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Insider, outsider or in-between? A researcher’s evolving positionality in conducting studies about Chinese rural land reform in China and Belgium

Renhao Yang


Cet essai examine les impacts de l’adoption d’une position d’entre-deux, à la fois une vue de l’intérieur et une vue de l’extérieur, dans l’étude de la réforme agraire chinoise, vue de Chine et de Belgique. En m’appuyant sur mes propres expériences de terrain et sur la rédaction de deux articles - l’un mettant l’accent sur les implications économiques de la réforme et l’autre explorant ses dimensions théoriques - j’insiste sur l’importance du lieu de production des connaissances, en particulier sur mon expérience de formation épistémologique et méthodologique en Belgique. Cette expérience a joué un rôle essentiel dans la formation de ma position d’entre-deux, en fournissant un cadre pour la recherche réflexive et la présentation de mes résultats. En substance, cet essai soutient que l’adoption d’une position d’entre-deux est essentielle pour produire une recherche qui soit non seulement rigoureuse sur le plan académique, mais aussi pertinente sur le plan pratique, en phase avec les complexités des questions sociales étudiées.

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1Human geographers have been addressing epistemological concerns, such as positionality, partiality, reflexivity, and intersectionality, which significantly influence knowledge production in academia (England, 1994; Nast, 1994; Rose, 1997; Simandan, 2019). The insider/outsider dichotomy represents a common epistemological consideration in the process of conducting fieldwork and composing academic articles in various social sciences (Zou, 2023). An insider researcher, sharing similar social, cultural, and political characteristics, may find it easier to approach research participants and gather more data. Conversely, an outsider researcher might encounter challenges in interacting with potential interviewees due to differing societal status. However, this outsider position can provide opportunities to observe research participants with less subjective judgment. The advantages and disadvantages of both positionalities in research have been thoroughly explored (Giwa, 2015; Zou, 2023).

2In some cases, researchers may find themselves somewhere between the insider and outsider positions. Katz (1994), for example, rejects the notion of categorising researchers strictly as either insiders or outsiders, and proposes that researchers position themselves in the ‘spaces of betweenness’ to embrace a wider range of possibilities. This in-betweenness demonstrates that the insider and outsider positions can coexist or smoothly transition when encountering certain research circumstances (e.g., Gibson, 2006).

3Terms such as field, positionality and in-betweenness are spatial, suggesting both metaphorical relations and concrete spatial relations between researchers and the researched (Yu, 2020). The current literature on researchers’ positionality has extensively discussed the dynamic relationship between researchers and the subjects they research, as well as the consequent impacts on knowledge production. However, less attention has been paid to the spatiality of positionality, especially the relationship between researchers and research places (Livingstone, 2003; Yu, 2020). This framework enables me to understand my changing positions as an insider, outsider or in between the different cultural and academical environments in China and Belgium.

4Joining this debate on in-betweenness positionality in fieldwork, I argue that such in-betweenness can be extended to the analysis and writing process after fieldwork, which has much to do with the place of these processes. Drawing from my research experience in two countries on the shared objective of China’s market-oriented land reform, I establish a connection between the positionality when in Belgium and the one when in China. In doing so, I advocate for increased attention to the place of knowledge production. This encompasses conducting fieldwork, analysing data, and writing academic articles, particularly in the context of social science studies with geographical differences in field sites and research bases.

  • 1 This reform involves state-led policy experimentation on land commodification, enabling rural colle (...)
  • 2 Pidu is a district of Chengdu City, the capital of Sichuan Province, China. It has a long history o (...)

5Since 2017, I have been researching China’s market-oriented reform1 of rural collective commercial construction land (RCCCL) in Pidu District2 for both my master and doctoral theses. During my master studies in China from 2015 to 2017, I participated in my supervisor’s research project on Pidu’s land reform, providing me with opportunities to meet informants and gain basic knowledge on land-related issues in Pidu. Building upon the information collected through fieldwork, I collaborated with my supervisor to produce an article that analysed the economic impacts of the experimental policy on villagers. This article has been published in a geographic journal (Economic Geography) in Chinese. Through my fieldwork in 2017, I established connections with informants, mainly district-level officials. These connections proved invaluable during subsequent field trips for my doctoral project from 2018 to 2022. In 2019 and 2021, I consulted a prior informant, an official in the Bureau of Land Resource of Pidu, for recommendations on suitable towns and villages for further investigation. Such an approach provides a practical and feasible way to interact with town(ship) governments, the lowest level of administrative authority in China. However, it may introduce bias and pose threats to the robustness of my research. To address such concerns, I visited only a portion of the recommended sites while also carefully selecting additional sites for comparison.

