Blog post Part of series: BERA Early Career Researcher Network Symposium Series 2022
Making decisions in researcher positionality
I was privileged to attend and present at the October event in the BERA Early Career Researcher (ECR) Network Symposium Series 2022. As an ECR, the opportunity to explore the dilemmas I faced when framing my research with others was both enabling and affirming, especially as reflexivity was central in my own doctoral journey. In this blog post, I discuss the literature that was influential in the reflexive approach I used to demonstrate the rigour and trustworthiness of my research, as I explored the networks and relationships of middle leaders in secondary schools.
Critical subjectivity was the philosophical position I adopted as it made visible the reflexive considerations across all aspects of my research from design to dissemination. At the symposium there were different approaches to reflexivity presented; however what was universal was our commitment to producing research with integrity that was emancipatory for ourselves and our participants.
Dahler-Larsen (2018) suggests that it is the lack of objectivity that is often present in quantitative research which creates a dilemma in qualitative research around the ‘trustworthiness’ of data. Waring (2012, p. 18) explained this dilemma as the result of the divide between ontology, what we can know, and epistemology, how we can know it, being ‘blurred’ compared with positivist, quantitative methodologies. This means that what we can know to exist, exists in what can be known (Bhaskar, 1998). I would argue it is within this ‘grey’ area that subjective interpretation, rather than an objective reality, drives the need for a visibility of the reflexive processes employed.
Reason (1999, p. 220) refers to this visibility by posting questions such as: ‘how do I know what I know?’; ‘who am I that is engaged in this knowing?’; ‘do I actually do what I think that I do?’, and considers these questions central in the process of reflexivity in research. These questions were useful to consider, as part of a wider qualitative approach in my research, to form a visible process of moving through reflection and action. This was important as I challenged my own understanding of the impact networks and relationships I had within my own experiences as a teacher and how I interpreted those of the participants.
Successful qualitative research, according to Braun and Clarke (2013, p. 9), requires a ‘sensibility’ orientated towards ‘process and meaning’ to ensure attention is paid towards ‘what is said’, while recognising the ‘cultural membership’ of the ‘shared values and assumptions’ between the participants and the researcher. This balance across the subjective interpretations of the participants and the researcher is where Fereday and Muir-Cochrane (2006) suggest rigour, that is ‘integrity and competence’, in interpretative study can be achieved. Kindon et al. (2010, p. 17) suggest the process of paying attention and reflecting is a form of ‘transformative reflexivity’. They describe this as a conceptual frame which relates to the process of reflexivity with the intention for deeper learning and understanding. Reason (1999, p. 212) calls this process of paying attention ‘Critical Subjectivity’ and in the formation of the subjective interpretation ‘we do not have to throw away our living knowledge in the search for objectivity but are able to build on it and develop it’. In my attempts to justify an objectivity within my research, I felt that I was merely taking an opposing position to one which I may have instinctively taken; but this created an additional dilemma as it could be argued as subjective as I was choosing the decisions I was going against.
Across all the literature discussed in this blog post, the positions presented enabled me to challenge my own reflexivity in how I considered the experiences of teachers, the methods I used to capture them, and the way I analysed and presented them. This enabled me to present the way research can be emancipatory. It allowed me to embrace rather than defend or make excuses for my own subjectivity, as I explored the experiences of the participants while challenging my own understanding.
Bhaskar, R. (1998). Philosophy and scientific realism. In M. Archer, R. Bhaskar, A. Collier, T. Lawson, & A. Norrie (Eds.). Critical realism (pp. 16–47). Routledge.
Braun, V., & Clarke, V. (2013). Successful qualitative research: A practical guide for beginners. SAGE.
Dahler-Larsen, P. (2018). Qualitative evaluation: Methods, ethics, and politics with stakeholders. In N. K. Denzin, & Y. S. Lincoln (Eds.). The SAGE handbook of qualitative research (pp. 867–886). SAGE.
Fereday, J., & Muir-Cochrane, E. (2006). Demonstrating rigour using thematic analysis: A hybrid approach of inductive and deductive coding and theme development. International Journal of Qualitative Methods, 5(1), 80–92.
Kindon, S., Pain, R., & Kesby, M. (2010). Participatory action research approaches and methods. Routledge.
Reason, P. (1999). Integrating action and reflection through co-operative inquiry. Management Learning, 30(2), 207–226.
Waring, M. (2012). Finding your theoretical position. In J. Arthur, M. Waring, R. Coe, & L. V. Hedges (Eds.). Research methods & methodologies in education (pp. 15–30). SAGE.