The Impact of the Researcher on the Researched

Ryan J. Al-Natour


Doing research is always risky, personally, emotionally, ideologically, and politically, just because we never know for sure just what results our work will have. (Becker 253)

Howard Becker accurately captures the various problematic dimensions that researchers encounter. Numerous personal, emotional, ideological and political dimensions impact research projects in sometimes unpredictable ways. In this paper, I examine some of the many impacts that researchers can have on their own projects. In much of the literature on qualitative research that examines interviews, focus groups and similar methodologies, scholars identify that a variety of factors influence the interactions between researchers and their projects. The academic debates regarding the insider/outsider positions of research are significant here. I will draw attention to the complexity of the researcher/researched relationship and argue that, in light of complexity, researchers can find themselves in predicaments where they are just as much part of the research data as their participants. Ultimately, I aim to contribute to an existing rich literature that deals with these issues concerning the relationship between the researcher and the researched. In this paper, I discuss my own experiences researching the Camden controversy and conclude with a number of suggestions for researchers to consider in similar predicaments. It is from these experiences that I aim to highlight the impact researchers have on their data and the complex relationships between researchers and "the researched". Further, it is through my experiences and observations that I address the theme of "impact" of research in the wider community.

Insider/Outsider Debates

Scholars often debate how researchers impact their projects. In the past 30 years, academics have focused on how researchers interact as "insiders" or "outsiders" (Naples 84; Coloma 15; Smith 137). Ultimately, these debates focus on the positionalities of researchers, and how these positions impact projects. A number of thought-provoking questions surface in these debates, regarding the distance/closeness between the researcher and participant/s. Scholars interested in this relationship often ponder if this distance/closeness affects the richness and quality of the data. Commonly, issues regarding the researcher's gender, "race" and class are topical in these discourses. Young points out that an assumption grew from these debates, which concludes that researchers who do not share these categories with their participants work find it more difficult to gain their participant's trust (187). From this perspective, women interviewing men hold outsider positions as women, "non-whites" interviewing "whites" hold outsider positions as "non-whites", and so on. Such a view leads to a rigid dichotomisation of the insider vs. outsider binary, which scholars have recently challenged (190).

Academics now argue that researchers experience insider/outsider placements and various signifiers mark insiders/outsiders (Young 191; Sin 479) beyond the "race"/sex/class categories. These include sexuality, "race", education, gender, ethnicity, language and class (Coloma 14) to name the most common. Further, these markers are dependent upon the socio-political context of the time of research (Naples 83); thus researchers hold fluid insider/outsider positions. As the next generation of cultural researchers, I argue that we should acknowledge the increasingly complicated positions, influences, and relationships that manifest themselves in the stories of the researchers and the researched. We are never truly outsiders, yet never wholly insiders either; however, we are always partial in examining our research results (see Clifford 7). Yet the various insider/outsider positions generate a number of challenges for researchers. I unpack some of these positions and challenges in discussing a recent project I researched called the Camden controversy.

The Camden Controversy

In 2007-2009, a controversy over a proposed Islamic school took place in Camden, an area located on the greater Sydney fringe. In October 2007, an Islamic charity proposed a Muslim school in the area and within weeks, a local rally against the school took place involving thousands of local residents. A second anti-school rally occurred months later, where some local residents sported the Australian flag, publicly vilified Muslims claiming the school threatened the "nation". A local anti-school group was formed and two white supremacist groups supported locals against the school. Several extreme-right politicians also campaigned against the school which included former One Nation leader, Pauline Hanson, and leader of the Christian Democrats, Fred Nile. Additionally, two pigs heads with an Australian flag and a wooden crucifix were placed on the proposed site. In the end, the Camden Council rejected the application and the Land and Environment Court rejected the Quranic Society's appeal (for more information, see Al-Natour 573-85).

