March 2, 2017, by James Pattison

Who’s Story To Tell? Thinking On Reflexivity & Positionality

“In another moment down went Alice after it, never once considering how in the world she was to get out again.” ― Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

Placing a Dictaphone, red light blinking, under a generous person’s nose and asking them to share accounts of their life is an intimidating act, for them as a participant and me as a researcher. Not least as by asking for stories of class, past, place and employment, I ask for tales which can induce, at best, vulnerability, and at worst, shame.

Given that tremendous ask, alongside the undeniable fact that it is I who will demonstrably profit from the exchange, I feel I owe a dose of honesty in return- I can’t ask someone to do what I am not prepared to myself- share my story.  Social science requires more of me than this, of course, if I don’t know (and tell) that story of me, somehow, in the process of writing, I cannot be sure that I am not just recreating me and in so denying them.

How do I ensure that my work is genuinely valid social research, not a vehicle for my ego, a vanity project or a work of psychological projection? I can’t remove myself entirely but how do I effectively mitigate for me, because surely any qualitative researcher is woven tightly into their PhD?  I’d be interested to know how, if you didn’t have skin in the game, some way or another, you could stick the arduous Doctoral Steeplechase Race to the finish anyway.  I’m certainly invested, in more ways than one.

I worry on, about the possible theft of tales to enrich myself; the furore about Alice Goffman, a white middle-class academic, who produced an ethnographic account of a black neighbourhood in Philadelphia disquieted me.  Yet, without middle-class academics, there are many parts of my working-class life that would be likely untold and unheard, and without their direct support, encouragement and care, I wouldn’t be writing this today.  So where is the line between stealing someone’s thunder and/or hijacking their story or being a supportive colleague and/or reflective social researcher on the other?

At last week’s Enquire conference I was asked a great (difficult) question by Jay Emery after presenting.  He asked how I’d managed my positionality in interviews, in his own he said he’d often heard  “you know what I mean?”, And felt, yeah, I do! This concerned him that the resemblance between his life and his participants could mean stories were being actively obfuscated, as they were ‘just known’. I recognise this; there are still things I think are so obvious that everyone knows that, though, right? And I need to check myself. If you intuitively ‘get it’ how do you ensure you actually ‘get it’ so you can work with it? And if I am so sure I get it what am I maybe assuming?

Searching for a decent answer to this since (as I didn’t have one in the moment) I came across this brilliant article by Mellor et al. (2014) which challenged my assumption of ‘class matching’ and ‘insider’ status.  Indeed, on further reflection, while I would say I am in many senses one of the people I interviewed, I also changed for them.  The people I interviewed are to me working-class royalty; I bought the most expensive bag I could from River Island before I started interviewing as I didn’t dare darken their doors with the battered canvas tote I was carrying about.  I wasn’t the only one who felt worried about status either, some were, surprisingly to me, insecure around me, one participant said they nearly didn’t show up as they were uncomfortable of the -ology and that they would say something that would make them look foolish to “an ologist.”

How do you tell enough about yourself in your work that you mark out the shape of the ghost in the machine but not so much that you drown out your participant’s voice?  Andrew Yip, one of the keynotes of the day at Enquire, discussed our identities as composites, some of which we foreground and some of which we background, in different times and settings.  This spoke to me, while it pains me to say this, as a class researcher, maybe it’s not everything of who I am and for sure anyway, as Stefanie Williamson, a PhD Student at Nottingham explained in her presentation, “class is messy”.

There are seeds of (dis)connection and shadows of my experiences through the questions I ask, the way I ask them and how I interpret the answers. I have to stay vigilant to those which may trigger me to ignore, reduce or misconceive. Yet, I do feel there is great strength in that my identities are founded on culminations of collective and community knowledge. I do know this place and these people, of which I am trying to tell the world, and this gives me the foresight to ask questions and follow intuition when an absolute outsider may have missed the nuance.

There’s been real human work to be done to split my story and their story, but I don’t “wonder what Latitude or Longitude I’ve got to” alone- I am immensely privileged to have made many bright, inquisitive friends who have ventured down the same rabbit hole.  They tell my story back to me, with grace and candour so that I can see the real edges of it. Maybe they are the most important part of all; they certainly feel to be.

Katy McEwan is a final year doctoral scholarship student at Teesside. A qualified youth practitioner, with a background in facilitating and developing youth justice programmes, Katy is driven by conducting analysis that can advance change. Her research interests include youth, place, class and belonging.

Image courtesy of Ian Schneider


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