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Insider or Outsider Within?

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One problem of being a black female academic and social welfare lawyer from a working class background is that many of the key texts on lawyering and social research methods have little to say about my experience. It is also an advantage.

My PhD research comparing telephone and face-to-face advice and casework for social welfare legal aid problems involved in-depth interviews with lawyers, advisers, and clients as well as observations of their interactions with each other. Getting access to legal aid settings proved difficult, and my insider status as a former social welfare lawyer was invaluable in enabling me to recruit participants to my research. It was evident that I would not have been able to complete my research without it. Furthermore, my insider knowledge gave me the advantage of quickly understanding the complexities of the advice agency setting.

Yet, when I began to explore the literature on the theory and research methods that related to my study, I found that I had become ‘an outsider within’. Hill Collins (1986) has written about the value of the ‘outsider within’ status of black women in academic institutions and the unique challenge they present to orthodox sociological thought. The low numbers of black people in the legal profession and the academy mean that I do not fit the traditional mould of what academics expect. Confusingly, academic studies characterise me as both privileged and subordinated. The literature on intersectionality exposes the failure of the conventional discourses on race, feminism, and class to recognise the complicated nature of the experiences of black women. Nevertheless, the position of someone like myself is rarely given mainstream consideration and this can make it a difficult ground to occupy.

Works on radical lawyering or research interviewing typically characterise the lawyer/researcher as high status and white, if not also male. The client/interviewee was usually assumed to have low status, was often black and sometimes female. The assumption was that, unless checked, I would intimidate, undermine and/or downright oppress my client/interviewee. It was rarely contemplated that a black woman would be the lawyer or researcher (and the client/interviewee a white man) and that a more complicated dynamic might be at play.

This frustrating lack of consideration given to the position of the black professional/academic woman can give the freedom to cultivate your own approach. However, in the face of work that lacks resonance with your own experience or understanding it can be difficult to work out how to conduct research in a way that is meaningful. This doesn’t mean ditching the major texts in these areas, but, for me, it means approaching them with a healthy scepticism and making my own judgements about whether they are useful for me or not. I practice reflexivity and self-awareness when conducting my work ­– or at least I try to – fortunately, the heightened sense of difference that comes from ‘outsider within’ status prepares you well for the discipline of self-examination.

It helps to find a framework within which you can operate and which supports your choices. I found that feminist theory and particularly feminist standpoint theory gave me a methodological framework in relation to my work. Feminist standpoint theory starts from the premise that there is no objective truth, and that different social experiences condition knowledge (Letherby, 2003; Harding, 2004). This means that I can place myself and my experiences within my research and give voice to the black female academic experience. However, the willingness of feminist researchers to acknowledge their own subjectivity opens them up to allegations of bias. Objectivity is promoted as the gold standard for research, but objectivity is often defined from a white male perspective. Hill Collins (1986) explains that black female intellectuals find that conventional sociological research ‘places white male subjectivity at the center of analysis’. Transparency is my main defence to allegations of bias. Whether I adopt or question a methodological approach, I record it when writing up my methodology and methods. This discipline enables me to establish my position in the academy at the same time highlighting its failings. I doubt I will ever feel entirely comfortable in the academy, but, as a researcher, I value my discomfort as a protection against complacency and a spur to listen for the unheard voice.

About the Author

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Dr Marie Burton

Senior Research Fellow, Centre for Socio-Legal Studies, University of Oxford

Dr Marie Burton is a Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Socio-Legal Studies, Oxford University. A former social welfare lawyer, she specialises in access to justice, legal aid, and social welfare law. She is currently working on an oral history of the Law Centres movement.

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