“What does it mean to be an insider or an outsider to a particular group under study?” Merriam et. al pose this question at the opening of their piece “Power and Positionality: negotiating insider/outsider status within and across cultures,” in which they explore the power dynamics at play in the interactions between researchers and the subjects of their observations. According to Merriam, power and positionality are not fixed concepts that create static and cleanly delineated divisions in subjects, but rather fluid and relational constructs that must be constantly navigated and renegotiated in anthropological research.
“During fieldwork the researcher’s power is negotiated, not given.”
Being inside a community, Merriam suggests, is far more complex than just having a claim to a specific shared national, ethnic, or geographic origin. Rather, insider status is established by members of communities who coalesce around aligned individual qualities that span components of peoples’ ideas reaching from race, to gender, to educational backgrounds. As such, Merriam states that “positionality is thus determined by where one stands in relation to ‘the other'” and more importantly, “these positions can shift: ‘The loci along which we are aligned with or set apart form those whom we study are multiple and in flux. Factors such as education, gender, sexual orientation, class, race, or sheer frustration of contacts may at different times outweigh the cultural identity we association with insider or outsider status.”
Yet while Merriam’s analysis offers critical insight into the dynamics that exist between researchers and their subjects, it also offers a more broadly salient and culturally significant understanding of insider/outsider dynamics that may inform our interactions outside of specific research contexts. Most of us traverse precarious insider/outsider dynamics on a daily basis, passing in and out of our contingent identities as students, friends, children, leaders, and members of separate (although often overlapping) social spheres. Yet, while most of us can identify with a sense of existing as an outsider or oscillating between feeling like an insider and an outsider as we phase through our different identities, many of us do so without ever questioning how our everyday insider/outsider statuses may affect our knowledge production.
While the step to interrogate the veracity of representation in formal research seems natural, the necessity of doing so in the mundane contexts of our daily lives may feel less relevant. Yet knowledge production is not an activity confined to formal research, nor are community dynamics informed solely by the power dynamics created between observers and observees. And just like race, educational background, gender, class, and nationality may affect our interpretations of other communities and our ability to observe and understand others, so too does our ability to recognize actively the position from which build the foundations of our knowledge about our community and others.
The relational exchanges that inform our own identities are constantly at work, and as such the knowledge that informs our observations is constantly in formation and under reconstruction. How we interpret our own communities and cultures cannot be divorced from our sense of insider status, and how we relate to communities which we feel foreign to cannot be divorced from our social sense out outsider-ship. Thus, perhaps most in Meriam’s analysis is its pertinence in our daily formation of relationships and ideologies. While we may not all go on to do research with communities, we all constitute our own ideas about the world based on relationships that we formulate every day. Being able to recognize how our opinions and observations are informed by the power dynamics that we engage with is critical — as much as it is in research — to valuing earnestly the opinions of those outside of our communities.