THE INSIDER – OUTSIDER DISTINCTION IN THE CONTEXT OF PWDs
Nasir Sulman, Ph.D
Department of Special Education
University of Karachi
What does it mean to be an insider or an outsider?
The terms insider and outsider generally refer to people’s relation to particular socio-cultural spaces. An INSIDER is usually someone who ‘belongs’ and is mentally and bodily attuned to a specific socio-cultural space. His or her body feels ‘at home’ within that space, usually because, this body has historically evolved in relation to that space. As Bourdieu (1990) would put it, the insider is someone whose mental and bodily dispositions, their habitus, have been acquired within and thus fit into a specific space. This is as far as socio-cultural belonging is concerned. But an insider is also someone who identifies with the ‘order of things’ within such a space, whether this ‘order’ takes the form of a formal set of laws or an informal ‘the way things are done around here’. The insider is someone who perceives that this collective order of things is their own. Thus, they feel that their ‘I’ can legitimately speak the ‘we’ of the collective identification with the law. He or she can say ‘this is our law’ or ‘this is our way of doing things’. This is what marks political belonging.
The OUTSIDER is usually someone who does not experience either socio-cultural or political belonging. It is someone whose mental and bodily dispositions have evolved somewhere else and thus feels culturally ‘out of place’. Likewise, the outsider does not identify with or experience the law as his or her law but somebody else’s law. The above is a relatively simple way of defining insider and outsider in quasi-detached and objectivist terms. But this simple definition is possible because there is a reality in which insider and outsider can come to exist in such a relatively simple way. This is especially so when insiders and outsiders are not only defined as such by others but also perceive themselves in this way. Tourists for example are generally perceived as outsiders and generally perceive themselves as such. Likewise the ‘locals’ in a village are perceived and perceive themselves as insiders.
An insider has more accurate, specific knowledge about a social or business or political structure as an accepted member of the structure, or as a person with close links to people who are members of that structure. An outsider does not have access to that specific knowledge, and must often engage in speculation about what that specific knowledge might be. At the core of the insider-outsider distinction is that the notion that insider status provides preferential access to the incumbent and a range of excludable goods. The preferential access in turn structures insiders’ preferences, attitudes, and behaviors in a way that differs from outsiders.
The idea of insider/outsider is not new. Consider Georg Simmel’s (1950) “The Stranger” who is a member of a group but may still experience some social distance from other members of the group. Such a person might be the best to observe patterns of social life that group members might not see. Anthropologist Marvin Harris encouraged scholars and readers alike to consider both local (emic) and scientific (etic) explanations of cultural phenomena. Much of what we do as social scientists entails understanding who we are representing with our activities. The challenge for us is that we need to focus our efforts empowering marginalized people and not reinforcing the status quo.
Table: Dynamics of Identity Groups
|– Set and fit the norms
|– Fit into/assimilate into the norms
|– Often don’t see their “group-ness”
|– Very aware of group identity
|– Benefit from unconscious bias
|– Negatively impacted by unconscious bias
|– Given benefit of the doubt, contributions heard
|– Can be seen as “the exception” with contributions overlooked
|– Can be well intended
|– Focus on cumulative impact
|– Insiders possess more systemic power but they have less awareness of the dynamic and their impact as insiders.
|– Outsiders have more awareness of the dynamic but can find it challenging to assert influence and create change.
|Source: Stuart Jackson (January, 2019). Insider / Outsider: Inclusion & Diversity in the American Fashion Industry. Retrieved from https://cfda.imgix.net/2019/01/CFDA-PVH_Insider-Outsider_Final_01-2019.pdf
These insider-outsider dynamics are fed by unconscious biases. The fields of neuroscience and social psychology have helped us understand how implicit and ubiquitous bias can be. At the forum, all participants had an opportunity to reflect on their unconscious biases and how those biases impact interactions and decisions that all of us are making all day long. While we are all subject to operating from unconscious biases, those biases frequently support an unleveled playing field that exacerbates and maintains insider and outsider power dynamics.
