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Subject or Object

Photo by Luigi Diamanti

I’m re-posting a blog post I wrote about three years ago on my other blog, that I initially titled “Life in the Fishbowl.” I wrote this post when I was reading a lot of academic books and peer-review articles about transracial and transnational adoption written by academics and adoptive parents (more on that later) and reflecting about how they relate to me, the subject and/or object of study. When I wrote this post I had been accepted into my current doctoral program, so I was also conscious about the research I was about to undertake and what the perspective(s) would be from “the other side” of the research.

As I’ve made my journey through school, one of the things I’ve been struck by is how little discussion there has been overall about insider/outsider issues – not just in terms of research (and what discussion I’ve had on insider/outsider research has been mostly contained in my qualitative research class) but also in practice.

In some areas of the “helping professions” there is a lot of emphasis on practitioner insider knowledge. Chemical dependency treatment and domestic violence are two areas in which it seems that a personal experience as a client is considered expertise. This is not so in child welfare, where my research areas reside, or in disability studies (my collateral area). I have met a very small handful of practitioners or researchers that come to child welfare as a client of child welfare services. That is, there is a very small group of foster care alum or adopted persons or birth families that have been *in the system* as a client of child welfare services that currently work within these systems as professionals. The most often recognized member of the foster/adoption “triad” that works in the child welfare system is the foster or adoptive parent – who are in some ways overrepresented – and they are often  put up on a pedestal as bastions of knowledge because of their lived experience.

But what about the now grown-up children and/or the birth parent, how do we contribute to this knowledge base? Well, unfortunately we are often considered suspect. Two things happen frequently when we talk about system changes that we think need to happen: 1) we are tokenized and 2) our objectivity is questioned, and we are told our personal experiences are merely one story, irrelevant to the larger body of peer-reviewed, quasi-experimental, large nationally representative data set that found X, Y or Z. I have told this story before – I was once told by an adoption professional that my lived experience as a transracial, transnational adopted person did not make me an expert on adoption. Somehow, this person believed that their experience as a professional made them more of an expert on my own lived experience than mine. This is what is frustrates me about the social work profession.

It is interesting to me that adoptive/foster parents aren’t considered to be subjective. In fact, in the social work and psychology field many research studies about adoption are conducted by adoptive parents who fill dual roles as parent and academic. Some even mention their adoptive parent status or their personal experiences within the articles they publish. Where are the research studies by adult adoptees and/or formerly fostered persons? Are we silent on our status? And if so, why? Have others experienced what I have – when wrestling with insider/outsider questions in research and practice – been told I was “too close” to the topic and that I should find another area of research? (My guess is that similar to other areas of research/practice, such as mental health, social work professionals with insider knowledge have also largely remained silent. How sad. I find role models like Kay Redfield Jamison very inspiring).

Some of us choose to work within the system as an agent of change. Others take a more grass-roots approach, organizing to put pressure on the policies and procedures from outside the system. In my adult life, working on behalf of the rights of adopted and fostered persons, I have taken both approaches at different (and sometimes at the same) times.

Personally, I don’t think the solution to these hard questions about how one approaches research and practice from within a population that one is also a member of should be to choose something else. I think that we need to dive in to the ethical dilemmas that are inherent – remembering that there are also ethical issues when researching people that are members of a group in which we know nothing about. Two sides, perhaps, of the same quandary – how much of our own experiences (or lack of) go in to our research and practice? And how reflective are we of our positionality?

And with that question, here is the re-post from April, 2008 on my former blog, Harlow’s Monkey:

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