Researchers with inside knowledge of their subject can face interesting challenges.
TaLisa Carter, assistant professor in the department of justice, law & criminology at American University, takes a look at how insider status can effect one’s research outcomes.
TaLisa J. Carter, PhD, is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Justice, Law & Criminology at American University, a non-resident fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institute, an Affiliated Scholar at Urban Institute, and an Affiliate with the Center for Advancing Correctional Excellence! at George Mason University. Her research examines theoretical explanations of accountability in the criminal justice system, the role of identity in criminal justice professions, and the impact of colorism on criminal justice outcomes. Previously, she worked as a Deputy Corrections Officer in Savannah, GA where she supervised male and female residents with diverse classification statuses. Her work has been funded by the National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health. Additionally, her work has been published in outlets including Race and Justice, Deviant Behavior, and Sociological Forum.
Insider Status as a Researcher
Researchers who collect their data inside correctional facilities face a unique set of challenges – but when the researcher is also a former corrections officer like me, the result can be suspicion, avoidance, and labeling as “a Snake,” “a Snitch,” “a Mole,” or “Books.”
When I studied how employees are trained at a statewide department of correction in the Mid-Atlantic in 2018, I was quickly confronted by challenges. While my practitioner experience granted me credibility with corrections administrators, the notebook I scribbled in constantly generated suspicion among staff.
Snitches talk. Snakes record. A mole has hidden intentions. But when my subjects gave me the more endearing nickname “Books,” it illustrated the complexities of my dual identity along the spectrum of relationships that exist between researchers and participants. And although these labels may not be distinct concepts, they reflect varying levels of rapport and trust.
While “insider” status, such as prior experience as a correctional officer, may convey legitimacy and trust to some people within the institution, my outsider status as an academic raised skepticism in others. Our study shows how balancing status between insider and outsider can both hinder and enhance the research process. It reveals the importance of rethinking key stakeholders in research and underscores commitment to reflexivity throughout the entire research process.
Although our data are from corrections, the leveraging of both an insider and outsider status is applicable to any context in which researchers have prior practitioner experience, including education, law, and business. It is vital for anyone engaged in research to acknowledge the intersections of their identities, including their professional selves.
Both practitioners and academics can benefit greatly by integrating individuals with both insider, outsider, and in-betweener status into their research teams or make them key stakeholders in their work.