Consider the potential positive or negative impact of group identity as one aspect when planning staff development or talent acquisition. It’s critical to be aware of the impact of group identity, while at the same time still relating to and managing team members as individuals.
Insiders and Outsiders have Different Perspectives on a Place
There are a multitude of reasons why people gravitate towards those with similar backgrounds and interests.
- Place is a social construct, not a physical location, and this can invoke feelings of being ‘in place’ or ‘out of place’. These feelings may stem from demographic factors such as place of birth, residence or age – or they may come from socio-psychological factors such as gender, sexuality, religion, ethnicity or role in society.
- Dominant political and economic groups tend to project their power onto a place through its architecture and functions which have the effect of excluding some groups of people: they feel ‘out of place’ in that location.
- Even within one location, there may be places where some groups of people feel more welcome than others. Immigrant populations often form spatially close-knit communities in response to feelings of exclusion from often nearby neighborhoods. They may experience a place very differently to non-immigrant groups. The same is true of disabled communities. Both groups of people will perceive a place in a different way to the dominant socio-economic group.
- A place may also be experienced differently within a day. An area of a town where there are lots of office blocks and apartments is likely to be perceived very differently by employees during the day and by residents at night. The same is true of a busy shopping area of a town which has restaurants and shopping markets interspersed. The same group of people is likely to feel both an ‘insider’ and an ‘outsider’ in that place at different times of day.
Insider–Outsider Distinction in the Context of People with Disabilities
While the Insider-Outsider distinction is used in common parlance, the insider-outsider distinction was first applied within the framework of disability in the work of two pioneering psychologists: Dembo (1964) and Wright (1960). As a result of their extensive interviews of wounded soldiers recuperating after World War II, they came to see that a key to understanding the experience of these men re-entering the community was acknowledging that the person who experiences disablement first-hand is likely to have a different perspective on its meaning and on the world around them than those who are outside that experience looking in.
Dembo and Wright felt the insider-outsider distinction was particularly useful in reminding members of the helping professions that their perceptions of the challenges faced by the person with a disability needed to be checked out with the person, because differing perspectives can push the provider and recipient of services in different directions. One can broaden this to say that insider-outsider differences in perspective need to be addressed in a variety of situations rehabilitation researchers and clinicians face – for example, in setting rehabilitation goals, in evaluating the effectiveness of programs, in establishing research agendas, and in defining population needs. In each of these situations, measures of participation can provide useful tools, and the insider’s perspective on participation can and should be taken into account.
Three additional points are made to clarify the meaning of the insider’s perspective within the context of disablement. First, the insider’s perspective refers, in essence, to the person’s subjective response to a situation. With respect to any phenomenon, the insider is likely to have a variety of subjective responses, as we all would. For example, in the context of participation, insiders may have a view on the degree to which participation is difficult for them or how satisfied they are with the frequency of their participation. However, it can be argued that in obtaining the insider’s subjective response to participation, the single element of this response that is essential to draw on is determining what is important to the person (e.g., How important to you is using public transportation? Or, how important to you is feeling accepted in community settings?).
An example, again, is useful in illustrating why importance is a key to the insider’s perspective. A woman went to a physical therapist, seeking to prevent reoccurrence of disabling back pain. In defining her goals, she stated that she wanted to be able to sit on airplane for 14 hours without a flare-up and, after arrival, to be able to hike for 5 or 6 hours at a time. These two participation-level goals that were important to her provided the physical therapist a framework for developing a treatment regimen. These goals had little to do with what outsiders might think important in assessing the success of this course of physical therapy (e.g., achieving greater muscle strength, being able to return to one’s usual patterns of activity or participating in a standard list of activities at a level comparable to normative data).
Although importance is key to the insider’s perspective at the participation level of functioning, at lower levels of functioning, technical expertise of service providers largely supplants values in deciding the direction of treatment. Thus, in the example, the insider’s perspective on improving range of motion would most likely be limited to judging its relevance as a means to achieving her desired goals.
