Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1997

Insider/Outsider Team Research

Jean M. Bartunek and Meryl Reis Loius
Sage Publications: London
0 8039 7159 1
£7.95 (pb)
viii + 80 pp.

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We typically approach the groups we study trailing an impedimenta of theoretical and conceptual ideas. In doing so we often forget that research participants have their own theories about what they do and why they do it. Traditionally, that gulf between outsider and insider perspectives remained unbridged. In recent years, however, attempts have been made to build research teams out of a partnership between insiders and outsiders. Bartunek and Louis provide a short but lucid account of Insider/Outsider (I/O) Team Research. The roots of I/O team research, according to Bartunek and Louis, lie in community psychology, action research in organizations, and the teacher-researcher movement. These traditions are informed by an ethical and political stance which seeks to empower research participants. It seems clear, however, from the description Bartunek and Louis give that the theoretical foundations of I/O research are cognitive. By combining in a research team people with varying degrees of cognitive, conceptual and social distance from the group, 'a marginal perspective is created at the intersection of the contrasting perspectives represented by insider and outsider.' Putting this another way, interpretations rooted in the background, skill and knowledge of each team member are inevitably challenged by the interpretations offered by those with different backgrounds, skills and knowledge.

Bartunek and Louis provide a useful step-by-step guide to conducting an Insider/Outsider research project. In I/O research, it is important that the study address the goals of both insiders and outsiders. Although there is some variation depending on who is forming the group and for what purpose, it is fundamental to the approach that the working relationships within the group are governed by mutual respect and influence. In some cases this may even involve a (not necessarily written) contract. Such a contract might serve to adjudicate between competing aims and point to ways of resolving conflicts. It is clear from Bartunek and Louis's discussion that there is not one single template for I/O research. They give a variety of examples of how teams have formulated research questions, designed data collection procedures, and collected and data analyzed. In each of the examples they give, there is a sense that the procedures adopted were appropriate to that case, although it is difficult from their discussion to gauge how things might have been done differently. Following on from this, Bartunek and Louis provide an extended example of a particular project and discuss both the practical and ethical challenges posed by the method. It is clear that I/O Team Research poses particular problems in terms of managing field relations and in relation to the dissemination of research finding. The familiar ethical issues surrounding informed consent, deception and confidentiality are by no means absent, and might in some cases be intensified where insiders and outsiders co-produce the research.

Bartunek and Louis, by and large, present a convincing case for I/O Team Research. Their discussion of the difficulties involved is useful, though rather general. One wonders, for example, what an account of a project that went badly wrong would look like. Bartunek and Louis acknowledge that there are limits to the use of the method. It would be difficult, for example, to develop an I/O team within a highly fictionalized setting or within a context of wider social conflict. Even outside such contexts, there are many situations where the values of insiders make them uncongenial to outsiders and vice-versa. A more thorough discussion of boundaries to feasibility which surround the method would have been useful. This last point is important more generally because there are limits to a view of research which sees it only as premised on an incompatibility of cognitive perspective. In at least some kinds of work that incompatibility is actually a strength. Sociology has always contained within it a strong ironic, some would say cynical, stance. This is premised on the view that what people do may be very different from what they say they do. The ironic stance has been useful in debunking the obfuscations of the powerful and the conceptual distance it provides fosters cross-case comparison. The ironic stance is also an inherently generalizing one since it is usually implies an implicitly formal sociology which seeks to transcend immediate social context. Insider/Outsider Team Research would seem to preclude a stance of this kind. Bartunek and Louis would presumably argue that what is lost thereby is more than compensated for by the strengths of their preferred method.

Ray Lee
Royal Holloway, University of London

Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1997