Understanding researcher positionality using the insider-outsider continuum

By Rebecca Laycock Pedersen and Varvara Nikulina

1. Rebecca Laycock Pedersen (biography)
2. Varvara Nikulina (biography)

How can researchers express their positionality? What does positionality mean?

In working at the interface of science and society, researchers play many different roles, even within a single project, as, for example:

As researchers, our role within a project is a part of our ‘positionality,’ or our social position. Positionality as defined by Agar (1996) is whether one sees oneself as an outsider, a ‘neutral’ investigator, or something else. Because of the many hats researchers often wear, scrutinising “aspects usually taken for granted and […] [being] aware of the role of a scientist as an intervener” (Fazey et al., 2018, p. 57) is vital.

But when we consider our positionality, we need not only think about roles we play, but also how we are related to the communities and organisations we are researching. Are we on the inside? The outside? Both?

Herr and Anderson’s (2014) insider-outsider continuum gives us language we can use to talk about this. They explain six different positionalities researchers can have, illustrated in the figure below.

The insider-outsider continuum (created by the authors based on Herr and Anderson (2014))


  • The researcher studies themselves or their own practice.
  • Example: a sustainability educator researching their own teaching practice.

Insider in collaboration with other insiders

  • The researcher studies a group (eg., an organisation or an identity group) they are a part of.
  • Example: a researcher studying an environmental organisation they are a member of.

Insider(s) in collaboration with outsider(s)

  • The researcher (an outsider) is approached by a group such as an organisation or community members (insiders) to collaborate.
  • Example: a company invites a researcher to collaborate on a project to understand how to integrate sustainability considerations in the product design process.

Reciprocal collaboration

  • The researcher (an outsider) collaborates with a group such as an organisation or community members (insiders) as an insider-outsider team or in a partnership.
  • Example: Researchers and a group of traditional land stewards form a team to develop a better scientific understanding of the impacts of traditional land-use practices and to advocate for their continued use.

Outsider(s) in collaboration with insider(s)

  • The researcher (an outsider) approaches a group, such as an organisation or community members (insiders), to initiate a project.
  • Example: a researcher approaches a council to study the impact of their multi-stakeholder agreement for sustainable forest management.

Outsider(s) studies insider(s)

  • The researcher (an outsider) studies a phenomenon without partnership with insiders
  • Example: a researcher studies discourses on climate denialism through interviews and document analysis.

But why should researchers care about positionality on this insider-outsider continuum?

In short, because positionality affects the types of ethical and methodological dilemmas researchers are faced with and it is important to be able to explore positionalities in the context of these specific dilemmas.

As outsiders, researchers have the benefit of observing phenomena with fewer preconceptions, and therefore can potentially see the landscape with ‘fresh eyes.’ However, outsiders will always lack the lived experience of an insider, and therefore may not be able to emerge with the same depth of understanding or capacity to instigate change.

On the other hand, as insiders, researchers can glean valuable insights that an outsider might not obtain access to, but it also means that insider researchers must work especially hard to see the taken-for-granted aspects of the group’s practice.

There are also different dynamics depending on who initiates the research. For example, if a company invites a researcher to collaborate, they will likely have considerable investment in the outcomes of the research. However, if a researcher initiates the project, the research agenda would likely reflect the researcher’s interests more strongly than the company’s, and therefore the company may be less concerned about the outcomes.

Usually, researchers sit in multiple places on the insider-outsider continuum depending on which aspect of their identity is considered. For example, a male, vegan researcher studying men, masculinity and meat-eating would have an insider perspective as a male and an outsider perspective as a non-meat eater.

Aspects of identity researchers should consider including are:

  • familiarity with the setting under study and
  • which societal groups one belongs to (like class, race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, age, ability/disability, religion, etc).

This is because different identity groups have different histories and relations to hierarchies, power, and colonialism, and researchers’ identities shape their positionality.

Positionality can also shift during a research project. Oftentimes an outsider researcher studying a group of insiders will shift along the continuum and foster a more collaborative relationship with those they are researching.

However, positionality can also shift in the other direction. For example, one of us (Laycock Pedersen, 2019) began her doctoral research as an insider collaborating with insiders because she was a student gardener studying student-led food gardens. Over the course of the doctorate, her job role changed, and she gained new responsibilities which led to a shift in identity. She started to feel more like a researcher and project manager than a student gardener, leading her to position herself as an outsider collaborating with insiders.

Where do you sit on the insider-outsider continuum in your research, and what impacts has it had?

Agar, M. (1996). The professional stranger: An informal introduction to ethnography. 2nd edition, Academic Press: San Diego, United States of America.

Fazey, I., Schäpke, N., Caniglia, G., Patterson, J., Hultman, J., Van Mierlo, B., Säwe, F., Wiek, A., Wittmayer, J., Aldunce, P., Al Waer, H., Battacharya, N., Bradbury, H., Carmen, E., Colvin, J., Cvitanovic, C., D’Souza, M., Gopel, M., Goldstein, B., Hämäläinen, T., Harper, G., Henfry, T., Hodgson, A., Howden, M. S., Kerr, A., Klaes, M., Lyona, C., Midgley, G., Moser, S., Mukherjee, N., Müller, K., O’Brien, K., O’Connell, D. A., Olsson, P., Page, G., Reed, M. S., Searle, B., Silvestri, G., Spaiser, S., Strasser, T., Tschakert, P., Uribe-Calvo, N., Waddell, S., Rao-Williams, J., Wise, R., Wolstenholme, R., Woods, M. and Wyborn, C. (2018). Ten essentials for action-oriented and second order energy transitions, transformations and climate change research. Energy Research and Social Science, 40: 54-70.

Herr, K. and Anderson, G. L. (2014). The action research dissertation: A guide for students and faculty. 2nd edition, Sage: California, United States of America.

Laycock Pedersen, R. (2019). Understanding and managing the impacts of transience in student-led university food gardens. Doctoral dissertation: Keele University, United Kingdom.

Biography: Rebecca Laycock Pedersen PhD is a transdisciplinary researcher and educator working in the field of sustainability science. Her research focuses on urban agriculture, sustainable food, sustainability education, and participatory/action-oriented methods. She is currently a postdoctoral researcher at the Department of Strategic Sustainable Development, Blekinge Institute of Technology in Karlskrona, Sweden where she has been studying the impacts of a Malmö-based urban agriculture incubator programme.

Biography: Varvara Nikulina is a PhD Candidate at the Department of Strategic Sustainable Development, Blekinge Institute of Technology in Karlskrona, Sweden. Her research interests include but are not limited to transdisciplinary co-production of knowledge for planning towards sustainable urban mobility, participatory processes and international comparative studies.

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