In the qualitative research process, the researcher is the main instrument of data collection, making positionality an important aspect to acknowledge in research. When you conduct research in the social sciences, it is essential for you and your research team to account for researcher identities such as gender, social class, sexual orientation, and other factors, especially if they are relevant to the research topic.
In this article, we'll look at the importance of the researcher's identity in qualitative research, then we'll discuss how a researcher can write about their positionality for an international journal or conference.
Quantitative research is typically straightforward; two plus two always equals four and the speed of light is always constant. The knowledge generated from this sort of research is seen as objective and universal.
Qualitative research, on the other hand, is more subjective in the interpretation of data. Every individual, whether they are the researcher or the participant, looks at the social world in entirely different ways.
When it comes to a researcher's own study, this degree of subjectivity can inform their research methods, research questions, and existing assumptions about the concept or phenomenon they are looking to study.
Positionality refers to a number of self-identifications ranging from the researcher's background, personal experiences, gender identity, national origin, and other factors that the researcher brings to the research process.
It can also be an acknowledgment of their outsider status relative to the study participants, personal stories about interactions or power dynamics with the study population, or life experiences that bring the researcher to the research question they are addressing.
Positionality is also related to the concept of reflexivity. Both concepts rely on an acknowledgment of the researcher's own background and identity and how these may influence the researcher's interpretations.
While a positionality statement benefits the research audience, the act of reflexivity compels the researcher to become aware of their own influence on the field they are observing. This is an important principle not only for collecting rich data but also for conducting research in an ethical manner.
Fields such as psychological research, sociological research, and education research employ a range of methods, including interviews, focus groups, observations, and ethnographies. When using these methods, the researcher is the most important instrument of data collection.
Take a research study that employs semi-structured interviews, for example. When follow-up questions are generated in the moment as the interviewer responds to answers given by participants, it's important to know a little about the interviewer.
How well does the interviewer know about the expertise and knowledge that their respondents have? Are they close colleagues or are they meeting for the first time? Does the interviewer belong to the same social groups as the interviewee? Answering such questions in a positionality statement helps the research audience understand how the data was generated.
Ethnographies benefit from a more complex statement of positionality. Sociocultural and critical research relies on, among other things, the concept of emic and etic positioning. This concept says that cultures and communities treat people differently depending on whether they are considered insiders or outsiders. Such judgments may be made based on age, race, gender, or cultural background.
As a result, an ethnographer's status as an insider or outsider has potentially significant implications in terms of gaining access to the context, interacting with participants, and analyzing data generated from the ethnography.
Imagine you are an ethnographer who wants to examine any of the following groups:
Would these groups welcome you or treat you with suspicion? In turn, what kind of bias would you have when observing or interacting with these groups? How might the difference in perspectives affect your methodology and findings?
Positionality can also affect the more mechanical aspects of a study. Informed consent, for example, is critical to gathering data from participants, making the discussion of power dynamics in a positionality statement essential to explaining to the audience how consent was obtained for data collection.
In general, there is no specific form that positionality statements should take in a research paper or presentation. The main objective of expressing positionality is to provide the audience with the sufficient contextualization of your background and identity to allow them to understand how data was collected and analyzed.
That said, scholarly research has two main conventions for writing a positionality statement in a research paper. Positionality statements are often written as part of the research methodology, where the research context, data collection, and data analysis are discussed. Writing positionality statements make the research methodology more transparent.
In this sense, a positionality statement looks like a brief biography of the researcher(s). A few short sentences are usually sufficient, for example:
"The main researcher in this study has significant experience working with patients in hospice care. As a result, she has a familiarity with the issues facing teminally ill patients that informs her reflections of her observations while in the field."
Alternatively, positionality need not be a formal or separate statement. In fields such as anthropology and sociology, and particularly fields where ethnography is commonly employed, research papers tend to resist a clinical structure (i.e., a paper with a strict background section, methodology section, etc.) in favor of a more literary narrative form. This means that positionality often accompanies the narrative developments when there is a relevant connection, for example:
"I observed how the students in class separated into groups according to whom they considered friends outside of formal activities. As a former classroom practitioner, I found this to be quite a natural development. I felt sympathetic toward the teacher, who tried to assign groups to establish more connections among classmates, as I would have done the same during my teaching days."
In the example above, the researcher is explaining what they observed in the field. They are drawn to a particular development (i.e., the grouping of students), which they note because of their previous experience as a teacher.
In this case, their positionality informs how they collected the data, particularly in a dynamic social enviroment where countless developments can occur and the researcher can only document so much at a time. The description of positionality here points out what the researcher did focus on during their research.
Ultimately, the best way to write about positionality depends on the field of research you are in. It is important for you to conduct a literature review of studies relevant to your topic, not only to gain a sense of the current theoretical developments, but also to understand and emulate the writing practices of other researchers.
Keep in mind how positionality statements are written in studies that connect to your research so you can determine the writing style that journals and their peer reviewers find compelling.
There are numerous articles engaging in meta-discussion of positionality and its role in the research process. Here are a few additional references: