Both insider and outsider: On conducting social work research in mental health settings

Beth Sapiro, Elizabeth B. Matthews

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The mental health clinic poses unique challenges for social work scholar-practitioners. The familiar setting, the nature of mental health data collection, and the researcher’s clinical training and experience all complicate efforts to maintain a reflexive stance in research. Additionally, conducting research in a clinical environment risks replicating a hierarchical medical model in the research relationship. Using a theoretical framework of critical realism, two doctoral-level scholar practitioners analyzed the advantages and challenges of conducting research in a clinical setting. Audit trails and experiences of peer debriefing from their dissertation research served as the basis for this conceptual analysis. The analysis considers the impact of the clinic setting on the power dynamics of the research process, as well as the researchers’ subjective experiences throughout the process of data collection. The authors discuss the risks of Othering and the challenges of straddling insider and outsider identities as scholar-practitioners in clinic settings. To navigate these dual identities of researcher and clinician, the authors recommend maintaining awareness of power dynamics and discourses, debriefing regularly with peers and mentors, introducing reflexive practices into both interviews and writing, and moving beyond binary identities in order to occupy a “space between.”.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)655-674
Number of pages20
JournalAdvances in Social Work
Issue number3
StatePublished - 1 Sep 2020


  • Mental health setting
  • Power dynamics
  • Practice-based research
  • Research relationship
  • Social work research


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