methodological positions in the third space is the topic of Sughra Choudhry Khan’s analysis in Chapter Eight. In her doctoral study exploring the effect of teachers’ perceptions of “feeling valued” and how those perceptions affected their work in a private school in Pakistan, Khan was able to do research as an inbetweener due to multiplicities in her biography, as well as her bicultural and bilingual status.

Unlike other contributors to this volume, Qing Gu in Chapter Ten and Hania Salter-Dvorak in Chapter Eleven reflect on studies that explore the positionality of research participants rather than the researchers. Both authors discuss international students’ experiences and their impact on the students’ identities. Gu used findings from three studies in which she and her colleagues investigated challenges that international students had encountered at British universities, and the perceived impact of their overseas studies on their lives in their home countries. In search of a sense of belonging, international students negotiate their insider or outsider positions with themselves and others. Upon returning home, this internal debate continues explicitly and implicitly. Salter-Dvorak in turn describes a longitudinal ethnography of communication at a university in the United Kingdom, in which case studies of two graduate students were employed in order to analyze the dynamic between dominant discourses, power relations, and identities in two graduate courses. Using Erving Goffman’s “frontstage/backstage” metaphor, the author demonstrates that the students’ experiences as insiders and outsiders could be complementary, and their identities shifted depending on their positions in different contexts.

All contributors to this volume convincingly argue that the identity of the researcher and research participants, as well as their positionalities, can no longer be considered static constructs, for they are dynamic and at times unpredictable variables that potentially significantly impact the results of the research. With its balanced representation of theoretical and practical perspectives and a clear description of methodological challenges faced by researchers in their quest to explore identities, power relations, and marginalized communities, this book is a helpful guide for all scholars in the field of international and comparative education.



Maykut, P. & Morehouse, R. (1994). Beginning qualitative researchers: A philosophical and practical guide. Washington, DC: Falmer.

Rutherford, J. (1990). The thirds space. Interview with Homi Bhabha. In: J. Rutherford (Ed.), Identity: Community, Culture, Difference (pp. 207-211). London: Lawrence and Wishart.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: June 08, 2017
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22032, Date Accessed: 12/2/2021 11:02:14 PM

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About the Author
  • Anatoli Rapoport
    Purdue University
    E-mail Author
    ANATOLI RAPOPORT, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of Curriculum and Instruction at Purdue University College of Education. He is editor of the Journal of International Social Studies and past Chair of Citizenship and Democratic Education Special Interest Group of Comparative and International Education Society. His research interests include: comparative aspects of education, global and international perspectives in citizenship education, and constructivist theory. He is the author of two books: Fields Unknown and Civic Education in Contemporary Global Society (with A. Borshevsky). He is currently working on a special issue of The Compare (as guest editor with Serhiy Kovalchuk) and as editor of the book Competing Frameworks: Global and National in Citizenship Education.
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