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Exclusive narrative focus is solipsism—it stifles dialogue and is reductionist because we can never fully engage personal experience in a deliberative way—our arguments are relevant

David Bridges, Centre for Applied Research in Education, University of East Anglia, 2001, The Ethics of Outsider Research, Journal of Philosophy of Education, Vol. 35, No. 3

First, it is argued that only those who have shared in, and have been part of, a particular experience can understand or can properly understand (and perhaps `properly' is particularly heavily loaded here) what it is like. You need to be a woman to understand what it is like to live as a woman; to be disabled to understand what it is like to live as a disabled person etc. Thus Charlton writes of `the innate inability of able-bodied people, regardless of fancy credentials and awards, to understand the disability experience' (Charlton, 1998, p. 128).

Charlton's choice of language here is indicative of the rhetorical character which these arguments tend to assume. This arises perhaps from the strength of feeling from which they issue, but it warns of a need for caution in their treatment and acceptance. Even if able-bodied people have this `inability' it is difficult to see in what sense it is `innate'. Are all credentials `fancy' or might some (e.g. those reflecting a sustained, humble and patient attempt to grapple with the issues) be pertinent to that ability? And does Charlton really wish to maintain that there is a single experience which is the experience of disability, whatever solidarity disabled people might feel for each other?

The understanding that any of us have of our own conditions or experience is unique and special, though recent work on personal narratives also shows that it is itself multi-layered and inconstant, i.e. that we have and can provide many different understandings even of our own lives (see, for example, Tierney, 1993). Nevertheless, our own understanding has a special status: it provides among other things a data source for others' interpretations of our actions; it stands in a unique relationship to our own experiencing; and no one else can have quite the same understanding. It is also plausible that people who share certain kinds of experience in common stand in a special position in terms of understanding those shared aspects of experience. However, once this argument is applied to such broad categories as `women' or `blacks', it has to deal with some very heterogeneous groups; the different social, personal and situational characteristics that constitute their individuality may well outweigh the shared characteristics; and there may indeed be greater barriers to mutual understanding than there are gateways.

These arguments, however, all risk a descent into solipsism: if our individual understanding is so particular, how can we have communication with or any understanding of anyone else? But, granted Wittgenstein's persuasive argument against a private language (Wittgenstein, 1963, perhaps more straightforwardly presented in Rhees, 1970), we cannot in these circumstances even describe or have any real understanding of our own condition in such an isolated world. Rather it is in talking to each other, in participating in a shared language, that we construct the conceptual apparatus that allows us to understand our own situation in relation to others, and this is a construction which involves under- standing differences as well as similarities.

Besides, we have good reason to treat with some scepticism accounts provided by individuals of their own experience and by extension accounts provided by members of a particular category or community of people. We know that such accounts can be riddled with special pleading, selective memory, careless error, self-centredness, myopia, prejudice and a good deal more. A lesbian scholar illustrates some of the pressures that can bear, for example, on an insider researcher in her own community:

As an insider, the lesbian has an important sensitivity to offer, yet she is also more vulnerable than the non-lesbian researcher, both to the pressure from the heterosexual world--that her studies conform to previous works and describe lesbian reality in terms of its relationship with the outside-- and to pressure from the inside, from within the lesbian community itself--that her studies mirror not the reality of that community but its self-protective ideology. (Kreiger, 1982, p. 108)

In other words, while individuals from within a community have access to a particular kind of understanding of their experience, this does not automatically attach special authority (though it might attach special interest) to their own representations of that experience. Moreover, while we might acknowledge the limitations of the under- standing which someone from outside a community (or someone other than the individual who is the focus of the research) can develop, this does not entail that they cannot develop and present an understanding or that such understanding is worthless. Individuals can indeed find benefit in the understandings that others offer of their experience in, for example, a counselling relationship, or when a researcher adopts a supportive role with teachers engaged in reflection on or research into their own practice. Many have echoed the plea of the Scottish poet, Robert Burns (in `To a louse'):

O wad some Pow'r the giftie gie us To see oursels as others see us!3

--even if they might have been horrified with what such power revealed to them. Russell argued that it was the function of philosophy (and why not research too?) `to suggest many possibilities which enlarge our thoughts and free them from the tyranny of custom . . .It keeps alive our sense of wonder by showing familiar things in an unfamiliar aspect' (Russell, 1912, p. 91). `Making the familiar strange', as Stenhouse called it, often requires the assistance of someone unfamiliar with our own world who can look at our taken-for-granted experience through, precisely, the eye of a stranger. Sparkes (1994) writes very much in these terms in describing his own research, as a white, heterosexual middle- aged male, into the life history of a lesbian PE teacher. He describes his own struggle with the question `is it possible for heterosexual people to undertake research into homosexual populations?' but he concludes that being a `phenomenological stranger' who asks `dumb questions' may be a useful and illuminating experience for the research subject in that they may have to return to first principles in reviewing their story. This could, of course be an elaborate piece of self-justification, but it is interesting that someone like Max Biddulph, who writes from a gay/bisexual stand- point, can quote this conclusion with apparent approval (Biddulph, 1996).

People from outside a community clearly can have an understanding of the experience of those who are inside that community. It is almost certainly a different understanding from that of the insiders. Whether it is of any value will depend among other things on the extent to which they have immersed themselves in the world of the other and portrayed it in its richness and complexity; on the empathy and imagination that they have brought to their enquiry and writing; on whether their stories are honest, responsible and critical (Barone, 1992). Nevertheless, this value will also depend on qualities derived from the researchers' exter- nality: their capacity to relate one set of experiences to others (perhaps from their own community); their outsider perspective on the structures which surround and help to define the experience of the community; on the reactions and responses to that community of individuals and groups external to it.4

Finally, it must surely follow that if we hold that a researcher, who (to take the favourable case) seeks honestly, sensitively and with humility to understand and to represent the experience of a community to which he or she does not belong, is incapable of such understanding and representation, then how can he or she understand either that same experience as mediated through the research of someone from that community? The argument which excludes the outsider from under- standing a community through the effort of their own research, a fortiori excludes the outsider from that understanding through the secondary source in the form of the effort of an insider researcher or indeed any other means. Again, the point can only be maintained by insisting that a particular (and itself ill-defined) understanding is the only kind of understanding which is worth having.

The epistemological argument (that outsiders cannot understand the experience of a community to which they do not belong) becomes an ethical argument when this is taken to entail the further proposition that they ought not therefore attempt to research that community. I hope to have shown that this argument is based on a false premise. Even if the premise were sound, however, it would not necessarily follow that researchers should be prevented or excluded from attempting to under- stand this experience, unless it could be shown that in so doing they would cause some harm. This is indeed part of the argument emerging from disempowered communities and it is to this that I shall now turn.

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