“Insider” and/or “outsider: Anthropologists’ constant status negotiation”

Feray J. Baskin - PhD Candidate, Indiana University, Bloomington, IN, USA

“Insider” and/or “outsider: Anthropologists’ constant status negotiation”

Anthropologists are constantly negotiating their social and professional status within a community in which they are working. They are sometimes labeled as insiders, at other times as outsiders. Who decides this and what is the significance of the labels and the concepts behind them?

One important skill anthropologists should master is the knowledge of the language of the community they study. However, even when using correct words in a local language people might be suspicious of the researcher and his/her intentions.

For instance, I came to realize that the Turkish word, araştırmak “to do research” and all of its derivatives, including araştırmacı “researcher” and araştırma “research” were, from my perspective, misunderstood by some women in the French-Turkish community in the Alsace region of France where I work. To them the ideas associated with these words are social worker, journalist, or someone sent from the government to check on Turkish women. In other Turkish-speaking contexts these words are less likely to be interpreted in these ways. But because of the particular experience of Turkish immigrants in France, araştırmacı has acquired this additional meaning of “suspicious outsider.”    Speaking the language of the community in which one works has obvious advantages in the sense that the investigator is able to understand the subtleties and different meanings of linguistic interactions, and thereby has access to “authentic material.” Furthermore, s/he will be closer to the community because s/he will be able to communicate without an interpreter, which would otherwise set the anthropologist apart as an obvious “outsider.” An interpreter might not be able to translate a researcher’s original question accurately or in some cases may misinterpret an original intent because one specific concept or concern focused on by the researcher is not easily referred to in the local language or an idea captured in a subject’s response may not translate easily into the researcher’s first language. A consequence of such slippage in communication can be different responses and thus flawed conclusions.

An initial insight into the question of who is an “insider” and who an “outsider” anthropologist can be found in the European colonial period. Anthropologists of the period, often white and male, in order to study and comment on indigenous communities, needed “insiders” to gain access to local culture and to justify their findings as “authentic material,” only accessible by working directly with someone they referred to as a “native.” For anthropologists in the first half of the 20th century, such as Malinowski, their job was to transcend the limits of European culture to “grasp the native’s point of view, his relation to life, to realize his vision, his world” (Malinowski 1961 [1922]: 65). This was, then, only achievable directly through working the “native.” Boas argued that “materials reported and inscribed by a trained native would have the immeasurable advantage of trustworthiness, authentically revealing precisely the elusive thoughts and sentiments of the native” (Lowie 1937:133). The tenet of the first half of the 20th century was thus, “native” sourcing for an anthropologist equals “authentic” material.


More recently Narayan (1993) stands against a sharp distinction between fixed concepts, such as “native” versus “non-native.” She argues that anthropologists are all natives of the community they are studying and that the terminologies they use even today, such as native, grew out of Western approaches to studying a specific group of “colonized” people. She concludes by saying that anthropologists should instead deconstruct the dichotomy of  “insider” vs. “outsider.” One reason for this call for deconstruction is her view that anthropology is currently often practiced by members of formerly colonized countries working within their own communities, now referred to as developing countries or minority/ethnic groups. 

For another contemporary anthropologist, Delmos Jones (2008), on the contrary, there should be a distinction made between “insider” and “outsider.” Many “native” anthropologists are primarily concerned with an improvement in the life and conditions of their “own” people (Jones 2008) and this an understanding of who is local and who isn’t can be important.

Another complication is that anthropologists, “insiders” included, have multiple identities based on endless designations, including race, gender, age, education, economic situation, and sexual orientation and have to be able to recognize these in different settings with different people.  Kempny (2012:47) defines anthropologists’ identity as  “a multi-stranded and a manifold entity.”

