Insider Epistemology: On Existing Problems

Topics: Education

The view that ‘you have to be one to know one’, that to understand a group you must be a member of that group, is known as insider epistemology (Fay, 1996, p. 9). In my work I will try to explain and define this thesis, making it more tangible through the use of examples both of situations for with insider epistemology seems valid and of instances in which group differences have tried to be overcome.

I shall then go on to present problems and questions that arise with it; amongst others whether it is at all possible to place people in categories, to what extent we are able to understand anyone but ourselves and, for that matter, whether we can even understand ourselves.

Finally, I shall suggest a reconciliation of the thesis with its counterarguments by introducing a more precise definition of the phrase ‘you have to be one to know one’.

In our society today we tend to take one of two approaches toward people in some way ‘different’ to ourselves: we either condemn their actions as ‘wrong’ and try to impose our own viewpoint on them, or we resist judgement by saying that their frame of mind is so substantially different to ours that we couldn’t possibly understand and even less criticize their actions.

I would like to focus on this second approach.

Whether we are speaking about youths from troubled backgrounds with an early criminal record, or about a far-off tribe with seemingly strange customs, or about the way of life of monks in the 13th century; the belief is that unless we were there to experience what they did, or unless we belong to their ‘group’, we have no way of understanding them.

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In other words, to ‘know’ them we must ‘be’ them, the claim of insider epistemology.

Insider epistemology maintains that “to know other insiders one has to be an insider oneself” (Fay, 1996, p. 9). It is saying that you cannot understand a Muslim unless you are a Muslim yourself, a Russian peasant unless you are a Russian peasant yourself. James I. Charlton speaks of “the innate inability of able-bodied people, regardless of fancy credentials and awards, to understand the disability experience” (Bridges, 2001).

The reasoning is simple: how could you possibly understand a group if you have not grown up in their surroundings and with their experiences? Various literary works illustrate this: Jung Chang’s Wild Swans, for example, only became such a moving and inspiring account because written by a person who experienced Chinese history of the 20th century first hand. She was able to tell the story of her family in a political and historical context without having to resort to research and second hand accounts.

She might have even felt quite offended had an outsider written her story claiming to know ‘exactly how she felt’ and ‘exactly what she went through’; she would probably consider her experiences to be unique and not likely to be truly understood by anyone but her family and herself – and perhaps not even by her family because they did not have the exact same experiences as she did. This position that “each person has privileged access to his or her own mental states and processes” (Fay, 1996, p. 10) is called ‘individual methodological solipsism’ (Merton, 1972, p. 5) and is a more radical form of insider epistemology. It argues that only I can know my own mind, so I can never know whether experiences and sensations are the same for other people: does the colour red look the same to others (Fay, 1996, p. 10)? Does pain feel the same if experienced by another? A train of thoughts which can make us feel truly lonely indeed! Throughout time there have been a number of attempts to transgress the boundaries separating groups from each other and “go native” (Smith, n. d. ).

John Howard Griffin painted his face black and travelled through the south of the USA during the height of racial segregation to be able to experience the treatment of a black man (Fay, 1996, p. 13). Liza Crihfield Dalby wanted to write her PhD on the life and experiences of a Japanese geisha, and thought the only way to do this was to live as a geisha in Kyoto for a year (Dalby, 1983). It would seem that by doing this they would be able to gain an insider perspective on the culture and group they were living with? Yet herein lies the illusion: no matter how long they played their ‘insider’ role, it would remain a role.

Their upbringing had instilled in them a set of values and beliefs, by themselves perhaps unrecognized or unacknowledged, but nevertheless existing and fundamentally different to that of the group they were studying. Furthermore, if ever they were to find themselves in a precarious situation, they would always be able to resort back to their original identity, and not have to bare the consequences as a black man or a geisha might. They are able to wear the mask of an insider, but under the mask the outsider stays the same.

This can be further illustrated: if we say that the social and cultural world shape a person or group’s identity, regarding the fact that society and culture differs hugely from place to place, and insist on the fact that to understand an insider you must be an insider yourself, then we must conclude that any understanding between groups is impossible. This, in turn, would mean that social science would become “radically unlike ‘hard’ science” (Smith, n. d. ), because no research would be possible on a neutral and objective basis.

In fact, every group would have to be in charge of its own social research, “be its own social scientist” (Fay, 1996, p. 12). Still, if we are not able understand another group, we would consequently also not be able to understand the research done by an insider social scientist of the other group. Each group would be its own isolated unit and incapable of sharing any knowledge. However, there are problems to be found in using the word ‘group’. By picturing a group as a homogenous set of individuals, we are categorizing its members as all being equal and being members of only that group.

