Academia, Blog Topics

Dr. Sarah Olive: To research, or not to research? Some dilemmas of insider-outsider research on Shakespeare in South East/East Asian higher education

Sarah Olive is a Lecturer in English in Education at the University of York, where she is a member of the York Asia Research Network. She is also a Visiting Lecturer at the Shakespeare Institute, University of Birmingham. Her monograph Shakespeare Valued: education policy and pedagogy, 1989-2009 was published by Intellect in 2015.


I am writing this blog because, while struggling to describe my researcher position in a book chapter – thinking ‘Should I being doing this research? What are the strengths and weaknesses, potential benefits and harms I bring to this field?’ – I saw a timely tweet about PG BSA blog posts on researcher stories and dilemmas. I am ethnically white British; I grew up in England and Australia; I am Anglophone with schoolgirl French; and have no facility in Asian languages. I am a lecturer in English in Education, with an ongoing research programme on Shakespeare in South East/East Asian higher education. This programme developed out of my research, from my Masters onwards, on Shakespeare in education in the UK. The year after my doctoral graduation, 2012, was a big year for Shakespeareans and the theatre-going public thinking about Shakespeares beyond the UK and other Anglophone countries. Foremost examples of this were the glut of non-Anglophone productions provided by the World Shakespeare Festival, including the Globe to Globe Shakespeare Festival. I wrote reviews of Russian and Yoruban productions for an AHRC-funded blogging project (Edmondson, Prescott and Sullivan). Educators at the Royal Shakespeare Company also collaborated with the British Council on a wikiShakepseare to log information about the teaching of Shakespeare in as many nations as possible: I won funding to travel to Norway and New Zealand in the same year, and wrote entries for those countries (n.b. the World Shakespeare Festival website is no longer updated, and I haven’t been able to locate the wiki elsewhere online).

After four and a bit years researching Shakespeare in the UK school system – policy, pedagogy and (public service) broadcasting – as a student, my departmental research director was urging me to develop a multi-year research plan. It made sense to build on my existing expertise in and methods for researching Shakespeare in education but expand them to a new context in a more sustained way yet. I spent my PhD (and its iteration in monograph form) resisting pressure to evaluate the quality of Shakespeare teaching in UK schools, so I knew I didn’t want to do a comparison of the UK and an Asian country that risked such a focus. Rather, I wanted to maintain a focus on perceptions and cultural values, but to extend it from those embodied in policy and pedagogic texts to students, teachers, arts and culture practitioners in Asia. UK humanities and social science PhDs (and likely many more besides) train us to identify and fill gaps in the literature before we do anything else (unless you’re a card-carrying grounded theorist), so one compelling reason to do this research was the lack of publications in English – for better or worse, logically or hegemonically, the dominant language in Shakespeare studies – on Shakespeare in education in South East/East Asia. The lack is particularly evident compared to research on Shakespeare in education in Anglophone countries or on Shakespearean texts and productions in East Asia. In terms of the research context, sub-disciplines – global Shakespeare/s and Shakespeare/s beyond English – were flourishing, UK and overseas funders were open to supporting it, relevant conferences abounded. The political context was also facilitative of productions, translations of plays and research: the UK seemed to be trying to close the gap with America, Australia, Canada and New Zealand in its relations with East Asian countries. Andrew Dickson describes the state visit of Chinese Premier Wen Jiabo and his Shakespearean stop-off at Stratford upon Avon in his book on the phenomenon of global Shakespeare (348). Practicalities also came into play in deciding to focus on Shakespeare in South East/Easy Asian education specifically: subject English in non-Anglophone countries’ higher education institutions (usually involving adult students and with more instruction and resources in English) is easier to access than in schools, given my linguistic shortcomings.

