Insider and Outsider

My research has largely focused on Vietnam. Vietnam presents a great sociological project because Vietnamese society is so complex. Vietnam is layered with much contradictions and contestations. Given the Confucius history of Chinese imperialism, the Vietnamese traditional values are more characteristic of East Asian than South East Asian countries. Its history of colonialisation makes it more similar with Laos and the Philippines. Its political contexts mirrors China, and its educational system also takes on the East Asian countries like China, South Korea, Singapore, however the orientation to studying abroad follows Japan. These dynamics play out in fascinating ways which may explain my fascination with Vietnamese society.

In doing research for my book “International Graduates Returning to Vietnam”, my Vietnamese heritage and Vietnamese language fluency were critical factors.  I had to relearn Vietnamese language, because many terms have changed since 1975. Also, I had left Vietnam when I was six years old, so my knowledge of Vietnamese was mainly food and places.

Speaking in Vietnamese, I felt a sense of trust with the people that I interviewed. There was space for us to converse in authentic ways. There was a sense of familiarity to the stories that I heard. These were meaningful ideas about personal and complex issues like family relationships, Vietnamese culture, values and beliefs, goals, politics in the workplace, community life.

Our conversations were shared understanding of place and space of a Vietnamese identity, simply because we spoke a common language of Vietnamese.

I was an insider!

When I left the coffee shops where I did most of my interviews, and came back to my mini hotel, I wrote my debriefs in English. These debriefs were part of my data. Putting on the researcher’s hat in compiling these notes, I was aware of my distance to my participants. I was reading my notes about them and my relationships with them as if they were “subjects” of the inquiry.

That is the peril of doing research. I had to constantly balance the “Vietnameseness” in me, which gave great insights into the lives of participants, and then trying to abstract these realities into knowledge which was steeped in Western-oriented training.

I was an outsider!

This process of doing research as insider/outsider was important for my journey as a researcher to understand the ethics of doing research. The problem of research is not how to deal with a kind of knowledge that shall be or is “truth in itself”. Rather the problem lies with the researcher and participants having to deal with the problems of “knowledge making” bounded by the researcher’s intellectual training and the knowledge of participants about their own lives.

Researchers have to interpret the words of their participants, but what they interpret are echoes of their own values, ideals and education. After all, research, particularly social research is not value free. This problem is exacerbated when researchers conduct research in a different culture to their own.

In order for research findings to have relevance for people who live in practical lives, it is important to be conscious of the researcher’s cultural, social and political values and how they project such values into their observations in the fields. The trap that some researchers fall in is in making meanings across cultures, they essentialise culture in explaining their data, rather than recognising their own cultural supposition in making these claims.

Perhaps what makes this research in this book so poignant is that I am Vietnamese so I could understand the position that these participants were in and the values that they carried and upheld. It is still their stories and all I am is the translator.

I am an insider and outsider…

10 thoughts on “Insider and Outsider

  1. I enjoyed reading this piece on Insider and outsider. Thank you.

    However, I will like to ask and if you could help me. “Does being an insider in this case, makes you become fond of the participants or it was just a technique you employed in order to explore the ideas and also to answer your research question?”. “Will the outcome of this study differ should it be carried out by an individual other than a Vietnamese or any other person who could not have been able to understand the language?”

    Thank you again Dr. Lien Pham


    1. Your first question is interesting. Being an insider was definitely advantageous to gain access and insights but I was not strategic about it. I did plan to use Vietnamese in conducting interviews based on prior experiences of conducting interviews with Vietnamese international students but probably did not realise what it means to be an “insider” until I conducted the interviews. I am not sure that I became fond of the participants, I certainly had a lot more empathy for them and their situations than when I started which also shaped the findings particularly on issues of challenges and struggles. To your second question, I don’t think someone without Vietnamese language proficiency could have implemented this research, mainly because the research aimed to uncover norms by engaging participants in reflecting on their own situations and why they chose to do the things they did. To achieve that, it was necessary to have rapport and trust and understanding of culture, which would be much more difficult if the researcher could not understand the language.


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