By Heather Mooney
I’ve learned very quickly that it is harder than I thought to be an insider, though in completely unexpected ways. My dissertation explores the social construction of deviance and rehabilitation in total institutions through a case study of a therapeutic boarding school from the “troubled teen” industry. This industry loosely consists of various private facilities for reforming deviant adolescents including boot camps, wilderness therapy programs and last chance ranches. Many scholars warned me that even though I am an insider (I myself was a “troubled teen”), I am likely to be an outlier. Scholars assumed that I was unlike other fellow reform school alum (PhD candidate, single, childfree, Buddhist, activist). I was cautioned many times not to assume my thoughts, feelings, and experiences were similar to those of the participants. Understandably, it took me by surprise to discover during the early phases of data collection that I am very much an insider – almost to the textbook definition.
While certain variables make my narrators and me unique, the overarching sentiments echo my personal experience more than I had been advised. From the very start of data collection I connected with my contributors in many ways because sharing the experiences of attending non-traditional school and the therapeutic activities brought a strong sense of solidarity. Despite the similarities, we also identified notable differences: following reform school, pursuits of education, and in family relations. Through shared intense institutional experiences, bonding occurs in ways that outsiders may not fully understand. This has led to the unanticipated challenge of becoming friends with strangers – at a rapid pace.
Advantages of Insider Status
My insider status has been essential to studying this hidden population; however, I miscalculated how integral my position would become. I especially underestimated the value of the shared experience (attending a total institution) that engendered this insider status. I assumed that having attended the program would allow for shared language and an intimate understanding of the institution’s structure. As the interviews quickly progressed, I was not prepared to be treated like a “war buddy”. Nor was I prepared for the emotional affinity with my narrators after having mostly listened and talked for hours. I attribute this rapid rapport building to the deep and long-lasting impact the academy has had on each of us and what a rare opportunity it is to share this with a fellow former student.
The Sway of Insider Status
At the end of my first interview, I stepped back to reflect. I hadn’t laughed so hard in months as I had done while wrapping up that first dialogue. Since then, conducting my interviews has been like the high school reunion I’ve never had – though in slow, detailed motion. By the end of our interviews, I feel like a peer more than a researcher. I’m learning that often my shared understanding has inhibited further probing or explanation that an outsider would have had to question for clarity. Due to this I will likely query narrators again for further details on a few themes and ask even more in depth questions going forward. Some contributors have asked to stay connected via social media and all have expressed appreciation in my investment in documenting these experiences. Most of the narrators expressed heartfelt gratitude as our interview had been the first time in years, for some a decade, that they had been able to openly reflect, be heard, and understand the impact the therapeutic boarding school has had on their life. In taking this moment to recognize that though the boundary between friends and participants is blurry, I would rather continue to break it down than enforce it.
Subverting Research Power Dynamics
In my dissertation, I “study up”; the narrators are mostly upper middle class whites. The average cost of similar private troubled teen programs is somewhere around $5,000 per month. This is in stark contrast to my previous research in which I “studied down” interviewing recently incarcerated homeless men. In this study, being an insider allows me to get closer to my narrators realities and shift at least some of the inherent research dilemmas that feel too perennial in their nagging truths about exploitation. With my dissertation I seek a more equitable exchange in my position of power and social status, stemming from a variety of mostly ascribed sources. For instance, I encourage the narrators to select their own pseudonym to frame themselves as they see fit. I will send transcriptions and final drafts to be reviewed and commented on by them prior to publications. This allows narrators the opportunity to participate in and respond to interpretations and analyses.
These steps ensure that my status does not impose a unilateral framework and understanding onto the narrators’ experiences. There can be a false sense of insight provided by the insider status coupled with the powerful role of researcher that must be tempered by continued avenues for the narrator’s engagement and oversight of their truth (data). It is my hope that my position as an insider will foster innovative and inclusive methodological tactics that give inclusive opportunities to narrators throughout the research process in hopes of bringing parity to the generosity entrusted and given by the contributors to share these oft untold tales in ways that ideally benefit us all.
Heather Mooney is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Sociology at Wayne State University in Detroit, MI specializing in inequality studies. She is currently working on her dissertation about adults who were former “troubled teens” discussing their experiences and perceived impact of attending a therapeutic boarding school. In her spare time, she is committed to ending mass incarceration, enjoys exercising, and practices Tibetan Buddhism.