The “insider” scholars who decide to write about their own culture have potential advantages as well as challenges. One advantage is that the ethnographer is informed about the culture from the outset, and s/he is capable of creating questions sensitive to this awareness. However, as Zavella (2006) shows in her own ethnographic fieldwork among Chicanas, an anthropologist may have to negotiate her status (as a researcher, a student, and a member of the community) and her relationships even is she shares many identity features with community members. As an “insider,” how does an anthropologist present herself to participants? How much of one’s self can and/or should be shared with community participants? In many cases the ethnographer starts building friendships with his/her informants, which frequently results in the “I owe you” syndrome or even the feeling of exploiting participants.

Kempny (2012) presented advantages for an anthropologist of being part of a community through ethnicity and heritage, and believes in the authenticity of the material gathered and interpreted by an “insider” versus an “outsider.” Thus, according to Kempny, being “native” or “quasi-native” can help a fieldworker in the initial stages of research in “establishing rapport with gatekeepers” (Kempny 2012: 45).  A “native” also has intuitive knowledge about the kind of behavior that is appropriate and inappropriate in a variety of social situations. This “knowledge production although facilitated by an ethnographer’s ‘insider’ status, is very complex and manifold, with other important aspects of the anthropological self coming into play and undergoing constant negotiation during research” (Zavella 2005: 45).

On the other hand, a real challenge for an “insider” is the possibility of overlooking important details that an “outsider” would notice immediately and on which s/he would ask for clarification. As the “insider” researcher one has “to get out of taken-for-granted reality and surpass the essentializing modes of thinking about one’s own culture, realizing that cultures are fragmented and there are inconsistences within one culture” (Kempny 2012:49). Another significant challenge for the “insider” is misinterpreting behaviors as a result of one’s interested position in the community and then potentially drawing on flawed conclusions based on these particularistic interpretations for instance, or at the least being perceived of doing as much.

Sometimes a researcher can “look like” a member of the community s/he is studying. Does this mean that s/he will have all the advantages of the “native”? Pack (2006:111) talked about the implications of a change in his marital status in the community [Navajo] he was studying: “married to an Indian women with Navajo children narrowed the gap separating [Pack and the participants].” His new status allowed him to become closer to his participants, however, his focal relationships shifted. He was treated as a member of the community, one to whom their rules applied. He became “[for the first] time the subject of rumors and badmouthing from others… [he] inherited [the] rivalries and [the] enemies” of the family he was closely affiliated with. As Pack (2006:112) nicely frames it for his own case “while [acceptance] means that they consider [him] more of an insider, [he] also loses the privileges and freedom that came along with being an outsider. Just as some doors opened, others closed.” This is a challenge for the “inside” because of personal networks, “friends” in the community one is studying will portray the anthropologist as a community member as a particular individual, which leads to the following question: How do participants see the ethnographer?

“[They] are also interpreting the ethnographer….the people with whom the anthropologist works are usually able to size him [or her] up and understand his [or her] role in the community” (Pandey 1972). In the long run it may not matter whether the researcher is an “insider” or an “outsider” because s/he will be evaluated primarily as an individual. This could be a disadvantage for the “insider” if s/he, for instance, does not behave as locally expected, this ignorance could result in limited access to participants’ responses: short answers, undeveloped responses, guarding personal information. At some stage, the human relationship is more important than the status of the anthropologist because “[in] an ethnographic interview…the speaker will only reveal what he or she wants the researcher to know…Usually the longer and more amiable the relationship, the richer and more consistent is the final product… how [participants] respond depends entirely on the level of rapport” (Pandey 1972:335).

This distinction between “native” and “non-native” or rather “insider” vs. “outsider” should also be addressed from the participants’ perspective on how they see the ethnographer. This is subjective, varying for those in the community who accept the ethnographer as a researcher and also as member of their group, vs. others in that same group that do not? Progressing further in this breakdown, instead of trying to determine whether one is an “outsider” or an “insider,” an ethnographer should try to discover what their particular role in community is or should be. The ethnographic process itself can be helpful in this determination, but an ethnographer’s role can also change, developing through time and in specific situations. And, so to what extent is a researcher part of the community? To what extent outside of it?