I began researching this controversy in 2008, watching the above events unfold. One of my research methods included interviews with local residents. As a non-local, male researcher of Arab descent (specifically, Palestinian Greek Orthodox Christian and a culturally Islamic background), some interviews were challenging. In some cases, interviewees talked of the controversy as though they responded directly to my "Arabness". In other cases, interviewees positioned me as an outsider to the area. At other times, interviewees sub-typed me from "other Muslims" and I was granted some form of insider status. In various complicated ways, my experiences reflect how researchers become the "researched". To articulate these experiences, I discuss my interactions with only two participants (due to article length restrictions) with very different positions on the school.

Case Study 1: Grace

Grace is a 38 year old Catholic woman of mixed European heritage who is working in a clothing store in Camden. The interview took place with two of her co-workers in the room. Grace is opposed to the idea of a school in Camden. At the beginning, Grace was understandably suspicious about talking to a stranger about the controversy.

Grace: So if there is anything I don't wanna answer, I'll just say 'no comment'.

[Researcher]: That's ok, that's fine.

Grace: So are you a Muslim? Is that why you're doing ya project here?

[Researcher]: I'm not Muslim. No.

Grace: (puzzled) are you sure?

[Researcher]: Umm. I am an Arab though, but not Muslim. If that's what you're asking?

Grace: Oh. Well, I can be an Arab too. See! [grabs a pair of men's underwear from a nearby clothing rack and places the underwear on her head] See! Gee wiz, I am one of those Arab ladies! (Interview, 17 July 2009)

While her co-workers laughed in the background, Grace began to speak in a gibberish tongue, perhaps imitating "Arabic" (perhaps the men's underwear is supposed to mock a woman's headscarf). This incident may have been a performance for her co-workers, and may not have occurred if the interview did not have an audience. In this situation, Grace's audience and the interviewer influence her "underwear performance".

Perhaps there was a look of shock on my face, as Grace then began to explain that she was doing me a favour by participating in the interview and claimed that an Arab would not have agreed because Arabs "are very rude". Again, Grace discusses Arabs perhaps realising her actions were not appropriate at the time. Conceptually, this incident highlights how the interviewee responds to the researcher's ethnicity and her "joke". In the presence of Grace and her co-workers, the performance highlights their "insider" statuses. The vilifying "Arab" clothing and languages were almost like a bonding performance, something that came up as a result of Grace's interaction with an Arab researcher.

The interview is a place where Grace negotiates her position on the school and a variety of other issues that she relates to the researcher. She talked about headscarves worn by Muslim women:

I don't know why they wear it as they stand out, there's lots of people that wear long skirts, that's fine, but you ["Muslims"] should mingle. I feel comfortable with you [the researcher], because you are not a covering-up-Muslim, but if you're wearing a head thing, I think that I would be uncomfortable, I mean I would think you had a machine gun [laughs].

The fluidity of the researcher's insider/outsider statuses becomes defined as Grace thinks about the school and Muslims. In the case of hijab, Grace uses the "Muslim" researcher to portray Islamic headscarves as outsider items. In the interview, we talked of Catholic nuns and Grace commented that nuns rarely wear headgear anymore. She agrees with modesty, yet defines her position on hijab by expressing her feelings of the researcher. The interview is a place where Grace considers her positions on Muslims, and the researcher in this case influences Grace as she communicates her viewpoints in light of her interviewer.

Case Study 2: Andrew

Andrew is a 43 year old resident of Anglo-Maltese heritage. He works in the Camden area and supported the proposal for an Islamic school—which would have been only 5 minutes drive from his workplace:

[Researcher]: I can see it's [Camden is] different from other areas. It's like a country town.

Andrew: I wouldn't say it's a country town anymore. It's not Orange Parks or Bathurst [rural areas]. It's on the outskirts, beginning of the rural area. I have lived here for 8 years. (Interview, 5 Oct. 2009)

The differences of opinion on Camden here illustrate broad positions of the insider/outsider researcher (myself). Here, the researcher states their observations of the area as an outsider to Camden. Andrew responds to the researcher and positions himself with a sense of authority as a local. In terms of the contents of the interview, it is obvious that the researcher's dialogue influences the shape of the data.