6In the remainder of this essay, I will begin by providing a brief overview of my academic training in Belgium. Subsequently, I will delve into the in-betweenness experienced during my field trips and illustrate how this positionality thrust me into a hybrid identity as both a researcher, a tourist, and an acquaintance with informants. I will also examine the implications of this positionality on my research and fieldwork strategies, as they provided a more theoretically critical vantage point for comprehending China’s land reform. In conclusion, I argue that geographically-based knowledge production in another country involves not only the transfer of diverse knowledges but also the harmonization of hybrid, diverse positionalities.

Epistemological and methodological training in Belgium

7The Belgian academic environment, particularly the KU Leuven, offers a rich and diverse academic environment and training for the social sciences. A noteworthy aspect of this guidance is the diverse specialisations among human geographers in my doctoral supervisory committee. Their research interests span at least four key themes: the politics of urban housing, the state’s role in rural and urban land-based development, the politics of marginalised groups and resistance, and the environmental sustainability of development. This training process offered opportunities for me to engage with different bodies of literature in the early stages of my project.

  • 3 This training, mandatory for all PhD candidates, is usually coordinated by doctoral schools, a comm (...)

8The KU Leuven provides comprehensive training3 through workshops and lectures, encompassing general skills in research, but also in research management, methodology, and specific research topics. In the second month of my PhD, I participated in a workshop titled Managing Your PhD offering a holistic perspective on PhD life. This experience allowed me to structure my project tasks and timing, instilling a sense of control over my research and career. Additionally, I took part in Qualitative Research Methods for postgraduate students, where I systematically delved into the philosophical foundations of various qualitative approaches and their application in designing research projects using appropriate methods. Multi-disciplinary platforms, such as Metaforum at the KU Leuven, provide scholars with opportunities to discuss societal issues in the context of multi-regionalism, offering additional resources for intellectual growth.

9The transferable, all-round research training at the KU Leuven has enabled me to smoothly conduct my research project in two ways. First, the research framework developed in my PhD project draws inspiration from various strands of literature, including political economy of development, critical agrarian change, and urban studies. Key concepts, such as land commodification, dispossession, and displacement, present in these fields of literature, have been inclusively and crossly utilised in my research to empirically uncover the complex interaction of different stakeholders in rural China’s market-oriented reform and to better understand these concepts theoretically. Second, the qualitative research methods I employed are informed by the training received at KU Leuven, specifically in the approaches to data collection and analysis. Unlike the emphasis on quantitative information in my previous study on China’s land reform, I utilised comprehensive qualitative research methods, primarily interviews and observations, for collecting and processing information in the field. This approach also aligns with different positionalities in the field, a point I will elaborate on in the following section.

In-betweenness positionality and my fieldwork strategies

Me as an insider or an outsider in the field sites

10Researchers in social sciences always need to bear the asymmetrical power relations with their respondents in mind (Holstein & Gubrium, 1995). When I was conducting my fieldwork in Pidu, I found myself in a situation called ‘in-between’ by Zhao (2017). This positionality posed challenges to me, and at the same time, it provided me opportunities to engage in a deeper understanding of my field sites. During my initial field trip, my approach to data collection was that of a pure outsider and observer. At the time, I did not perceive any (potential) connections between myself and the individuals in the field. I approached data collection in a passive and unbiased manner, simply receiving information from the locals.

  • 4 For instance, when discussing rural housing with local people in the villages of Pidu, the term ‘yu (...)

11However, during my second and third field trips, I became increasingly aware of the dichotomy between outsiderness and insiderness, complicating my in-between position. On the one hand, having been raised in Sichuan Province and completed my bachelor’s studies in Chengdu, I am fluent in the local dialect of Mandarin. This fluency allows me to establish close relationships with informants and comprehend their perspectives more easily4. Conversely, the insider position comes with its own set of challenges. Being an insider of my homeland and culture, I had to grapple with certain biases stemming from familiarity and partiality that might have influenced my interpretations of the data. Furthermore, despite being fluent in the local dialect, my academic language skills are grounded in Standard Mandarin, which could potentially result in linguistic barriers or misunderstandings. Nevertheless, acknowledging this dichotomy and engaging in critical reflexivity enabled me to navigate these complexities and generate more nuanced research outcomes.

