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Positionality and practitioner research: Schoolteachers’ experiences of professional doctorates in education

Gerry Czerniawski, Professor of Education/Research Degrees Leader at University of East London


The growth, internationally, in professional doctorates over the past 25 years has been well documented, as are the forms, fields and disciplines that such doctorates embrace. However, relatively little is known about the professional tensions that teachers encounter, in relation to their positionality, when carrying out doctoral research in the schools where they work. This blog post (and the research underpinning it) draws attention not only to the contribution that the Professional Doctorate in Education (EdD) makes to research as a whole, but also to the significance of teachers as invaluable members of the research community.

My research involved 30 senior teachers in England who volunteered to take part in the study after an initial social media call via Twitter. These participants were all engaged in doctoral research and, in the main, were in the final stages of their EdD theses. The method of data collection took the form of guided/semi-structured interviews carried out by telephone.

Researcher positionality

Positionality is a concept that is highly contested. Social attributes of class, gender, sexuality, race, caste, and so on are commonly cited elements that ‘mark a researcher’s relational position in society’ (Zhao, 2017, p. 185). It is not just at the individual level, however, that we witness different positionality plays in progress. Disciplines themselves can also be subject to positioning at the institutional, national and global levels within a history that has been dominated, in the main, by the prioritisation of ‘hard’ scientific and technical rationality over the ‘softer’ social sciences, humanities and, of course, education.

Researcher positionality is also, itself, often positioned within an ‘insider–outsider’ dichotomy that can, in some cases, be somewhat deterministic while presenting a simplified account of fieldwork dynamics, a point highlighted by Corbin Dwyer and Buckle (2009, p. 60):

Holding membership in a group does not denote complete sameness within that group. Likewise, not being a member of a group does not denote complete difference. It seems paradoxical, then, that we would endorse binary alternatives that unduly narrow the range of understanding and experience.

Akkerman and Bakker’s (2011) synthesis of 181 studies on boundary crossing spanning healthcare, technology, science and teaching, points to four mechanisms of learning (identification, coordination, reflection and transformation) as people move from and between different professional contexts. These mechanisms serve both to problematise and interrogate the usefulness of insider–outsider dichotomies while also shedding light on their contextual specificities.

Personal reflections on the study’s findings

For practitioner researchers, doctoral work spans academic and practitioner boundaries, making redundant many artificial binaries (such as practitioner and academic knowledge; theory and practice; insider/outsider). In such spaces, teachers carrying out doctoral research in their own schools can find themselves positioning and being positioned by five sets of values: those of their participants; their own practitioner values; the values of institutional gatekeepers (such as university ethics committees and school head teachers); their emerging values as doctoral researchers; and those of their doctoral supervisors. As they try-on-for-size new emerging values born from the doctoral experience, this polyvalorisation can inform and enrich the doctoral experience, but it is also a process that can create ‘dilemmas’ (Berlak & Berlak, 1983) if and when some of those values clash or become mutually incongruent.

And yet, dissonance and discord must not necessarily be viewed negatively. Rather, each can be a powerful tool for nurturing professional autonomy, learning, transformation and continuing critical reflective practice. For doctoral students in education, awareness of their researcher positionality and its influence on the research process increasingly forms an important part of defending the thesis. By understanding, more fully, some of the tensions and dilemmas encountered by teachers when carrying out doctoral research, it is hoped that both school-leadership teams and university postgraduate support mechanisms can be better constructed to provide more meaningful professional induction and more sustained, valued, authentic and nuanced professional learning opportunities for these highly valued members of the research community.

This blog post is based on the article ‘Power, positionality and practitioner research: Schoolteachers’ experiences of professional doctorates in education’ by Gerry Czerniawski, published in the British Educational Research Journal.


Akkerman, S., & Bakker, A. (2011). Boundary crossing and boundary objects. Review of Educational Research, 81(2), 132–169.

Berlak, A., & Berlak, H. (1983). Toward a nonhierarchical approach to school inquiry and leadership. Curriculum Inquiry, 13(3), 267–294.

Czerniawski, G. (2023). Power, positionality and practitioner research: Schoolteachers’ experiences of professional doctorates in education. British Educational Research Journal. Advance online publication.

Corbin Dwyer, S., & Buckle, J. L. (2009). The space between: On being an insider outsider in qualitative research. International Journal of Qualitative Methods, 8, 54–63.    

Zhao, Y. (2017). Doing fieldwork the Chinese way: Returning researcher’s insider/outsider status in her home town. Area, 49(2), 185–191.

More content by Gerry Czerniawski