In other parts of the interview, Andrew found common insider ground with the researcher:

France has got the highest population of Muslims, I dunno what the statistics are here, but France holds the most Muslim immigrants, they let them in to mix. I mean, look at you, you have mixed in, you even got your ear pierced! Kids mix in, what about the footballer, El-Masri, but look at him, he has mixed in! Everyone loves him!

Here, the researcher has insider status when Andrew discusses how Muslims "mix in". Also, the researcher becomes part of the project, as the interview uses the interviewer's items (ear piercing) and a Lebanese-Australian retired footballer (Hazem El-Masri) as evidence of Islamic integration into Australian society. Here, the researcher's appearance specifically impacts the research, unlike the previous instance which focuses on dialogue between the researcher and researched.

Given that the literature on qualitative methodologies focuses on the impact of the researcher's "race", ethnicity and so on, it is obvious that these factors relate to the interview itself. As my quote from Becker at the beginning highlights, research results are unpredictable, often to the point where researchers have unforeseen experiences with their participants. Conceptually, we need to think about impact as a complicated process when we reflect upon our projects and make sense of the researcher/researched relationships.

Dealing with "Impact" Issues

In both insider/outsider positions, the interviews with Grace and Andrew epitomise some instances that show how researchers cannot be separated from their data. Though both participants held different positions on the school, both demonstrated the complicated impact that researchers have on their projects. Further, they challenge the conventional views of qualitative methodology, which see research as a one way process where researchers interview participants and merely (and "objectively") obtain data. In light of the contemporary academic debates regarding the positionality of the researcher, I suggest that the complexities facing researchers destroy the strictly "insider" vs. "outsider" understandings of qualitative research. Though I reach this point by specifically focusing on interviews as research methodologies, I will also point out that even beyond the context of an interview, merely finding research participants and documenting field notes can be challenging.

In my case, my Arab identity influenced the ways some residents responded when I asked them whether they would participate in an interview about the school. In some field notes, I documented some of these hostile instances when I approached people in public places and requested their participation in my project:

Anonymous Male Resident 1: Look, I don't wanna do the interview, it's not that I am racist, I just can't stand the rag heads, they aren't normal!... in fact if it were up to me, I would probably exterminate them all (laughs). (Field notes, 9 Oct. 2009)

Anonymous Male Resident 2: I saw your people on TV last night... the ones that sound like turkeys, Gobble Gobble. (Field notes, 31 July 2009)

In these circumstances, prospective-participants frame the researcher as an outsider. Their refusals to participate show us how residents feel towards a researcher, and how these "feelings" impact upon their project. In my case, this meant it was difficult to find some participants, making the researcher's accessibility to interview participants and the obtaining of data a result of their insider/outsider statuses.

In researching "race", Duneier suggests that the researcher should hold a "humble commitment" to be open in the field and be aware of their own social position (100). Becker asks how a researcher should react to the challenges of racism. It becomes a practice of balancing two binary opposing ideals: one rejects racist views, and the other which seeks to understand a particular expression/view of racism, which ultimately benefits knowledge. Thus, the researcher is faced with remembering the purpose of the research project—the pursuit of knowledge, not the debates with participants (Becker 247-49). Similarly, Ezzy argues the task of qualitative researchers is "not to attempt to solve political and moral issues, nor to avoid them, but to be aware of and engage with the potential political and moral implications of their writings" (157). In dealing with the various challenges of the project, I had to transform into the "researcher". My role was not to accuse participants of being "racists", rather to map out how certain views, which could be categorised as "racist", made up the qualitative research experience and would impact the fieldwork journey. As a researcher, my job was to investigate the Islamic school controversy in Camden. It was as though I needed to temporarily disregard (not compromise) other parts of my identities and focus on extracting information. It was an opportunity to pinpoint how particulars of my identity—gender, ethnicity, religion, skin colour, appearance, age, and so on, impacted upon the data collection process and the content.

Conclusion: Way Forward?

