Based on the experience of conducting field research in Kazakhstan, I reflect on the challenges of working in a cross-cultural insider-outsider differentiated team. My work with my colleague Eva Kipnis on this research project highlighted that the research team dynamics not only needed detailed attention in a research design, but also required consideration during data analysis. I realise that being an insider or an outsider is not a dichotomous relationship, and that applying particular methods, such as debriefing and memoing, helped give each other equal weight in the collection and interpretation of data. Besides memoing and debriefing, it is the informal conversations between the two researchers, talking about any questions, thoughts or ideas in detail between interviews that helped us do greater justice to our research and our participants, write Aurelie Bröckerhoff.
“… the homecomer’s attitude differs from that of the stranger. The latter is about to join a group which is not and never has been his own. He knows that he will find himself in an unfamiliar world, differently organised than that from which he comes, full of pitfalls and hard to master. The homecomer, however, expects to return to an environment of which he always had and-so he thinks-still has intimate knowledge and which he has just to take for granted in order to find his bearings within it. The approaching stranger has to anticipate in a more or less empty way what he will find; the homecomer has just to recur to the memories of his past” (Schütz 1945: 369)
On a 15-hour train journey across Kazakhstan, Eva and I review the interviews we had just conducted during the day. Reflections on the last interview with high-ranking policy officials (‘interview 5’) end in a heated discussion on our interpretation of what we had just heard. This is partly due to the fact that Eva, a Kazakhstani who speaks Russian (the lingua franca) and grew up in the country, has different insights into the subcontext of our conversations to myself, a complete newbie to Kazakhstan.
More specifically, during this interview, Eva perceived the many questions about her upbringing, her family and friends, as veiled threats posed to ensure that we comply with the interviewees’ strict rules of not linking interview data to the organisation interviewed. I, on the other hand, saw these essentially as opening ‘small talk’. Our different interpretations may be down to the fact that Eva is what Schütz (1944/45) has referred to as a ‘homecomer’, and I, on the other hand, am a stranger; in short, Eva, as a national, has more sensitivity in picking up situational cues and interpreting these.
As another example of the impact of the differences in our positionality on interpretation, a point made by several of our study participants regarding the cultural aspects assigned to marijuana consumption (also referred to as anasha in Kazakhstan) proved a particularly challenging data point for us to reconcile. Specifically, participants (even in one same interview) voiced conflicting opinions and views on the role and meaning of marijuana in society: while on the one hand, our participants expressed highly negative views on marijuana and clearly viewed it as an entry drug, they also, on the other hand, referred to marijuana as part of the Central Asian cultural landscape. For Eva, this conflict was a natural one that did not need particular attention in the data analysis, whereas to Aurelie it raised some issues around perceptions of drugs that from her own experience and perspective would benefit from further analysis.
The notions of ‘homecomer’ and ‘stranger’ put forward by Schütz 50 years ago are in need of updating to reflect, for example, modern means of communication and travel. Despite this, they still resonate with the on-going debate about insider and outsider research in ethnographic fieldwork. Continue reading