12On the other hand, during my fieldwork in Pidu, I occupied a unique position as both an outsider and an investigator. This complexity was further heightened by the fact that many RCCCL projects were connected to the tourism industry (Yang & Loopmans, 2023), necessitating a balance between two sub-identities: that of a tourist and a researcher. In my tourist role, I had the opportunity to visit and observe various RCCCL projects without the presence of informants, providing a distinctive perspective on how these projects were designed for public consumption. However, it was my role as a researcher that proved most insightful. Through examining the landscape and observing the transformation of space into commodities catering to urbanites, I gained a better understanding of the motivations of those involved in the RCCCL reform in Pidu. This enabled me to delve deeper into the complexities of this issue and pose critical questions about the reasons and mechanisms behind such reform. Consequently, my fieldwork experience allowed me to develop a multifaceted perspective on the overall dynamics of rural land reform in Pidu.

  • 5 A traditional settlement for rural locals in southwest Chengdu.

13Occupying an in-between position during my fieldwork involved certain complexities, but it also provided unique opportunities for effectively perceiving the situation. During my 2019 fieldwork, while interviewing a villager about living in a Linpan5 compared to an apartment, I received a response that initially left me feeling confused and offended. The villager asked where I came from, either the countryside or a city, and deemed the answer obvious. Feeling somewhat alienated as an outsider in the conversation, I realised that perhaps I had not worded my question effectively, lacking appropriate contextual understanding of rural living experiences. Reflecting on this exchange, I recognised the need to frame questions in a more thoughtful and productive way. To address this challenge, I refined my approach by opening with a statement acknowledging my background, proposing a more precise query: “I come from a small city and have no experience living in the countryside, so I am curious about the differences between living in a traditional settlement versus an apartment. What do you think constitutes such differences?” By adjusting my questioning approach, I was able to engage in more informative, constructive conversations with respondents. In summary, while my in-between status initially complicated my interviews, it eventually enabled me to improve my engagement strategies and to produce more insightful research outcomes.

Informants as alumnus, information gatekeeper, or something else

14During my second and third field stays, informants played significant roles in further complicating my in-between position as a researcher. A key informant, with whom I shared a graduate university experience, was employed in the government of Pidu District. Our connection enabled me to approach more informants through his network and facilitated access to a list of villages for further investigation. Additionally, this informant assisted my efforts in establishing connections with the authorities of towns and villages in the face of barriers or difficulties.

15Nevertheless, being a state official, he also functioned as an information gatekeeper and could not disclose certain details, despite our close relationship. To tackle this challenge, I triangulated the information gathered from grassroots sources, including towns and villages that I visited independently, effectively verifying the accuracy of the data provided by my informant. Furthermore, I made multiple visits to the informant, allowing me to cross-validate my research findings and gain a more comprehensive understanding of the perspectives presented. Overall, despite the complexity of my positionality, the incorporation of multiple perspectives helped generate richer, nuanced datasets and overcome challenges encountered in the field.

Interpreting the research in two languages

16Language has a significant impact on research in at least two ways. First, the spoken language used during fieldwork can either facilitate or impede the trust-building process between the researcher and participants. While my native Sichuan dialect and local accent often facilitated casual conversations with potential interviewees, in some instances, they failed to establish rapport or they created obstacles, as previously noted by Zhao (2017). When inquiring about experiences related to demolition and resettlement in the Sichuan dialect, some villagers perceived me as a local official conducting an investigation, and they were reluctant to share their personal accounts without accompanying village cadres. However, when I used standard Mandarin, some participants, conversely, showed greater willingness to engage, considering me a tourist or journalist rather than a researcher.

17Second, translating information from Chinese to English involves the loss of meaning due to both the nature of language itself and the disparity between how situations are remembered and how they are represented (Simandan, 2019, p. 129). This is because certain words in one language may lack direct equivalents in the other. While achieving complete meaning equivalence in cross-language research is impossible, I adopted strategies to minimize such losses, especially during the translation of empirical materials like interview recordings, field notes, official documents, and social media reports. Specifically, I employed back-translation, where a translated text is re-translated into Chinese to identify any meaningful differences between the original and the translated versions (Brislin, 1970). Employing this approach enabled me to preserve the utmost original meaning of information gathered during fieldwork.

Writing the finding in China and Belgium: policy-driven vs. theory-driven

18Chinese research in the field of human geography is considered to be more policy-driven (Qian & Zhang, 2022), as this field has been regarded as a pragmatic discipline, or what Lu (2017) called ‘Jingshi Zhiyong’ (governance or statecraft for practical use). Usually, many published articles in the field contain a ‘policy implication’ section. However, the goal of theory construction and advancement has been highlighted in the knowledge production in mainstream Anglo-Saxon publications of human geography (Schaefer, 1953; Kesteloot & Saey, 2003). These different traditions have also impacted the way I conduct research in China and Belgium. I will explain the differences using two of my articles completed in China and Belgium.