While importance is necessary in delineating the insider’s perspective on participation, this abstraction needs to be narrowed to some extent. For example, most of us would say that respect and independence are important to us, but because most of us are treated respectfully much of the time and are independent in our daily lives, these constructs that characterize our participation and that we say are important to us contribute relatively little to most people’s perceived quality of life – until, of course, their usual unquestioned status gets threatened, as often happens with the onset of disability. The point is that the importance that one needs to tap into in capturing the insider’s perspective is a subset of the things the individual person deems important that also are currently salient in terms of affecting, whether negatively or positively, the person’s quality of life.
The final point about the insider’s perspective is that as an emphasis on empowering people with disabilities has grown in the past years, rehabilitation researchers have tried to tap into the perspective of persons with disabilities by bringing them together in focus groups and the like. In doing this, the hope is that in listening to their voices, the outsider to disability can draw on the insider’s perspective to help shape research (e.g., in refining study methods to fit reality better as insiders know it, in providing guidance in developing assessment tools, and so forth). However, each group member’s perspective on whatever is the task at hand is likely to differ somewhat from that of every other person in the group. What emerges from the group process is unlikely to represent fully the perspective of any single person inside or outside the group. Consequently, in referring to the “insider’s perspective, it is important to understand where the apostrophe falls. Is it a singular possessive, indicating that these are the views and subjective responses of 1 specific person? Or is it a plural possessive, indicating that this is a best guess about the population’s perspective based on the views of a sample of insiders?
Dembo (1982) further distinguished between individuals who have a disability (insiders), and know what it is like, and nondisabled observers (outsiders), who can only imagine what the experience of disability must be like. The insider – outsider distinction is an important concept for non-disabled persons to appreciate because, as outsiders, they, too, often assume what a disability, whether congenital or acquired, must be like – and they frequently conclude that it is not only negative and disruptive to daily living but also defining for the individual. Outsiders rarely recognize disability as one quality among many in a person’s life; instead, outsiders presume the disability is an ongoing focus, a troubling preoccupation, for the PWD.
In contrast, insiders actually know what the experience of being disabled is like, that its presence does not necessarily predict or preclude quality of life or influence well-being. Instead, disability is one life quality among many others (e.g., mental and physical health, career, stress, hobbies and interests, role as spouse or parent, community volunteer) that becomes a PWD’s focus only when others (i.e., outsiders) or situational constraints make it salient. To be sure, disability can be an important part of a disabled person’s identity, but that often renders it a positive rather than a negative quality (Dunn, 2015; Dunn & Burcaw, 2013).
People with disabilities comprise a very broad category whose members do not necessarily share a sense of common identity. Some groups, such as the deaf or blind, have much stronger identities and institutions than others. Nevertheless, other people may perceive people with disabilities all to be of a kind, whether they are visually or hearing impaired, have limited physical mobility, are brain damaged, or are prone to epileptic seizures, etc. Such externally imposed categorization may serve as a wellspring of an overarching group identity. Prejudice and discrimination led only some victims to confront such treatment head on by emphasizing the visibility of their condition. Such is also the case among some people with disabilities, but prejudice could also serve to galvanize group identities.
It is worth noting that the disabled people described in past had specific functions within society. People may have conceived of certain disabled as occupying a threshold between realms, which may have served to both stigmatize them and to confer certain powers. Blindness and other physical and mental conditions were also sometimes associated with special powers of communication with the transcendental realm. Thus, in certain parts of Japan, they were employed as mediums. Such associations linger on in contemporary period, but now people with disabilities are able to engage in a politics of visibility or recognition (Taylor, 1992) rather than having to accept the social place prescribed to them at an earlier time. The strategy of visibility in confronting discrimination is especially effective when discrimination occurs surreptitiously in contradiction to a normative ideology of equality and rights.
Greater visibility on the part of the disabled is crucial if they are to gain access to services, as well as to achieve more positive self-identities. People with disabilities number in the millions and comprise such a wide range of conditions and degrees of debility that they should be considered as a category more than a group. Those who share a specific type of condition, such as the deaf or people with cerebral palsy, have formed groups that have pressured the government for greater services, and have made significant strides in improving institutional living conditions for the disabled, as well as in pressuring the government to provide necessary services to allow independent living arrangements for those who wanted it.
While increased visibility can potentially foster positive identities for the disabled minority, for some it may just involve a shift from attempts to hide their disabilities to efforts to overcome and erase them. As David Engle has said in relation to special educational programs for the disabled, majority of the parents of disabled children often demand such programs in the hope that special treatment could maximize the potential that their children achieve “normalcy” (Engle, 2013). The identity of the disabled minority appears by nature contingent, but it is no more so than that of ethnic minorities, some of whose members have strived for a similar invisibility via passing or assimilation into the “mainstream.”
This is just a theory, so be gentle. But a lot of problems between non-disabled people and disabled people might have to do with the fact that for most born-disabled people, their disability is ego-syntonic (integrated with their self-image).
- Ego-dystonic is a psych term for an aspect of a person that doesn’t fit their self-image. For example, if someone lost their legs in an accident, they would probably wake up the next day and see a body that didn’t seem to them like their real body. On the other hand, if someone is born without legs their disability is usually ego-syntonic, so they feel as attached to their body as anyone else. They don’t feel the same distress that the first person might.
- It’s hard for anyone to put themselves so completely in another person’s shoes that they can relate to not only their day-to-day experiences but what it would be like to be attached to those experiences because they are yours. Also, we don’t live in a society that encourages non-disabled people to understand this. Obviously many non-disabled people don’t have the same kind of distress reaction to disability that we are discussing here, and some disabled people do. But most probably it’s a significant enough trend that it amounts to a kind of culture shock.
- Many non-disabled people who are having kids have formed not only a personal self-image that is non-disabled, but a family self-image that doesn’t contain any disabled kids. Then if they have a kid who is disabled, they feel that they lost something. When you think about it, this means the kid is growing up in a situation where they and their parents are having a massively different experience of the kid’s life. To the parent, certain facts about the kid’s life equal a loss, but from the kid’s perspective nothing has been lost and these are just facts.
- The problem is that when a parent is experiencing a kid’s disability as a loss, the gap between the kid’s and the parent’s perspective can get so huge as to be insurmountable. If a kid’s moaning is heartbreaking to the parent because it’s a sign of disability, and the kid thinks moaning is the coolest thing ever, these are two people who have almost nothing in common.
- It might seem like saying “we’ll do anything to help you” or “we tried everything” would make a kid feel like you really adore them, but this can actually make someone feel horrible. If you’ve always been disabled, disability doesn’t really feel like an emergency, nor does it really feel separable from who you are. So it can just feel like, if someone would be desperate enough to try everything you must be sort of a disaster as a human.
- To get back to the culture shock, some non-disabled people don’t understand disabled people having these kinds of feelings, because it’s hard to understand that disability is sort of in us, and not just something that happens. Which to make the point is why someone might think it is comforting to tell a disabled kid, “We’ll try anything to help you,” but actually make the kid feel like some kind of natural disaster. It also explains why some other “nice things to say to a disabled person” get lost in translation — for example, “No, you’re so smart!” if a disabled person describes a problem, or the classic, “You’re not really disabled; you just have trouble with [area of impairment].”
This paper demonstrates that perceptions of people are critical in influencing the ways people negotiate their identities, the type of life they want to live in and how socially include they feel. The experiences’ of insiders and outsiders illustrates the ways that social differences, and specifically disability, are produced both socially and culturally. Recognition by policy makers and society at large of the socio-cultural nature of disability could herald an important step on the road to questioning and changing present ableist values and future planning for people with disabilities.
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