In the literature, there have been labels such as native vs. non-native used in reference to ethnographers. I prefer the words insider and outsider to the words native and non-native: because I view the latter pair as an anachronistic hold-over from the colonial period. The terms insider and outsider more appropriately and accurately reflect the current moment. I agree with Jones (2008) that there should be a distinction between the concepts of “insider” and “outsider.” Such a distinction is made at the moment an ethnographer is introduced to a community being studied and then is continually reevaluated as interrelationships among local people and the researcher change and grow. It behooves the anthropologist to understand how they are positioned by various community members.

It is reasonable to talk about “insider” and “outsider” based on a continuum of acceptance determined by the members of the community. It is up to each specific individual in the community to decide whether or not the person who is studying them is part of their community even though they may clearly be from the same ethnic background. This gives a fair opportunity to both the “insider” and “outsider” to become validated at some point, through some process as an authentic “insider.”

Furthermore, I do not think that any ethnographer is ever stuck being an “outsider.” It is possible to become an insider of a community despite contentious identity dynamics. A change of status, by way of example, can happen when a participant learns that the ethnographer is from another region of the same country and/or from a different ethnic background, than they had previously believed. For instance, because of my unusual background (born in Holland, raised in France with Turkish heritage, and studying in the United States), during my fieldwork when I was asked this simple question in Turkish: “nerelisin?” (“Where are you from?”) my automatic response was “I was born in Holland,” but then I added my Turkish heritage from the Black Sea region. At that very moment of revealing my Turkish heritage I was differently and strongly categorized. When talking to me about Turkish immigrants from the Black Sea region in the community, some of the French-Turkish residents of Alsace made reference to sizinkiler or sizin taraflılar “your people” or “people from your side” [here with the meaning of region] in relation to me. This made me feel as an “insider” and as an “outsider” both at the same time. I felt like an “insider” recognized as someone sharing the same general culture, Turkish, with my consultants. However, I felt like an “outsider” too because I lacked some of the regional traditions that characterize the cultures of some groups of Turkish residents in Alsace.

In the end, it is a two-way road, where both the ethnographer and participants decide whether the former is an “insider” or an “outsider.” One should not take for granted any attitudes or behaviors as definitely indicative of “insider” or “outsider” status. The dynamic is more complex than it appears. It is almost impossible to “translate” the “Other” as a whole. One must instead realize that the anthropologist’s work is based on both “etic” (apriori and often outsider) principles and “emic” (insider and often emergently categorized) observations as part of their possible interpretations. Ethnographers will remain the liaison between the “Other” and an external audience and have a responsibility to convey their ethnographic material as clearly as possible no matter their “insider,” “outsider” status in the studied community.


Works Cited

Jones, Delmos 2008    Anthropology and the Oppressed: A reflection of “Native” Anthropology. NAPA Bulletin 16(1):58-70. 

Kempny, Marta 2012    Rethinking Native Anthropology: Migration and Auto-Ethnography in the Post-Accession Europe. International Review of Social Research 2(1):39-52.

Lowie, Robert 1937         The History of Ethnological Theory. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

Malinowski, Bronislaw 1961 [1922] Argonauts of the Western Pacific. Longe Grove: Waveland Press, INC. 

Narayan, Kirin 1993    How Native is “Native” Anthropologist? American Anthropologist 95(3):671-686.Pack, Sam

2006    Social Thoughts and Commentary: How they see me vs. How I see them: The Ethnographic Self and the Personal Self. Anthropological Quarterly 79(1):105-122

Pandey, Triloki Nath 1972    Anthropologists at Zuni. Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 116(4):321-337.

Zavella, Patricia 2006    Feminist Insider Dilemmas; Constructing Ethnic Identity with Chicana Informants. In Feminist Anthropology a Reader. Ellen Lewin, ed. Pp. 186 202.



Feray J Baskın

Associate at LCSS & PhD Candidate in (Linguistic) Anthropology, Indiana University

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