Insider/outsider debate questioned at OHS seminar

Posted on 23/05/2014 by


Louise Ryan, professor of sociology at Middlesex University, questioned the “insider” versus “outsider” debate in research on migrants, in the most recent Oral History Society and Institute of Historical Research seminar.

She began her seminar by examining the notion of reflexivity and the dangers of research becoming “self-indulgent and narcissistic”.

“Research can become a project of self-discovery for the researcher, rather than enhancing wider social issues,” she said. She described the interview encounter as a kind of “dance”, with positions and identities constantly shifting, and with the interviewee an active participant in this dance.

Prof Ryan used the example of interviews she carried out with Irish and Polish migrants to “challenge” any sense of insider and outsider as a “fixed unitary identity”.

“What interests me when we talk about insider and outsider is the bigger question of what we mean. Inside and outside of what?” she said.

Prof Ryan contrasted two research projects: a group of interviews with women who had migrated to the UK from Ireland several decades ago and interviews with young men and women who had come to the UK from Ireland to work as teachers in the last couple of years.

As an Irish woman herself Prof Ryan said she was interested in the interactions between herself as interviewer and her interviewees and the “way in which age and generation created moments of empathy and rapport but also marked tensions and distance”.

For example, in her interview with Fidelma, who spoke of her complex relationship with her home country, Prof Ryan noticed how the interviewee took for granted her background knowledge of Irish society and culture and “implicitly identified me as an insider”.

However, the younger generation of Irish migrants did not identify with Prof Ryan, who they saw as a member of the older cohort of Irish migrants, the type who go to “Irish dances and the Irish centre”. The younger generation appeared to almost pity the older generation, who they saw as “stuck” in the UK – and Prof Ryan admitted to bristling when successive interviewees expressed this view.

In her encounters with Polish interviewees Prof Ryan would probably be considered an outsider but with one interviewee in particular, Inga, she felt a strong sense of proximity, she said.

“We had much in common: shared status of academics and we chatted about being working mothers and about juggling childcare with careers,” she said.

She concluded by saying that the researchers should move away from the “fixed notion” of insider and outsider, and instead view the interview as a “rhythmic encounter” where positions and identities are constantly shifting.

  • The last OHS seminar of this academic year takes place on June 26th at the Institute of Historical Research in London and will be led by Wendy Ugolini from the University of Edinburgh. Her seminar is titled: War, memory and the Italians in Scotland: oral history as a challenge to community histories. Seminars are free and open to all and a great opportunity to hear the latest research and connect with other oral historians. For more information about the venue click here.