Scholars think critically. We think critically about the world, about what we know about the world, and about what we don’t know about the world. This also requires an examination of our own beliefs, values, and behaviors. For this reason, many dissertations include positionality and/or reflexivity sections.
In these sections, the authors seek to explain their own positionality and to document their own ontological (beliefs about the nature of social reality) and epistemological (beliefs about the nature of knowledge) beliefs and how they influence the study. It is about who you are, the experiences that have made you who you are, and your decisions that have come from these positions. This is sometimes referred to as a paradigm as well. All of these aspects influence your research.
Most often used in qualitative research, reflexivity is when the researcher reflects on how they have influenced the study. As such, some researchers will use the terms reflection and reflexivity interchangeably. While positionality is a critical self-reflection on what we know and believe, reflexivity is a critical self-reflection on what we do with this knowledge and how it impacts our research. All researchers have basic assumptions that they take for granted and in this sense, the researcher is always part of the research.
While we sometimes assume someone’s positionality (i.e., assuming a Black researcher supports the Black Lives Matter movement or assuming a rural White researcher votes Republican), this can lead to wrongly assuming the positionality of the researcher until they make a positionality statement. To write and present these sections means to draw attention to the researcher as a part of the study.
Our worldview seeps into our research and is closely related to our positionality. To examine your own positionality includes critically asking yourself who you are, what are your experiences, what is your trajectory to interest in this topic, what are your experiences with the phenomenon being examined, what has shaped your ideas about the phenomenon, etc. There are often moments that a researcher can reflect on that help explain how they perceive their own study, how they interact with their participants and with their data, and also how the study impacted them as a person.
1. So how does this all come into play?
Well, it depends. Sometimes it is formalized and sometimes it’s informal. Sometimes it is presented, sometimes it is written for the purpose of critical reflection, and sometimes you are encouraged to think through or discuss with your committee. Many mentors will encourage their mentees to write down their positionality to help them be more reflexive in the doctoral journey.
As our positionality is fluid, some students are encouraged to journal their positionality at the beginning of the process and at the end of the process to better understand how they have changed and how the research may have impacted them. It can even be a recurrent practice that takes place at key milestones in your doctoral journey. In this sense, positionality is a necessary and ongoing process to allow the researcher to better understand themselves, but also to relay the researcher’s assumptions to the reader.
2. And how do I even identify my own positionality?
In many ways, doctoral students are still novice researchers and as such, they struggle with identifying their positionality. It is not that they don’t have positionality, but that they don’t know how to put it into words. Our ontological and epistemological beliefs are shaped by our identity and our life experiences—gender identity, race and ethnicity, sexual orientation, social class, (dis)abilities, religion and faith, political alignment, and other social influences.
Positionality requires trying to reflect on which of these have affected your position relative to your study, including how you have conducted your research, the outcomes of your research, and what you conclude based on these outcomes. Positionality is also present in the phenomena you have chosen to study. We often choose topics that we have personal interest in. For example, we work with a lot of teachers who are studying education and a lot of nurses who are studying issues in healthcare. Sometimes, however, it isn’t so direct. We work with students, for instance, studying particular topics because they have a relative that has been impacted by it or because they were personally impacted by the problem they are studying.
There are strategies for positioning yourself in the research to think through your own positionality. Examples include:
- journaling why you chose the topic, your personal connection to the topic, your opinions about the phenomenon being studied, what you personally know about the topic that is not documented in the literature, and how you can use the results in your personal or professional lives;
- taking your own survey and/or answering your own interview questions;
- printing your conclusion chapter and adding your opinions about everything in the margins to better identify what your assumptions might be;
- and reflecting on your position as an insider or outsider to the topic and what this meant for your study design, data collection, and interpretation of data.
According to Malterud (2001, p. 483-484), “A researcher’s background and position will affect what they choose to investigate, the angle of investigation, the methods judged most adequate for this purpose, the findings considered most appropriate, and the framing and communication of conclusions.” We can actually dissect this quote to guide the writing process. Here, I’ll present the quote again with emphasis on the elements to consider:
- what they choose to investigate
- Ask yourself: Why did I choose to investigate this topic?
- the angle of investigation
- Ask yourself: What is my opinion/assumptions about this topic?
- the methods judged most adequate for this purpose
- Ask yourself: Why did I choose this method, this population, this data collection instrument, etc?
- the findings considered most appropriate
- Ask yourself: Why am I highlighting these findings?
- framing and communication of conclusions
- Ask yourself: Why will I communicate the findings this way?
While I have focused on developing your own positionality statement, it is important to note what we can learn from others as we are developing a better understanding of the literature. When you are reading studies on your topic, especially if it is a controversial topic, be sure to assess the positionality of the researcher to better understand their approach and conclusions.
Malterud K. Qualitative research: standards, challenges, and guidelines. Lancet. 2001 Aug 11;358(9280):483-8. doi: 10.1016/S0140-6736(01)05627-6. PMID: 11513933.