By Tiong Ngee Derk (张毅德), Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge
This reflective piece was inspired by a blog post by Sophia D’Angelo.
Prior to the PhD, I had spent five years teaching English and English Literature to teenagers in Malaysia. It was hectic and relationally saturated, certainly a far cry from the semi-monastic experience of being a doctoral student! Yet, as long ago as my “past life” seems, my wife recently reminded me that being “Mr Tiong” (my designation in school) remains an active part of who I am and shapes my research, in ways expected and unexpected.
In 2019, I spent about nine months visiting urban secondary schools in Malaysia, spending most of my time at two schools. There, I observed and recorded teachers’ meetings, hung around in the staffroom, watched significant school events and interviewed the teachers before I left the field.
Like Sophia, I too had to prepare myself to navigate the insider-outsider tension. Like my participants, I was an English teacher and a Malaysian. Like them, I had done my first degree locally. But unlike them, I am currently a doctoral student at Cambridge, and I had also studied in Singapore, both of which, are generally perceived as markers of “eliteness.”
I had to be conscious, especially at our first meetings, to communicate clearly and do the relational work that would make the process easier for my participants. This involved intentionally speaking in the Malaysian vernacular (lots of code-switching between Malay and English) where appropriate. I also emphasised that, like my participants, I too was a teacher, though not overextending to claim that I necessarily “understood” them in some unvarnished way. I drafted and rehearsed jargon-free ways of explaining my research, highlighting how I wanted to privilege my participants’ voices, a principle they mostly found rather odd. [I think this is because of the dominance of positivist methodology in the local education research culture.]
Looking back on the experience, I think the term that best describes the realities of my fieldwork position is the notion of an “intimate outsider”, developed by Ganong (2011) and Hopwood (2016). “Intimate outsidership”, as Hopwood puts it, is a delicate, dynamic balance accomplished through a “fluid movement between detached observation and participation” in the field, rather than a static position somewhere on the continuum between participant and observer.
Let me illustrate: over my time in the field, my participants and I gradually came to see each other as friends, our interactions being marked by a growing sense of congeniality. They would invite me to come to significant events in school life (retirement ceremonies, parties, etc.) and visit their place for meals (which I unfortunately had to refuse). They even (rather humorously) gave me “tips for married life”!
Ultimately, what I encountered was an unusual degree of openness from teachers who otherwise operate in a performative, high-stakes accountability regime. As one commented in one of many corridor conversations: “Whenever outsiders come, we always tense up and we don’t behave like normal, you know, we have to be very professional, but Tiong, in your case, we can really be ourselves around you.” Research like mine undoubtedly is an imposition on participants, and so it was heartening to hear a few of my participants expressing such views.
Partially, this can be attributed to those teachers’ hospitable nature, but “it takes two hands to clap” and so I had to work for it too! Where appropriate, I had to shift from observer to participant, making small pedagogical contributions that they found helpful. These, I realised, drew from my teaching practice as well as from my engagement with educational literature. Although it was not within my remit to be too involved, it certainly helped the study when teachers felt like I knew what I was talking about. Indeed, I have recordings showing that shift in the two schools when teachers realised that I wasn’t just a man with a camera and clipboard, but “one of them.”
Moreover, it made a difference to my relationship with teachers that I did not “study them” just so that I could pursue a career in academia in a more affluent country. Rather, as I have expressed elsewhere, I am crystal clear about developing myself so that I can make a positive impact locally, and give back to the community where I grew up, where there’s just so much work to do. This resonated with my teachers because, rather than “just another academic passing through,” they were told that I was “here for the long haul.” In some sense, it meant that we share a telos of public service, with an added geographical commonality.
Make no mistake, I was still an “outsider,” even if an apparently “intimate” one. Multiple visits and prolonged engagement are not the same as truly walking in another’s shoes. A little detachment, however, can be a good thing too. Throughout my time in the field, I tried, despite myself, to maintain critical distance, to stand back and cast different light on what was happening around me, rather than be too absorbed in the moment. This can be seen in my jottings and fieldnotes where I constantly questioned and engaged in counterfactual thinking – often in conversation with the literature and my supervisor (via Skype).
Overall, I think the term “intimate outsidership” captures that fine balance that one maintains when out in the field, and the inherent dynamism in our fieldwork realities. I think both my experience and Sophia’s demonstrate that fieldwork is also relational work, and it is better to take ownership of it and think reflexively than to pretend otherwise.
One thing that my position as the intimate outsider has enabled is also an optimism that our professional relationship will still have some kind of fruitful continuity. As I left to return to Cambridge last year, I could happily say, “I’ll see you next year, when I’m back!”, to which they responded, “Once you’re in the university, Tiong, let’s keep working together!” Clearly, they are more optimistic about my obtaining an academic position than I am!
Ganong, L. (2011). Return of the ‘intimate outsider’: Current trends and issues in family nursing research revisited. Journal of Family Nursing, 17(4), 416-440.
Hopwood, N. (2016). Professional Practice and Learning: Times, Spaces, Bodies, Things. Springer: New York.
Tiong Ngee Derk (张毅德) is a 3rd year PhD at the Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge, whose PhD employs situated learning and sociocultural theory to study the professional learning of English language teacher groups in Malaysia. He can either be addressed by his surname (Tiong) or given name (Derk). Derk is married to Claire, who is also a teacher. Apart from his work at the Faculty, Derk plays basketball, goes on runs to Grantchester, is an active member at a local church and co-convenes Kampung Kembrij, a social science, arts and humanities reading group for fellow diasporic Malaysians in Cambridge.