Thoughts, feelings, beliefs, desires – the building blocks of self-identity – are something academics often neglect to write (or are discouraged from writing) about, thanks to the long shadow of objectivity. However, I would identify such affective factors as playing an equally important role to those above in my choosing to study Shakespeare in Asia over countries whose language I share, or others I do not. I have a lifetime of casual encounters and interest in Asia. If I was drawing up a ‘critical incident chart’ of these, it would include the following (Swift, Burnard): reading a picturebook version of Around the World in Eighty Days; visiting Singapore to see my aunt and uncle who lived and worked there for six years, treasuring the smells and sights of the presents they gave us from yellow curry powder to kawaii Hello Kitty flasks; learning some Japanese phrases in preparing to welcome a newly arrived student, Yukiko, into my primary school class; moving to Adelaide as a teenager and benefitting in mundane ways from Adelaide’s ethnic, linguistic and culinary diversity; travelling to Thailand, Malaysia and to visit fellow Adelaide graduates on the Japan English Teachers programme in Osaka; and listening to a friends’ stories about growing up north of Beijing and her family’s experiences in the Cultural Revolution. The people, places and objects above, fictional and real, were exotic to me, as Shakespearean quartos and facsimiles are to budding textual scholars, or a play at the Royal Shakespeare Company is to a schoolchild. Unlike Orientalism, described by Edward Said, both buoyed and evidenced by the introduction and use of Shakespeare in British colonies, I don’t think my curiosity about Asia entailed a desire for power over its civilizations or individuals from them…though I couldn’t rule out a power struggle in terms of wanting to know more about the world, its cultures and languages, than my English peers. Dan Rebellato’s description of Kantian ‘cosmopolitanism’ – having a ‘sense of membership of the world as a whole’ and ‘all human beings, regardless of their differences’ as ‘worthy of equal moral regard’ – struck a deep chord with me (59-60). But interest, enthusiasm and cosmopolitanism alone cannot qualify me to write academically about Shakespeare in Asian higher education. Plus, in endeavouring to fill a gap in the English-language research on it, I run the risk of being the unknowledgeable outsider researcher who accidentally silences insider voices. Still, I trepidly answer the question posed in the title of this blog ‘To research’, with (I hope) a great degree of reflexivity and an eye firmly fixed on avoiding or offsetting damage to others who operate without my privilege. Here’s why and how.

I find the insider/outsider researcher position unhelpfully, erroneously, dichotomous. Like Corbin Dwyer and Buckle, I think it’s far more likely that most researchers are located somewhere along a continuum of ‘insider-outsider’ in relation to their projects, ‘the hyphen [… being] a dwelling place for researchers’. Like Said, Corbin Dwyer and Buckle, I think one reason that it’s dangerous to over-emphasise difference is that ‘holding membership in a group does not denote complete sameness within that group. Likewise, not being a member…does not denote complete difference’. The communities that I belong to and share with my participants in this research include academic (researcher and/or educator), Shakespearean, theatre-goer, amateur drama practitioner, enthusiastic reader, person with first-hand, lived experience of interculturalism, and cosmopolitan, in the sense of being receptive to, curious about and respecting ‘the products of the world’ (we share experience of living, working, and being interested in multiple countries, possibility even xenophilia) (Rebellato 55). The communities to which I don’t belong, but which my research concerns, include national, regional, ethnic, linguistic, student, and certain institutional ones (I don’t belong to the universities I visit or the British Council, though I have collaborated with them on talks and exhibitions). I am not resident in the region, making recurrent research trips funded by the British Academy, British Council and GB Sasakawa Foundation, of just a few weeks’ duration to Japan, Korea and Vietnam, as well as one visit to Hong Kong supported by the Chinese University of Hong Kong to visit schools, universities, arts and cultural organisations. I mention the funding because it might be understood as one way of authenticating my ‘membership’ of some of the communities listed above to which I claim to belong: at least in the current UK higher education climate at research-intensive universities, where funding forms parts of the criteria for performance and promotion but also given the balance of inside and outside Asia organizations represented. There are clearly limitations to my particular location on the insider-outsider continuum: as an English lecturer, Truc Le, pointed out on my recent visit to the Open University in Ho Chi Minh City, most of what I see when I observe educators, students and practitioners is what is ‘on the surface’. Like most researchers feeling their way into a field within academia (including myself reading about Shakespeare in UK education), I try to offset my limited direct experience of, and ignorance about institutions and governments, by reading relevant critical works (written in or translated into English) to inform my analysis and through conversations with ‘insiders’. The latter are in English, or sometimes with a translator facilitating, with all the limitations this entails – most noticeably to me, two-way parallel translation eats up a vast amount of meeting time (e.g. a Vietnamese-speaking researcher could fit in so many more questions and responses in the same time). Corbin Dwyer and Buckle argue, from their experience of working together on a project from different researcher positions (one more ‘outsider’, one more ‘insider’), that ‘the core ingredient [for successful research] is not insider or outsider status but an ability to be open, authentic, honest, deeply interested in the experience of one’s research participants, and committed to accurately and adequately representing their experience’. Finally, they suggest that if writing possesses the above qualities, the reader can decide whether the researcher’s particular insider-outsider status would improve or impede their ability to carry out the study.