We are forgetting that categories as broad as ‘women’, ‘South American’, ‘adopted children’, etc. are no indication of individual identity and experiences. Indeed, by placing all adopted children in the same group, we are neglecting the fact that adoption can be a completely different experience for one child compared to another. The differences between members of one group may actually outweigh their similarities (Bridges, 2001, p. 3; Fay, 1996, p. 53) and insiders of groups may insist on a distinction being made between each other, therefore Argentineans might find it offensive to be put in the same category as Bolivians or vice versa.

But if we carry these divisions within categories further, then we must distinguish between Argentineans from Buenos Aires and those from Patagonia, in Buenos Aires between the poor and the wealthy, within the poor between the homeless and people living in small shacks, within the homeless between men and women, within men between old and young, and so on until there is no more than one person left for each category – which takes us back to the theory of solipsism, that only I can know myself, and therefore to the impossibility of mutual understanding.

In social research difficulties may arise as many of the “political and ethical dilemmas (… ) stem from the researcher’s simultaneous occupation of a status as insider and outsider in relation to those they are researching” (Charles, 1997, p. 394), since boundaries between groups are never clear-cut. But this evokes the idea that ultimately, if I am the only person left in my category and nobody from outside my category can truly understand me, I must know my own self best, and this idea we must question.

For many instances come to mind where we don’t really understand ourselves. When writing an exam, for example, we are not conscious of all the thought processes going on within our head and we would have a hard time explaining how we wrote it. Fay writes that “the mind does not have an unmediated knowledge of itself” (1996, p. 19), meaning that we cannot necessarily interpret the experiences and feelings we have. Similarly I have no detailed recollection of the day my dog was put to sleep, it went by ‘in a blur’.

Not only did I not have full knowledge of myself on that day but with time it has changed further: my personal account of that day would probably be very inaccurate because tinted by my emotions and patchy with suppressed memories (Bridges, 2001, p. 2). Furthermore, it is well known that a stressed person is the last to realize or acknowledge it, what is needed is precisely a person on the outside – a doctor, a parent, a wife – to diagnose the symptoms and “look at our taken-for-granted experience through (… ) the eye of a stranger” (Bridges, 2001, p. ), so from an outsider perspective. Our insider perspective does not necessarily work to our advantage because, as Fay puts it, “knowledge of what we are experiencing always involves an interpretation of these experiences” (1996, p. 19). Likewise, being a member of a group does not always give us the best knowledge of it. For example, a sports player is not automatically the best sports commentator (Fay, 1996, p. 20), and being a native speaker of a language often means that you have more difficulties explaining grammar rules than a non-native speaker.

Merton is his studies found that “the judgements of ‘insiders’ are best trusted when they assess groups other than their own” (1972, p. 18). Distance can create better knowledge because it gives a wider view of things: Fay gives the example of Hitler’s biographers who were able to understand him – not in the sense of being sympathetic toward him but of giving an accurate account of his character and motivations – precisely because their distance enabled them to make a connection between internal emotions and external situations (Fay, 1996, p. 24).

But how can we reconcile this argument with the one made earlier that Jung Chang was only able to write such an extraordinary account because she was an ‘insider’? Maybe the answer lies in that ‘knowledge’ does not rely solely on whether one is a member of a certain group or not. ‘Knowing’ something implies that we understand its meaning and have made sense of it, not that we have an empathetic understanding of it.

Fay compares making sense of something with “trying to decipher a difficult poem rather than trying to achieve some sort of inner mental union with its author” (1996, p. 25). Sensitivity and criticality are the relevant criteria to understanding rather than being an insider or outsider to a group – whether we are speaking about women, Muslims or Russian peasants.

An insider may however be more aware of the issues at hand; he may not have the automatic ability to truly understand but his status might facilitate it. If we really had to ‘be’ one to ‘know’ one, most of our world today would become pointless: media, research, welfare, etc. Why be informed about the war in Iraq if we can neither understand the Iraqis nor the soldiers nor the politicians? Why make any judgement, any protest? Because our insider status as human beings gives us the sensitivity to reject violence and suffering, even if we are outsiders on all other factors.

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Insider Epistemology: On Existing Problems. (2017, Dec 20). Retrieved from

Insider Epistemology: On Existing Problems
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