Throughout this article, I have argued that the complicated researcher/researched relationships result in the researchers becoming part of the research itself. Given how challenging this process is for researchers, I finish this article by suggesting some thought-provoking strategies and ideas for the next generation of cultural researchers. Given that all research projects vary, the researcher's impact processes also vary. It is also worth pointing out that in some circumstances, the "outsider" researcher can work for the project, where participants might feel the need to explain and elaborate on particular topics they feel the researcher does not know much about. Thus, attributing "positive" or "negative" feelings on the "insider" or "outsider" researcher is, at times, flawed and pointless.

Whether the researcher is predominantly positioned as the insider, or the outsider, or remarkably changes between the two consistently, I would suggest a number of issues to help handle the impact of such predicaments on the research project in a way that can benefit the generation of knowledge. These issues include debriefing, strengthening, positioning, limiting and self-challenging topics. These suggestions would vary from one project to another, operating as a guide that should not be "set in stone". While it is difficult at times to determine how the researcher may impact the research data, it is important for researchers to be conscious of mapping out these challenges on their fieldwork journeys.

Debrief with fellow scholars: Confidential discussions with supervisors, fellow researchers and other academics are processes that can enable researchers to make sense of these challenging predicaments (as long as the researcher is mindful of the ethical details involved). Debriefing can help release any emotional baggage or frustrations attained by these experiences. Sharing opinions on these instances can be helpful, particularly in identifying any overbearing biases of the researcher in making sense of their data. Furthermore, in circumstances where the researcher is working alone on a project, debriefing can remove a sense of isolation that can be accumulated by a lonely fieldwork project (particularly in the case of a doctoral project!).

View the project as an exercise in building your research skills: Any research project, no matter how challenging or demanding is an opportunity to make sense of the world around us. Fieldwork also provides a chance to build character and strengthen the researcher's skills. Being in control of certain behaviours as researchers can be seen as a strength. This is not to say that the researcher compromises their values for the sake of research. Rather, the researcher has a particular role which needs to be seen in a professional light.

Be wary of your own expectations and biases: This relates to the previous topic on character building and strengthening the researcher. As Becker argues (as quoted at the beginning), we cannot predict our research results. Researchers should not walk into their fields attempting to manipulate or predict their research results. The project itself could be extremely challenging where the researcher might expect to be "insider"/"outsider" in unexpected situations. Research results may not always be as hypothesised or generally expected. Therefore, researchers should be prepared to be challenged in terms of their own understandings of racism, sexism and other issues (again, depending on the project). Also, Rosaldo points out, "social analysts can rarely, if ever, become detached observers" (Rosaldo 169). Given that scholars challenge the idea of an "objective" researcher, it is best to acknowledge any forms of biases and how they influence the process of collecting and analysing data.

Identify the complicated positionality of the researcher: The complicated insider/outsider positions of the researcher need to be acknowledged when examining the data. The researcher needs to be mindful of how they are approached by participants. Furthermore, the researcher should keep in mind that such positions are not fixed but are changing constantly, sometimes instantly and other times gradually. These different positions need to be seen as interrelated. Also, the researcher should remember there are different levels of being the insider and outsider, and both these positions can work for and against the process of collecting data.

Map out the limitations of the project: The research field (which does not necessarily refer to an actual physical environment), in some circumstances, can be volatile and dangerous for some researchers. In the case of my own project, an Arab female researcher would have different experiences, some of which could include violence (according to the Isma report conducted by the Australian Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission, Arab women are more likely to experience racially-motivated violence than Arab men—see HREOC). I would advise that researchers are mindful of their "fields". Further, I recommend that research is conducted in public places, particularly if they are about contentious issues. Do not give personal details and if a particular topic inflames the participant during the interview to the point where you feel threatened, change the topic to something a lot less "inflammatory".


The names of these participants in this article are pseudonyms. Also, their positions on the school do not represent opponents/supporters of the school. Nor do they represent the Camden community. Further, my experiences interviewing these participants are not reflective of all the interviews I conducted in Camden.


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Cultural Studies; Qualitative Research; Racism

Copyright (c) 2011 Ryan J. Al-Natour

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