A formality for those working towards a masters or PhD and conducting qualitive research is to acknowledge and articulate their subjectivity and reflexivity. In this post I try to get my head around these two complex sounding and entangle concepts, and hopefully provide some insight for others who like me are constructing positionality and reflexivity statements.
These terms may seem a little vague or ‘soft’ for those less familiar with the dark arts of qualitative research, but by considering the research social, historical, and applied contexts, for example, issues such as power, equity, and political agenda, and also your social position in the research (positionality) and the impact or utility of this on research processes (reflexivity), is widely accepted as a way of enhancing rigour in qualitative, quantitative, and mixed methods research.
Granted it is uncommon for quantitative and mixed methods studies to claim intersubjectivity between the research and researcher, and to do so would contradict traditionalist view that the world should be understood in an unbiased, objective, systematic, and controlled way. However, I would argue, along with many others (not only qualitative researchers), that very little, if any, social research can be value-free, whether that be epidemiology or sociology.
What is positionality?
Despite being ever present in researcher’s and research, theoretically, positionality sounds a bit vague, and in practice it can similarly lack visibility unless properly understood and considered. The term is used by researchers to describe both their view of the world and social positions in relation to the research and its contexts. I know, even with this textbook description it still is lacking clarity as a concept.
To understand our worldview, innate beliefs and assumptions may be considered through ontological, epistemological, and axiological dimensions. At another level we can consider how these beliefs and assumptions intersect with and are shaped by broader social, cultural, and political factors such as social class, religion, political ideology, gender, health, and colonization for examples. As a researcher I hold a position of both power and disadvantage, whether that be in the context of class, ethnicity, health, or education, to ignore these would mean risking my research reproducing or exacerbating systemic societal inequalities.
To further reduce the process we can think about how we locate positionality in the context of our research project and process. There are three recognised areas to consider: (1) the subject under investigation; (2) the research participants; and (3) the research process. For example, the primary populations of interest in my research are people living with dementia and family carers, therefore I can be considered an ‘insider’ because I am a family carer for a person living with dementia. I am somebody who is studying a population and culture similar to their own and therefore understand and can associate with the challenges this community face. It is important I continue to acknowledge the opportunities and limitations of this through a reflexive approach.
It is challenging to disentangle our background to understand how such leads to certain values, assumptions, and theories taking shape and place in research. Yet when such understanding is achieved it can be actively and strategically drawn on and used, reflexively, in the research as though it were an ‘ethnographic toolkit’ (Reyes, 2018).
What is reflexivity?
Closely connected to positionality, reflexivity is similarly considered an integral part of qualitative research. It can be hard to disentangle these very well connected, if not coexisting concepts, but Hammond and Wellington (2020, p. 129) do so with simplicity, they say; “If positionality refers to what we know and believe, then reflexivity is about what we do with this knowledge”.
Reflexivity is about being sensitive to your positionality, personal and professional, in recognition that these influence the research process and by extension the research outcomes. For example, by the very nature of doing social research aspects of your personal values and academic prestige will naturally influence the research. For example, if you are an unpaid family carer then you may take a social justice perspective and frame it as ‘work’, ensuring that unpaid labour is accounted for as a cost in economic evaluations.
It’s important to engage with and clearly articulate reflexivity because it provides opportunities to improve the trustworthiness of the research by making the assumptions, choices, beliefs, and positions taken in the research process more transparent.
A key consideration when planning and writing a positionality and/or reflexivity statement, is that, in many cases, our view of the world and social positions are neither static or controllable, and political views, professional occupations, personal experiences, and so on, are time and context dependant. Therefore in many research projects it is important to take a reflexive approach. For example, in my research:
“I have chosen to maintain a consistent approach across both qualitative and quantitative phases of this mixed methods study and will be considering my place in the research iteratively and recursively. Where appropriate, these will be woven into my written work”.
I hope this post helps pinpoint some of the key tenets and differences of positionality and reflexivity, and support their application in research. I seem to learn more about this area each time I return to it, and so you may find a number of resources listed below helpful and interesting.
Pfurtscheller, T., & Wiemers, A. (2022). Reflexivity in quantitative research – A Master of Global Health class perspective – BMJ Global Health blog. British Medical Journal Global Health Blog . https://blogs.bmj.com/bmjgh/2022/02/25/reflexivity-in-quantitative-research-a-master-of-global-health-class-perspective/
Reyes, V. (2018). Ethnographic toolkit: Strategic positionality and researchers’ visible and invisible tools in field research: Https://Doi-Org.Apollo.Worc.Ac.Uk/10.1177/1466138118805121, 21(2), 220–240. https://doi.org/10.1177/1466138118805121
Robertson, J. (2002). Reflexivity redux: A pithy polemic on” positionality”. Anthropological Quarterly , 75(4), 785–792. https://www.jstor.org/stable/3318171
Ryan, L., & Golden, A. (2016). ‘Tick the Box Please’: A Reflexive Approach to Doing Quantitative Social Research: Https://Doi.Org/10.1177/0038038506072287, 40(6), 1191–1200. https://doi.org/10.1177/0038038506072287
Coghlan, D., & Brydon-Miller, M. (2014). Positionality. In The SAGE Encyclopedia of Action Research. SAGE Publications Ltd. https://doi.org/10.4135/9781446294406.N277
Walker, S., Read, S., & Priest, H. (2013). Use of reflexivity in a mixed-methods study. Nurse Researcher, 20(3), 38–43. https://doi.org/10.7748/NR2013.01.20.3.38.C9496
Nathan Stephens is a PhD Student and unpaid carer, working on his PhD at University of Worcester, studying the Worcestershire Meeting Centres Community Support Programme. Inspired by caring for both grandparents and personal experience of dementia, Nathan has gone from a BSc in Sports & Physical Education, an MSc in Public Health, and now working on his PhD.