19My first article, Article A, centred on the contributions to policymaking of the RCCCL reform in rural China. The goal was to investigate how land reform could enhance villagers’ income, emphasising practical societal relevance, and contributions to policymaking. To achieve this objective, I predominantly relied on RCCCL reform policies and quantitative data on land transactions, payments, and investments provided by cadres in the villages and local governments of Pidu. One critical limitation of Article A was its restricted depth due to a time constraint during fieldwork, as I spent only two days in Pidu. This limited my interaction with a diverse range of informants and hindered the collection of more varied perspectives on the RCCCL reform.

20In contrast, Article B published in the Journal of Rural Studies is more theory-driven, influenced by my in-between positionality after studying in Belgium. Three key factors contributed to this shift. First, the interviewees were more diverse, including average villagers, land investors, and researchers in rural studies. Second, the research question was conceptually oriented, exploring not only the practical consequences of land reform but also the theoretical implications of land commodification resulting from the reform. Finally, I maintained a balance between contextualising rural China’s political economy and achieving transferability and comparability with other regions. These changes were facilitated by the diverse and open-minded Belgian academic community, providing me with more methodological tools and opportunities for international comparisons, allowing me to engage with audiences both in China and beyond.

21I have constructed a comparison of these two articles in Table 1, exploring why they differ, to some extent, in terms of research method, findings, focus, and orientation, linking these to my in-between positionality. In the process of conducting the 2017 fieldwork and writing Article A, I identified myself as a pure outsider, collecting, observing, and evaluating the land reform in Pidu. However, in the subsequent field trips and the writing of Article B, I found myself in a more in-between space. The in-betweenness positionality allowed me to engage more thoroughly with the field, communicate intimately with locals, and reflexively evaluate my fieldwork approach during the limited time span of my second and third field trips. Additionally, the in-betweenness provided me with more space to implement theoretical conceptualization, explore literature and data, and critically reflect on my research assumptions and epistemology. This capacity for reflective thinking was enhanced by my learning and training experience in Belgium.

Table 1. Comparison of two articles.

Table 1. Comparison of two articles.

Source: the author

Conclusion remarks

22Joining the debates on in-betweenness (Cheskin & Jašina-Schäfer, 2022; Oliva, 2000; Zhao, 2017), I revisited my evolving positionality in the process of conducting fieldwork, interpreting information, and writing academic articles during my master’s and doctoral periods. In conclusion, it is evident that my researcher positionalities have significantly influenced the direction and outcomes of my research projects. The in-betweenness positionality in my work enables me to balance methodological rigor and practical relevance, facilitating advancements in both theoretical and policy contributions in academic products. My involvement in Belgian academia has played a significant role in shaping this in-betweenness by providing a diverse and open-minded intellectual community.

23Exposure to various methodological tools and international comparisons in Belgian academia has assisted me in developing a broader perspective on rural development policy beyond rural China. This exposure enables me to contribute not only to the Chinese academic community but also to the broader international academic community. Bearing the insider/outsider and in-between positionalities in mind, I practically and reflectively selected appropriate ways to approach informants and interact with them for a better and more comprehensive understanding of rural China. My experience as a researcher highlights the importance of situating oneself within multiple positionalities to gain a more nuanced understanding of the complex social issues at hand. As such, I believe that embracing this in-betweenness positionality is essential for producing research that is both academically rigorous and practically relevant.

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1 This reform involves state-led policy experimentation on land commodification, enabling rural collectives to negotiate land use rights over residential land with investors after relocating villagers to high-rise resettlement areas and demolishing the original housing.

2 Pidu is a district of Chengdu City, the capital of Sichuan Province, China. It has a long history of rural land reforms and integrated urban-rural development.

3 This training, mandatory for all PhD candidates, is usually coordinated by doctoral schools, a common practice across the majority of European universities.

4 For instance, when discussing rural housing with local people in the villages of Pidu, the term ‘yuanzi’ was frequently used, and its meaning had to be understood contextually. In the local dialect of Mandarin in Sichuan, it has at least three meanings: (1) a courtyard (院子) in front of a house (usually used for drying clothes and crops), (2) a type of traditional rural community, Linpan (林盘), consisting of several households’ houses, and (3) a piece of cultivated land (园子) for vegetables in front of or behind a house.

5 A traditional settlement for rural locals in southwest Chengdu.

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Titre Table 1. Comparison of two articles.
Crédits Source: the author
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Renhao Yang, « Insider, outsider or in-between? A researcher’s evolving positionality in conducting studies about Chinese rural land reform in China and Belgium »Belgeo [En ligne], 4 | 2023, mis en ligne le 14 février 2024, consulté le 20 juillet 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Renhao Yang

School of Geographical Sciences, Southwest University
ORCID 0000-0001-7785-3413

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