Thinking through your motivations for research is an act of reflection. Reflection on one’s motivations and positionality is an essential part of every stage of research. As a consequence, we summarize both reflexivity and positionality here before outlining how to write a great research question.
The ability to be reflexive is vital to the process of picking a research question, conducting research and analyzing data. To be reflexive is to be able to examine and react to your own emotions, motives, and situation (Cambridge Dictionary, 2021). In social research, this requires the ability to critically recognize your influencers and your influence on others. Holland (1999, p. 464) expounds that reflexivity is the ability to take account of one’s self and the effects of personality or presence of the researcher on the investigation. This means being sensitive to “how relations of power operate in the research process” (Reid, Greaves, & Kirby, 2017, p. 50) and affect your relationship with, and perspective of, the subject. As the subject of social research is complex, dynamic, and sometimes conducted upon populations for which you are removed or have privilege over, taking stock of your own position (with its institutional supports, privileges and limitations) is essential for both ethical (the application of moral principles and professional code of conduct to research) and epistemic (the philosophy concerning the nature of knowledge) reasons. Recognition of ethics ensures that exploitation is not taking place in your research, and epistemology ensures that your own biases are accounted for.
A related concept to reflexivity is positionality. describes one’s worldview and the position one adopts about research and its social and political content (Holmes, 2020, p.1). This involves taking stock of
‘where the researcher is coming from’, [and] concerns ontological assumptions (an individual’s beliefs about the nature of social reality and what is knowable about the world), epistemological assumptions (an individual’s beliefs about the nature of knowledge) and assumptions about human nature and agency (individual’s assumptions about the way we interact with our environment and relate to it) (Holmes, 2020, p.1-2)
Because social research is by nature, rarely value-free, it must account for its motivations. Beliefs, values and interests are shaped by our personal experiences, gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality (dis)ability statuses, political allegiances, social class, geographic location, history. These positionalities influence our research interests and topics, the perspectives we adopt in carrying out research, our motivations, how we conduct the research, and the outcomes. Positionality also determines the subject we investigate, the participants we choose and how we conduct research (Holmes, 2020). Hence, if you are uncertain about a research topic or you know the topic but are uncertain about how to narrow it down, it might be worthwhile to think about your positionality. Think about your identity, what you believe about social processes (such as inequality), what you have learned, what your experiences are, and see if that could help you to narrow down your research topic.
Intentionally reflecting on your positionality is an important part of the research process. Hence, researchers frequently invest time in developing and including them in their papers. A reflection on your positionality is not only important in helping you to decide on a topic, it can also help shape your methodology and interpret your findings. Positionality statements are also important because our identities and lived realities create biases in how we interpret and view the world. An awareness of our biases enhances our credibility and can be fertile for developing our theoretical positions. Below are two examples of positionality statements.
- I position myself as a bricoleur, layering feminist standpoint theory and postcolonial theory, and propose the collaborative data collection and analysis techniques, with particular attention to ethical and cultural sensitivity, using a social constructivist approach to grounded theory…In light of postcolonial critiques of Western researchers and international development, I have often wondered: Am I doing more harm than good? The privilege that accompanies my social location as a White, upper class, Canadian, academic woman means that, despite good intentions, my efforts to support education in postcolonial contexts risk being patronizing, insulting, threatening, imperialist, and recolonizing (Vanner, 2015, p. 1-2)
- Canada is not my birthplace and English is not my first language. I was born in Nigeria in the 90s and came to Canada as a very young child who spoke no English at all, but rather who conversed fluently in my native Igbo. As far as citizenship, I hold a Nigerian and Canadian passport. If identity is to be so simply ascribed, one would say that I am a Black, Igbo, Nigerian-Canadian woman…The simplicity of identities is also what hides the complexity of bellowing and the illusion of agency in determining the totality of who it is that we are (Odozor, 2020, p.43)
In both examples, the researchers are forthright about what influenced their research and their interpretations of social reality that are influenced by their positionality. As will be discussed in the methodology chapter, there are several advantages to this openness. Being candid about our positionality increases the credibility of our research and provides contexts for users of our research. Reflexivity and positionality also improve the authority and validity of our knowledge (Smith, 1999). We encourage you to develop your own positionality statement.
Writing Positionality Statements
A good positionality statement describes one’s epistemological position (i.e. how one views the world in terms of their philosophy, personal beliefs, theoretical influence and perspectives which guide the research) as well other potential influences on research such as personal characteristics and identities in terms of gender, age, social class, ethnicity and political beliefs (see Holmes, 2020, p. 4). It should also address any predetermined position that the researcher takes (e.g., participant, as an insider or outsider, theoretical influences etc.), the research context and a reflexive opinion about how these might affect the research process. Hence, taking stock of positionality requires understanding how “one’s position in the social hierarchy vis-a-vis other groups potentially ‘limits or broadens’ one’s understanding of others” (Reid, Greaves, & Kirby, 2017, p. 48). This means interrogating what biases you may have of the groups being studied and how your own social location may influence that bias. Consider the following questions: does your disdain for slow customer service perhaps come from your never having to work in the service industry? Or the opposite? Does your idealization of agricultural work perhaps come from your only having done non-physical city labour? By answering questions about why and how you have come to study your topic, you will be clearer about your presuppositions and forthright with your reader about your relationship to the subject matter.
Writing a positionality statement helps you to intentionally reflect on your identity, life history, experiences, values and the things/issues that are important to you. This reflection can help you determine what aspect of your identity is of broader sociological interest, which can be useful in narrowing your research interests. Even if you already know what topic you want to research, a positionality statement can help you to focus your research on issues that are important to who you are or to your political/world views.Here are some things to include in your positionality statement:
- Identity characteristics (e.g., age, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, social class, disability status, citizenship, immigration status, religion, marital status etc.)
- Life experiences (previous or current job, volunteering activities, membership in advocacy groups etc.)
- Political, philosophical and theoretical beliefs (lens through which you view and interpret the world)
- Relationship to phenomena of interest (insider and/or outsider status)
- There is no limit on the length of your positionality statement, but try to keep it within a paragraph.
- Get a friend or close acquaintance to read your draft positionality statement and inform you of any personal detail that you might have overlooked
Cambridge Dictionary (2021). Reflexivity. Cambridge Dictionary. https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/reflexivity
Holmes, A. G. D. (2020). Researcher Positionality–A Consideration of Its Influence and Place in Qualitative Research–A New Researcher Guide. Shanlax International Journal of Education, 8(4), 1-10.
Holland, R. (1999). Reflexivity. Human relations, 52(4), 463-484.
Odozor, E, T. (2020). Making peace with movement: dislocation and the Black Diaspora. In G. S. Dei, E. Odozor and A. V. Jimenez (eds.,), Cartographies of Blackness & Black Indigeneities (pp.41-50). Myers Education Press.
Kirby, S. L., Greaves, L., & Reid, C. (2017). Experience research social change: Methods beyond the mainstream. University of Toronto Press.
Smith, L. T. (1999). Decolonising Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples. University of Otago Press.
Vanner, C. (2015). Positionality at the center: Constructing an epistemological and methodological approach for a western feminist doctoral candidate conducting research in the postcolonial. International Journal of Qualitative Methods, 14(4), 1-12.
The way that one’s position in the social hierarchy potentially shapes his/her/their identity and mediates access to power, opportunities and understandings of others.
is a description of an author’s identity, social location, experiences, influences, and philosophy concerning an issue.