Qualitative Deep Dives: Positionality, Footing, and Reflexivity
6/9/23 / Annie Theodoropoulos
Qualitative research is a methodology that emphasizes the understanding of social phenomena from the perspective of the people involved. While it used to be assumed in the social sciences that researchers could engage in purely objective studies of others, this “fly on the wall” mentality began to change. Current qualitative research focuses heavily on the role of the researchers themselves, as the presence and position of the researcher in relation to those with whom they wish to study can shape the kinds of findings and insights gained.
Contemporary researchers must consider their own positionality, footing, and reflexivity when conducting research-gathering events, like interviews and focus groups. Positionality refers to the researcher’s social location, including their gender, ethnicity, class, and other personal characteristics that may influence their perspective. Footing refers to the relationship process between the researcher and the research participants, while reflexivity involves the researcher’s awareness of their own social position including their biases and assumptions. Reflexivity lets us be aware of unequal power dynamics and how those can impact findings. Simply put, thinking critically about how we present ourselves, what life experiences we bring to the table, and how we shift in our identities and roles reminds the researcher that there are always multiple ways to interpret qualitative research scenarios.
Positionality is a crucial concept for qualitative researchers to consider. Researchers’ personal backgrounds and experiences can influence how they interpret and analyze data. For example, a researcher who identifies as a member of a marginalized group may have a different perspective on power dynamics in a focus group or interview than a researcher who does not share that identity. Similarly, a researcher who speaks a different register or dialect from the participants may have difficulty understanding certain nuances in communication. Therefore, it is important for qualitative researchers to be aware of their own positionality and how it may impact their research.
Footing is another important consideration for qualitative researchers. The relationship between the researcher and the participants can influence the data that is collected. For example, a researcher who has a friendly or familiar relationship with the participants may get different responses than a researcher who is perceived as an outsider. Similarly, a researcher who has a perceived power imbalance with the participants may struggle to elicit honest and open responses. Therefore, it is important for qualitative researchers to establish and maintain an appropriate footing with their research participants.
Reflexivity is the process of critically examining one’s own biases, assumptions, and values. This is particularly important for qualitative researchers, who are often intimately involved in the research process. Reflexivity allows researchers to recognize and mitigate the impact of their own biases and assumptions on the research findings. For example, a researcher who has a preconceived idea about the research topic may unconsciously steer the focus group or interview in a certain direction. Reflexivity allows the researcher to recognize and correct for this bias.
Adding further complexity to research-gathering events, sometimes clients or third parties wish to be present and participate in the research process as observers. Using the tools above, qualitative researchers know that how the observer is introduced and how their role is framed to the group or interviewee can impact the kind of participation—and thus findings—that are likely to be achieved. For example, if the research topic is sensitive or confidential, having a third party present may make participants uncomfortable and inhibit their responses. How many of us like knowing that we’re being “watched” when we’re earnestly trying to speak our mind? Similarly, if the third party has a vested interest in the research findings, they may influence the research process in ways that compromise its validity by asking leading questions or giving leading facial cues.
However, there may be situations where a third party’s involvement can enhance the research process. For example, if the third party has a unique perspective on the research topic, they may provide valuable insights. In such cases, it is important for the researcher to be transparent about the third party’s involvement and to carefully consider how their presence may impact the research process.
Positionality, footing, and reflexivity are important concepts for qualitative researchers to consider when conducting focus groups and interviews. By critically examining their own biases and assumptions, being aware of their social location, and establishing an appropriate footing with their participants, qualitative researchers can promote rigorous and valid research while being respectful of participants.