The notion that the researcher is an objective observer is an underlying idea within some sections of sociology. The pursuit of objectivity in social research has been widely criticised, and in many respects, put aside entirely. Indeed, methodological approaches that embrace researcher subjectivities, particularly feminist methodologies or insider research, are broadly utilised and acknowledged. Still, I have come to find that the researcher-as-outsider endures in some quarters.
Perhaps the positivist background lurking within the social sciences remains in some of the bureaucratic structures governing the supposed ‘way’ to do field work. Interviews must be conducted between two people, one asks the questions and the other answers the questions. Focus groups must contain a certain amount of people, no more and no less. The researcher must remain in control of the discussion at all times. Further, people come to be involved in the research in a directed, structured manner. So while these ‘rules’ exist to protect participants, researchers and provide consistency to a potentially messy undertaking, there remains an inevitable sense that the researcher is on the outside looking in. And the underlying message that this is the way to produce knowledge seems to persist within some sections of the social sciences.
I am a PhD student currently undertaking a qualitative study intersecting various sections of a large regional community. The regional community also happens to be the place that I grew up in. I spent my formative years in this town, I feel like I know it intimately. I have spent years walking down its streets, shopping in its shops and occupying those in-between youth spaces that young people typically ‘hang-out’ in. So when my participants tell their stories, I am able to relate on a personal level. For example, avoiding the parental gaze hanging out at the netball courts after hours or spectating the weekly automotive performance at the lake. These practices seem to have endured over time in this regional community.
I started my fieldwork informed by this personal experience of my town. In the background of my thought process was an assumption: ‘of course, I know this place, it is my town after all’. Outside of my personal sphere of experience, I am aware of broader dynamics informed via a myriad of government, academic and popular media sources. Some of these sources describe a broken town, citing ‘high teen pregnancy rates’, youth unemployment and rampant drug abuse. Still there are many strong voices within the community adding nuance and colour to this picture.
Now at the end of my fieldwork, I have become aware that despite some shared experiences, my own understanding of the town is so much narrower than I imagined. My conversations with young people in the community have been more diverse than I possibly could have anticipated. Each group has a different story to tell and each draws on a different set of resources to manage their everyday lives. For some, these resources are disappointingly limited, while others benefit from a range of opportunities.
During these conversations I experienced a certain degree of tension between my assumed insider status and my ‘official researcher’, outsider status. Neither wholly an insider, nor a complete, objective outsider, I found that I was impelled to mingle these seemingly contradictory roles. Indeed, many researchers have occupied this position before me. They have developed methodologies and theory to resolve this tension and pursue meaningful research insights. However, I am still trying to make sense of my newly collected data and position myself within the world occupied by my participants. Perhaps it will necessitate my own removal from the field site to manage this tension. Perhaps it will never be resolved, but only managed through open acknowledgement. Either way, I have learnt that I occupy an eternally fluctuating middle ground when I’m in the field, but this is ok.