Insider research has two different levels to it. If we start with what the literature defines insider research as “participant observation” (Edwards, 2002, p71), this would be represented as a teacher coming into a classroom to complete a lesson observation. They would be unaware of previous issues or concerns that have arisen between teacher and parent or teacher and student. This links to the second type of insider researcher, which is called a deep insider researcher. This is where the researcher is able to speak and understand information that is not public knowledge (Edwards, 2002, p72). A teacher in a school doing research on a class that they teach would be a deep researcher as they know the specific data surrounding their classes, as well as knowing the students well enough to explain certain behaviours or outcomes. However this insider research leads to concerns due to the area where bias can develop. If the researcher does not embed reflexivity into their research methods then this may cause questions to arise regarding the reliability and validity of their findings.
Even though there are areas of concern for being a deep insider researcher, the benefits can outweigh the disadvantages. These areas should be discussed and critically evaluated throughout the research project.
One benefit is that researchers have access to a large pool of people to draw a sample set from. This results in a more focused group being generated, and having access to data prior to the selection process. Without this inside access, it might take a lot more time to gather the information required to develop an equivalent sample set and even at that point, the trust level might not be there and the attitude of the group could be negative, resulting in guarded responses.
With this increased sample size comes the “quality and effectiveness of qualitative interviews” (Hodkinson, 2005, p138). As a deep insider researcher, the comfort that your students have is going to be invaluable, ensuring they feel safe and comfortable. Having this reassurance gives you the ability to understand the slang which is used, and also allows you to ensure that you have “additional stimulus” (Hodkinson, 2005, p139). This can be used to deepen the interview and draw out findings which many have been hidden away.
However, if the students are overly comfortable with you then they might make “exaggerations, omissions or throwaway statements” which you might be able to identify using reflexivity, but could also skew the findings. Furthermore, it difficult to identify these scenarios due to the level of familiarity which you have created with your focal group.
In addition to the aforementioned, one significant benefit is that you are able to understand the history surrounding the sample set or school. You will be able to understand the socio-economic background and what some of the driving motivations are. This can create barriers to be overcome, and can also be significant enough to cause rejection of findings unless you embed critical reflectivity.
The benefits of being an insider researcher outweigh the potential risks to being an outside researcher. Insiders are able to gain valuable insight and understanding surrounding their topic which they wouldn’t be able to get from not knowing the sample set. However, there needs to be a large amount of reflexivity throughout the data gathering process. This may result in having some information, which you previously thought had value, but now needs to be gathered via a different method due to unclear lines of differentiation.