I endeavour to be a good ally to, and forge bilateral exchanges with, Asian Shakespeareans who seek international interactions, readers and audiences through consultation with them as well as to offer something identified as useful by participants, to participants. On invitation, I share my knowledge of resources for studying, teaching, playing and publishing on Shakespeare (and I tweet and Facebook about these too); collaborate with Shakespeareans in Asia to fund opportunities for international voices on Shakespeare in education to reach an international readership and discussion; contribute to capacity-building, mentoring activities with students and staff – reading and commenting on work, proposals, press releases, curriculum vitae and applications; publicizing their events and activities through my research networks; being available for and responsive in answering questions about, for example, Shakespeare, English language, British and Australian academia, education, culture and society. I teach my students in the UK to look at Shakespeare produced beyond Britain, to eschew and challenge Anglocentrism in their study of his work.

However, I am aware of some of the limitations of the ‘ally’ role, as well as multiple different understandings of what being an ‘ally’ entails and best ‘ally’ practice. My first conscious, deliberate, even formal, experience of being an ally was joining the official GLBTTIQQ ALLY (gay, lesbian, bisexual, transsexual, transgender, intersex, questioning and queer) network as a Research and Advocacy Officer in the Flinders International Student Association in 2004. Its principles of being knowledgeable in, receptive to, understanding of and educating people about issues arising from marginalization, dominant assumptions, prejudice and discrimination, as well as being proactive in addressing these, still underpin much of my identity, and hopefully, behaviours as an ally to and beyond GLBTTIQQ people. I understand that being an ally is predicated on the not unproblematic notion that a community desires and requires support from non-members and situation: for example, to obtain resources (these might include institutional support for research activities, by providing time including research leave, funding or eligibility for these through institutional affiliation). Ric Knowles’ writing about intercultural theatre research expresses well that ‘part of what is fraught in this enterprise is a history of [research]…that is firmly located in the west, where the resources and reasons to dominate the exchange are concentrated’ (2). Ally networks might also be predicated on the necessity of gaining influence not otherwise available (even actively denied) to that community by gatekeepers, from privileged communities. I am myself a gatekeeper, as the founding editor of the British Shakespeare Association’s Teaching Shakespeare albeit expanding the focus of the publication beyond its predecessors to be international; proactively encouraging self-advocacy from Shakespearean educators world-wide, in the form of non-Anglocentric contributions; and operating an editorial policy which embraces world Englishes. I try to check silencing effects in my editorial role by including direct quotation of Asian Shakespeareans’ (teachers and students) words, having obtained their informed consent to do so; as well as by collaborative research and publishing; creating and demanding space and opportunity for the solo voices of Vietnamese Shakespeareans; and passing on news of relevant opportunities. Finally, I am aware that these paragraphs could be read as a form of virtue-signalling, over-defensiveness or Anglo-splaining, depending on each readers’ own positionality. They are intended not to position me as a perfect researcher (if such a thing exists), but as one capable of degrees of sensitivity, reflexivity, improvement and other qualities extolled by Corbin Dwyer and Buckle. This post is constituted of thoughts, suggestions, confessions and personal experiences, provisional and dynamic as my research is ongoing – not necessarily ready-made answers to this dilemma of the researcher’s position. I welcome dialogue on how I can improve as someone inhabiting, as Corbin Dwyer and Buckle describe it, the hyphen of insider-outsider researcher via @DrSarahOlive or


Acknowledgements: I am grateful to Ruth Olive and Jan Johnston for the opportunity to discuss this blog post with them, as well as to all the colleagues and students I have worked with internationally on projects funded by the British Academy, British Council, and GB Sasakawa Foundation.


Work cited, where freely-accessible hyperlink unavailable:

Corbin Dwyer, S., & Buckle, J. L. (2009). The space between: On being an insider-outsider in qualitative research. International Journal of Qualitative Methods, 8, 54–63.


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