Thoughts on: “Doing Insider Research in Universities” (Trowler, 2012) Part 1

This book was recommended to me (I’m pretty sure) by Inger Mewburn and while it is relatively short, it is incredibly pertinent to my PhD research. One of the reasons that I chose my topic area (Factors influencing TELT practices in Higher Ed) is the level of access that I have to this world through my day job as a learning technologist. I’m relatively new to the Higher Ed sector, after spending a long time in Vocational Education and Training – the other adult learning sector – and while there are many commonalities, there are more than a few significant differences to navigate.

Trowler seems to have a refreshingly grounded perspective of the Higher Ed sector, celebrating its many strengths but not being afraid to name the areas for improvement. There’s a lot to unpack in this remarkably short (74 pages all up) book so I’m going to break it into chunks.

Chapter 1: Insider research: a brief overview

Launching into an examination of the pros and cons of conducting research in your own educational organisation, Trowler quotes Merton (1972) who suggests that

insider doctrine (that only insiders can do ‘proper’ research because of the depth of their understanding) and the ‘outsider’ doctrine (that only outsiders have the necessary detachment for robust research) are both fallacies because we rarely are ever completely an insider or an outsider

The main thing, Trowler suggests, is that it is vital to state explicitly in your justification of your research methodology exactly how an endogenous (insider) approach might “illuminate areas of interest” and “where it could obscure them” (and the steps taken to avoid this)

In broad terms, the advantages of endogenous research include:

  • “better access to naturalistic data… greater access to the second record (underlying meanings of statements made in person or in print) and hidden transcripts (the occluded articulations of power relations within organisations)”
  • “the researcher is better able to produce ‘emic’ accounts (ones meaningful to actors), especially using an ethnographic approach”
  • ” the insider researcher is empowered to deploy naturalistic data (records of activities that are neither elicited nor affected by the actions of social researchers), critical discourse analysis (an approach to the study of the production and effects of texts of all sorts) and phenomenography (an approach to the study of the social world which captures the different ways in which a concept is apprehended, usually through interviews with a range of respondents in a particular social field)”
  • “Being culturally literate; one can deploy different types of data, which are relatively easily available, in interrogating an argument”
  • “There may be a better chance of having a beneficial impact on university practices too, especially if the research project involves action research or when research questions address the implications for policy and practice of the project’s findings (LSE Public Policy Group, 2011)”
  • “In addition, specific groups, previously under-represented or dis-empowered may benefit. Insider research is one way of addressing this issue by shining a light on experiences and ways of knowing of women and other groups”

On the other hand, there can be some significant practical disadvantages to insider research

  • “One’s involvement as a participant in the site of research may mean loss of the ability to produce good, culturally neutral, ‘etic’ (culturally neutral depictions of the social world, describing behaviours) accounts because if can become difficult to ‘see’ some dimensions of social life; they easily become normalised for the participant (the literature talks about the difficulty for insiders of “rendering the normal strange”: Delamont, 2002).”
  • “Moreover, there may be a conflict between the role as a researcher and one’s professional or student role in the university. There may be issues of power differentials between the researcher and researched, in either direction, which can be very problematic both ethically and methodologically (see Ryan et al, 2011 for a discussion of this…)”
  • “Finally, respondents who know the researcher personally or by reputation may have pre-formed expectations of their alignments and preferences in ways which change their responses to questions (a form of the effect called ‘interview bias’)”

My thoughts: 

As a full-time employee of a university with what I feel are a number of interesting avenues for investigation on offer, I am still highly mindful of the fact that not everyone may be as supportive and open to research into our practices as one might expect. Higher education can be an environment where people are necessarily heavily invested in their own expertise – it is essentially their currency – and even when questions are asked of their teaching (or professional) practices (rather than their discipline knowledge), it can sometimes be taken poorly.

Any number of other political factors can come into play and, rightly or wrongly, need to be considered and accommodated. Anonymising the data is possible but it does feel as though this would impact the narrative aspects of the thesis and, realistically, given the links to papers and conference presentations and the relatively small size of the ed tech community in Australia, it’s hard to believe that people wouldn’t figure out who you are writing about anyway.

Putting these things aside, from a purely practical perspective, as a part-time researcher and full-time employee, being able to work on research (with the blessing of my manager) that directly benefits our organisation during work hours is highly appealing. Maintaining a high degree of mindfulness about keeping an analytical and objective mindset – “rendering the normal strange” – might take a degree of effort but with focus seems achievable.

Merton, R. K. (1972). Insiders and Outsiders: A Chapter in the Sociology of Knowledge. Americal Journal of Sociology.lsLSELDSE
LSE Public Policy Group. (2011, April). Maximizing the impacts of your research: A handbook for social scientists. Retrieved March 17, 2016, from
Ryan, L., Kofman, E., & Aaron, P. (2011). Insiders and outsiders: working with peer researchers in researching Muslim communities. International Journal of Social Research Methodology, 14(1), 49–60.