In this blog post, I consider my critical engagement with my positionality beyond reflexivity to self-reflexivity. When conducting my literature search for my thesis, I noticed that self-reflexivity receives less attention when researchers choose to articulate their positionality in relation to their participants. My own research illuminates stories of intersectional invisibility (Purdie-Vaughns & Eibach, 2008) experienced by Black female teachers within English schools, but being a non-race-matched researcher (Vass, 2017) my positionality became a critical discussion in my thesis and viva. Although being racially and ethnically different from my research participants, I share some cultural commonality with participants who identify as African-Caribbean heritage, being from an Indo-Caribbean background myself. However, I faced a methodological and ethical challenge when a potential participant asked me, ‘Why are you researching us?’ In other words, I do not look like these women, my lived experiences are different, so why am I conducting a study on their lives? This is an extremely pertinent question in the context of my research. I was forced to reflect on my positionality, not just in terms of power relations as part of the ethics process, but also in terms of my own racial, ethnic, cultural and social position. This reflection went beyond a recognition and acknowledgement of my difference as a ‘shopping list of characteristics’ (Folkes, 2022, p. 1) or identities. Being asked, ‘Why are you researching us?’ illuminated my need to critically examine me, as the researcher. This raised questions for me: ‘Who exactly should be carrying out this research?’, ‘Who is best placed to convey the voices of Black female teachers?’, and ‘Is the best placed person really me?’
‘I was forced to reflect on my positionality, not just in terms of power relations as part of the ethics process, but also in terms of my own racial, ethnic, cultural and social position.’
Pagis (2009) notes that self-reflexivity is a conscious activity of turning the mirror towards oneself, and as a researcher ‘simultaneously being the observing subject and the observed object, a process that includes self-knowledge and self-monitoring’ (p. 266). Researcher self-knowledge and self-monitoring therefore became part of the research discourse as I analysed my own racial, ethnic, cultural, gendered and social intersectional identities in relation to the researched group. Turning the mirror on myself thus played a central role in me researching Black female teachers’ lives so that I could be explicitly cognisant of where and how knowledge is constructed, the nature and importance of representation, how these women related to me as a non-matching racialised woman, and power relations which exist between researcher and researched. I am aware that my participants are the knowledge constructors and owners; they are sharing their lives and experiences. Therefore, I repositioned myself from being central to knowledge production to a conduit of these women’s voices by presenting their stories as individual intersectional experiences rather than analysing different Black women’s lives as if they are a uniform group. My repositioning ensured that their intersectional experiences were heard and not homogenised.
Self-reflexivity also minimises the processes of essentialism in feminist research, which is ‘the belief that there are properties essential to women and which all women share’ (Stone, 2004, p. 135). In studies which centralise ‘race’, researchers should aim to resist homogenisation and prevent the erasure of nuanced differences of intersectional social categories. Harris (1990) states, ‘in an essentialist world, black women’s experience will always be forcibly fragmented before being subjected to analysis, as those who are “only interested in race” and those who are “only interested in gender” take their separate slices of our lives’ (pp. 588–589). I found the idea of ‘taking a slice’ of anyone’s life for my own professional gain deeply troubling and a position I wished to mitigate. It made me consider, what exactly was I bringing to these women’s lives? Understanding my role as a conduit ensured that I did not ‘speak for’ my participants, potentially oppressing the Black female teachers’ voices and falling into the trap of essentialising their lives. Rather, I centralised their individual stories and nuanced experiences and provided a platform for these women to ‘speak for themselves’.
My doctoral examiners probed my self-reflexivity, asking multiple times, ‘Who are you?’ in relation to my research and research participants during my doctoral viva. It was uncomfortable, and so it should be. Despite the dissonance, I will be consistently asking myself this question as I continue to conduct educational research which involves marginalised groups.
Folkes, L. (2022). Moving beyond ‘shopping list’ positionality: Using kitchen table reflexivity and in/visible tools to develop reflexive qualitative research. Qualitative Research. https://doi.org/10.1177/14687941221098922
Harris, A. P. (1990). Race and essentialism in feminist legal theory. Stanford Law Review, 42(3), 581–616. https://doi.org/10.2307/1228886
Pagis, M. (2009). Embodied self-reflexivity. Social Psychology Quarterly, 72(3), 265–283. https://doi.org/10.1177/019027250907200308
Purdie-Vaughns, V., & Eibach, R. P. (2008). Intersectional invisibility: The distinctive advantages and disadvantages of multiple subordinate-group identities. Sex Roles, 59(5–6), 377–391. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11199-008-9424-4
Stone, A. (2004). Essentialism and anti-essentialism in feminist philosophy. Journal of Moral Philosophy, 1(2), 135–153. https://doi.org/10.1177/174046810400100202
Vass, G. (2017). Getting inside the insider researcher: Does race-symmetry help or hinder research? International Journal of Research & Method in Education, 40(2), 137–153. https://doi.org/10.1080/1743727X.2015.1063045