Book: The Insider/Outsider Debate
Chapter: Chapter 8: Taking Sides: On the (Im)possibility of Participant-Observation
Participant-observers, perhaps more than external observers, have an existential interest in getting things “right.” While outsiders might think this requires glossing over inconvenient truths, the insider feels compelled to present and interpret problems in a way that makes sense from both the emic and etic perspectives.
Yet it is impossible to remain in the liminal place between full involvement and complete neutrality. As Max Weber observes, the “middle way” is neither objective nor scientific, especially when the objects of study become subjects in one’s own life. Rebecca’s involvement with the Peoples Temple began in 1978, when her sisters and nephew died in Jonestown, Guyana. Her observations of the group began, therefore, when the group and its surviving members were in crisis. In the early days, I portrayed them as a sympathetic would-be participant.
Over the years, however, she has become paradoxically more critical of, and more compassionate toward, the members of Peoples Temple, the living and the dead. Does adopting a critical stance make one more neutral? Or more partisan? Weber’s essays on objectivity in social science and on ethical neutrality have helped to answer these questions about her own role as a participant-observer of the processes that led to the tragic events in Jonestown along with the ongoing repercussions experienced by survivors today.