Insiders, Outsiders, and Background Knowledge in Semi-Structured Interviews: Notes on Researching Transnational Families

Sunday, 10 July 2016: 12:45
Location: Hörsaal 41 (Main Building)
Oral Presentation
Kamini GRAHAME, The Pennsylvania State University, USA
Peter GRAHAME, Pennsylvania State University - Schuylkill, USA
Our project on Indo-Trinidadian transnational families employed semi-structured interviewing with a new twist—an insider/outsider team approach.  We interviewed over 50 individuals in Trinidad (West Indies), the U.S., and Canada. The researchers were Kamini, a native Indo-Trinidadian, and Peter, a white American.  In this paper, we explore how using insider and outsider cultural roles restructured the interview process in both anticipated and unexpected ways. As qualitative methodologists explain, interviewing is a reflexive process. What respondents can and will tell about their lives is intimately interconnected with what researchers are assumed to know and how that knowledge is exhibited.  Those assumptions are complicated by the co-presence of insider and outsider interviewers, making variations in knowledge more visible. One dynamic is set up by the understanding that outsiders require more explanation of family practices and rituals because of limited familiarity with the culture. While that might seem an impediment, this permits exploring background knowledge that otherwise might be glossed over. Another dynamic is set up by the understanding that insiders have a deep familiarity with the culture and family experiences. This may lead respondents to provide shorthand accounts that need to be opened up further. In addition, there are situations in which the insider knows less, or differently, than assumed, and the outsider knows more, and differently, than assumed. Knowing too much, too little, or differently, all complicate the interview process but also open up new possibilities. This requires the research team to take an active stance, monitoring how both their knowledge, and their partner’s, is displayed.  In our interviews, “what the researchers know” was actively and closely managed in situ. Related issues about “what people know” emerged when families were interviewed as a group. We provide detailed examples from the field to illustrate the challenges and possibilities of this approach.