Who tells the story? Who makes the change?

There exists a strange dichotomy in ethnographic research.  In order to accurately understand a culture or a people, the researcher needs to be an insider, but to be able to take a new critical perspective, the researcher needs to be an outsider.  My first blog post of this doctoral journey began with:

“Garcia (2013) posits that researchers’ own biographies “greatly influence their values, their research questions, and the knowledge they construct” (p. 41).  A researcher must have credibility (be an “insider”) to be trusted and effective with study participants (p. 43).  The sense of Garcia’s writing is that a researcher can’t really understand the plight of someone who is different and whose life experience is different” (Lippincott, 2014).

Now, a full four weeks later, I have read what seem to be mountains of writings.  I am sure that I will soon look back and realize these readings are just the foothills.  Through this reading, I have breathed in a wide variety of opinions about the role of a researcher.  Rosaldo (1993) makes his point in a humorous way, sharing his ethnographic version of breakfast at his in-laws home, where the doting father became the “reigning patriarch” (p. 47) and the daughters’ expressions of gratitude became the “obligatory ritual praise song” (p. 47).  Luckily for Rosaldo, his future in-laws took this as a humorous parody, which, like much humor, had a grain of truth.  Rosaldo (1993) makes the point that “human subjects have often reacted with bemused puzzlement over the ways they have been depicted in anthropological writings” (p. 49).  So, here we see that an insider can not have the same view of an event as an outsider, someone with a different vantage point.  Is the outsider needed to point out truths that an insider can not see?  Is the outsider needed to translate an intimate experience into a general truth for both outsiders and insiders to consider?

You may be thinking that a perceptive insider can fulfill this function as translator.  Kirkland (2014), a young black male researcher, identifies himself as a part of  the demographic of young black men.  He uses his study of literacy in young black men as an example of ethnography, “a process of paradox, of being near while being far away, of engaging participants and their situations close enough while still retaining the necessary distance to explain them” (p. 185).  Yet, I felt his discomfort with this dynamic also.  In a conversation with a small group of young black males regarding their creation of rap, they stress his otherness:  You “can’t feel my flow…you don’t hear me…you be reading stuff about rap, but that don’t make you a rapper…you don’t live in it like us” (p. 186).  Kirkland’s analysis of this exchange included “As a perceived outsider, I got signified on” (p. 188).  Even as Kirkland is holding his outsider-ness as his identity as a researcher, he uses the youth vernacular to show his insider-ness.

Beyond this perspective of who is to tell the story, is the question of who is to create change?  What will be done with the story?  This is where culture circles and participatory research come in.  In these strategies, the researcher teaches the researched group the techniques and methods so that they can speak and do for themselves.  Perhaps researchers should become teachers of research methods and mentors of the formerly-researched, but now researchers themselves.  Participants can develop critical life skills that help them “consider life’s challenges from multiple perspectives” (Souto-Manning, 2014, p. 218).  This fulfills the two aims of research:  to tell an honest story and to affect change.


Garcia, S.B. & Ortiz, A.A. (2013).  Intersectionality as a framework for transformative research to special education.  Multiple Voices for Ethnically Diverse Exceptional Learners, 13(2), 32-47.

Kirkland, D. (2014). Why I Study Culture, and Why It Matters. In D. Paris & M. Winn (Eds.), Humanizing Research: Decolonizing Qualitative Inquiry with Youth and Communities (p. 179-200). Sage Publications, Inc.

Lippincott, D. (2014) Is Empathy Enough? [Web log]. Retrieved from http://nicole-renee.com/actionresearchineducation

Rosaldo, R. (1993). Culture & Truth: The Remaking of Social Analysis. Boston: Beacon Press.

Souto-Manning, M. (2014). Critical for whom? Theoretical and Methodological dilemmas in Critical Approaches to Language Research. In D. Paris & M. Winn (Eds.), Humanizing Research: Decolonizing Qualitative Inquiry with Youth and Communities (p. 201-222). Sage Publications, Inc.