Importance of Researcher Reflexivity and Positionality in the Qualitative Research Process

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18th May 2020 Data Analysis Reference this

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Introduction

Since reflexivity can be considered to be a key component ensuring quality control in qualitative research, a basic understanding of how the characteristics and knowledge of the researcher can impact on the research undertaken is of principal importance. Many use the concept of reflexivity interchangeably with related concepts, such as reflectivity and critical reflection, while others view these terms as being separate entities (D’Cruz et al., 2007). The nature of qualitative research sets the researcher as the data collection instrument. Therefore, one could reasonably argue that the researcher’s ideology, cultural background, gender, socio-economic status, and educational achievements can impact as variables during the research process. Hooks (1990) cited in Bourke (2014) notes that it is crucially important for the researcher, when carrying out their research, to realise that research involving cultural differences may lead to marginalising some of the research participants.

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Bourke (2014) states that the aim of qualitative research attempts to gain an understanding of an issue through the lived experiences of participants. Eisner (1998:39) cited in Bourke (2014) asserts that “qualitative research becomes believable because of its coherence, insight, and instrument utility”.  The strength of the research is firmly based on the success of the relationship between the researcher and his/her participants. Hall (1990) adds to this concept by stating that the researcher needs to position themselves firmly in order for their message to be heard. As a consequence, positionality can be described as being at the intersection of objectivism and subjectivism.  Freire (2000:50) points out that these exists in a “dialectic relationship.”  It is worth noting that aiming to achieve objectivity might be a bridge too far, as one can never completely claim to be entirely free of subjectivity.  However, the researcher can aim to be as objective as possible, while being mindful of his/her subjectivities. This is the true nature of positionality. A researcher is required to acknowledge how he/she is as an individual, and as being fluid as they move within social groups. This essay highlights the importance of how crucial it is to pay due consideration to positionality, reflexivity, and the power relations that are integral to research processes to ensure the highest standard of ethical research. Reflecting on one’s positionality concerning a proposed research topic can facilitate a deeper level of reflexivity, which in turn enables engagement with the research process on a deeper level. This essay will begin with a brief introduction on the importance of reflexivity and positionality in the research process, followed by an outline of the use of reflexivity in qualitative data collection. The essay will then discuss the impact of reflexivity and positionality by using a case study example. The essay will end with some concluding thoughts on the importance of maintaining as objective a stance as possible in any research process. 

Reflexivity in the data collection process in Qualitative Research

Fawcett and Hearn (2004) state that reflexivity in the research of ‘others’ is an essential component. Contrary to this, exploring what may be unfamiliar to us may also act as a barrier to recognizing commonality of themes. (Bourke, 2014). Smith (1999) illustrates this point by using the example of a qualitative study on females’ experiences of living with domestic abuse. Smith (1999) asserts that, if the researcher has not experienced the feeling of being trapped in a situation, which can be a feature of living with abuse, he/she may view the participants’ responses through their own “judgement”. This can cause many questions to arise, such as “Why did they not leave after all they endured?” This, of course, may have a knock-on effect on how the participants’ lived experiences are interpreted in the study.

However, we must recognise that, as individuals, we each occupy a different position in the social world. We all have our own unique story to tell, and should be aware that good research demands that we overcome difference through continued dialogue.  According to Jootun et al (2009), qualitative research attempts to gain an understanding of how meanings are created and how participants in the study use their past experiences.  In the face of challenges posed by the blossoming of quantitative systems in relation to qualitative research, Morse et al. (2002: 15) recommend a return to validity as a means for obtaining rigor through using techniques of verification” and a “return to recognizing and trusting strategies within qualitative inquiry that ensure rigor.”  Thus, the establishment of authenticity of the reflexive process before conformation of the study outcome can become a circular loop which defeats the purpose of research (Dowling, 2006). Nevertheless, the very act of acknowledging multiple voices in the research discourse is a valuable addition to the inter-subjective perspective of qualitative research in the social sciences.

Examining reflexivity and positionality during the research process: An example

Mason Bish (2019) examines how observations of interviewing leaders influence the decisions taken during the qualitative research process. She also explores the matters of positionality and power which are not only linked to the connection between researcher and respondent but also to the theme of the research itself. Her research study was focused on the growth of hate crime in the UK after the election of the Labour party in 1997. Mason Bish (Ibid) adopted a constructionist approach, by examining how the phenomenon of hate crime had arisen following the development of a hate crime policy by the Home Office. The research participants included high profile representatives, criminal justice experts and leaders of large NGOs. Interviews normally took place at the office of the respondent and usually lasted between 60–90 minutes. All were recorded and transcribed directly afterwards.

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Conversely, Mason Bish (Ibid) outlines that, while interviewing the participants, many of the participants admitted that they did not take the time to reflect on the fact that forming a policy on hate crime may not be achieved in a linear fashion. This was clearly reflected during the interviews as Mason Bish (Ibid) outlines that their positionality on the topic shifted. This is also reflected in the shifting nature of power in the policy making process. As Ozga (2011: 222) cited in Mason Bish (2019) states ‘the receptive audience has enabled a policy maker to think through again and re-present key moments and developments in their working lives, while yet others have revealed very complex interactions of power and knowledge’. Thus in many of the interviews conducted, a number of the participants were initially shown to be following the guided topic brief, but as the interview began to develop, participants tended to reflect back to a previous point they had made. (Mason Bish, Ibid)

The piece of research undertaken by Mason Bish is a prime example of positionality in research as the researcher may be faced with the issue of  the “insider/outsider” phenomenon, in which the questions of the research study are so tightly focused that the participant in the research does not have the possibility of asking more questions or taking some time to reflect on their responses. Equally, researchers should desist from allowing power (such as research participant status) be the key source of information rather than viewing participants viewpoints as the actual focus of the study. As Mason Bish (Ibid: 275) concludes “Once I realised this, I was able to involve them in the joint construction of a narrative which explained hate crime policy. Through getting them to reflect on their role and how this fitted within a broader story of policy development, it enabled them to be reflective and to critically assess what had happened.” This demonstrates use of researcher reflexivity as the research can finally become more conscious of their own prejudices and preconceptions and can alter their position to reflect their desired outcome of the research. For example, Mason Bish (Ibid) states that she initially thought of herself as being an outsider to the hate crime policy making. As the study unfolded, this became apparent as she discusses how she used the pronoun “they” to describe victims of hate crime and sometimes tended to pose rhetorical questions that to an extent alienated her from the actual focus of the research. Such questions included “Is it difficult to imagine what the victims were going through?”.  This again highlights the perceived position of power of the researcher in the eyes of the participants in the study.

 

Conclusion

To conclude, Mason Bish (2019) reflects that researchers should always exercise caution when examining any hypotheses they may have about a particular research topic. As a consequence, the insider/outsider phenomenon impacts on the quality of questions that the researcher utilises in the study.  As we have seen in the research study discussed in the essay, reflexivity has the potential to open up dilemmas and challenges. Gradually, individual positions are understood in a wider context, that of social identity, so that, establishing rapport in an interview with a person of a different gender, ethnicity, age or sexuality is more profound and will ultimately define the quality of the interaction. As stated throughout this essay, the researcher should always pay close attention to his/her subjectivities, while remaining mindful of the fact that achieving full objectivity can often prove to be unattainable.  Good research always contains a multiplicity of voices and a reminder that every participant has a unique perspective which adds depth and value to any research study.

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