Lennox Castle Hospital
Lennox Castle Hospital

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Lennox Castle Hospital

1.4 On being an insider and a researcher

The two roles of practitioner and researcher are not always easy to combine. Sometimes it's difficult to detach yourself from situations and stand back when you know you've been a part of practice which you've begun to see differently. On the other hand, being an insider can bring some advantages. How did Howard Mitchell deal with these two roles?

Click to read Howard Mitchell's piece on 'The inside researcher [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] '

Activity 3 Weighing up the advantages and disadvantages of being an insider

Timing: 0 hours 20 minutes

Click on the link above and read through Howard Mitchell's piece 'The inside researcher'; and as you do, note the advantages and disadvantages that he writes about. How far do you feel he succeeded? Is the video a balanced account or does it feel biased to you in any way? Perhaps it wasn't biased enough for you?


Advantages: Howard Mitchell mentions his commitment to the hospital, his knowledge of learning disabilities and its history, his contacts with people who could tell him their stories, his local and hospital connections, professional trust, his ability to communicate with people with learning difficulties.

Disadvantages: he was concerned not to upset people who trusted him; he may not have asked enough questions and people assumed he knew things; patients may have deferred to him.

As to bias, Howard explains how he tried not to take on too much medical knowledge of the residents. He deliberately chose not to read their case notes: ‘I felt it would be going behind their backs’. The result is that we know nothing about why Margaret and James came to be diagnosed as needing to be detained at Lennox Castle beyond what they told us themselves. But, if people with learning difficulties are to be treated on the same terms as other people in society, then perhaps this is all that we as outsiders should know.

Of course one difference for Howard Mitchell is that he was researching the past. Had he been researching Lennox Castle today he might have found it more difficult to stand back and not intervene or comment on what he heard.

Key points

  • Whatever emotions are evoked by the stories we heard in the video, we still need to be able to understand what we saw.

  • Using Goffman's model of ‘the total institution’ is one way to organise and explain what is observed and recorded.

  • Models themselves are only a tool to be used critically to identify variations as well as what fits.

  • The ways of life which were described provide a starting point for discussions of what are acceptable and normal ways of behaving towards other people.

  • Being an insider researcher can have advantages but there are issues of confidentiality and a need to be able to reflect on your part in what you are researching.

Institutions such as Lennox Castle Hospital were typical of a particular period in the history of social care. How did these institutions emerge and what can we learn from that history today? To find out we're going to go back even further into the past.


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