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The Impact of Researcher Identity and Positionality

By Hannah Jardine

As an education researcher, I regularly contemplate my role as a researcher and my relationship with my research subjects. I am not alone in this; Vanessa Siddle Walker suggested “the role of the researcher in the research process” is an issue in education research that requires attention and “introspective conversation.” [1] For me, this deep reflection on how my identity and positionality impact my role as a researcher began with my first major education research experience.

imageDuring my Master’s program, I was hired to work as a graduate assistant for the Integrated Life Sciences (ILS) living-learning program here at Maryland and tasked with conducting an in-depth assessment of the two-year long program. The program directors presented me with a vague set of goals: involve yourself in all aspects of the program, tell us what you notice, and advise us on how we can improve the program both academically and socially. Although I was not an experienced education researcher, let alone an experienced ethnographer, my advisor noted that my identity would enable me to gather insights and information that arguably nobody else could. By embedding myself in the program and collecting copious amounts of data, I was able to provide rich description of the various factors that impacted collaborative learning in the program from an individual, interpersonal, and community perspective. [2] Upon the conclusion of the project, I reflected on a couple of questions related to how my identity and positionality impacted the research:

How should a participant observer “fit in” to the community of study?
Features of my identity—such as being (relatively) close in age to the students—allowed me to “fit in” to the ILS community. Thus, I was able to collect data in areas such as the dormitory lounge without people questioning my presence. Because I had completed a life sciences degree at Maryland, the students and I connected over stories about classes and professors, living in the same dormitory building, and campus involvement. Often when I conducted interviews, focus groups, and informal discussions, students made statements such as, “I feel like I can share this with you because you get it…” or “You know what it’s like...” Students were comfortable sharing information about social dynamics and cliques, and about personal feelings about academic struggles; they often admitted that they would never have shared this information with the program directors.
Researchers seeking to understand the dynamics of a community should consider how their identities impact their ability to connect with the research subjects and thus the outcomes of the research. I am not suggesting that researchers must “fit in” to a community to conduct valid research on that community, but they must consider how misalignments in identity between the researcher and researched might impinge on data collection and analysis.

When does the research start and stop?
During my research on the ILS program, I struggled to define when my research started and stopped. How often should I be present in the community? When should I collect data? How much data was sufficient? At first, I attended all class sessions and many of the program’s social and community service events. But interactions, even academic interactions, among the students in the program extended beyond class and structured events. For example, undergraduate teaching assistants (UTAs), who were more advanced students in the program, held informal office hours and review sessions in the dormitory lounge. I attended many of those sessions, but I considered how often I should attend these sessions, and I wondered whether I should hang out in the lounge at other times to understand the dynamics when the UTAs were not around. How regularly would students need to see me casually sitting in the lounge in order to be comfortable with my presence in that space?”

Even if ethnographic researchers set limits for when and where to collect data, they may come across opportunities to collect data outside of those set limits. For instance, at one point during my research, I was in the campus library and saw a group of ILS students studying together. I did not take out my computer and begin to write field notes, but it was challenging to avoid taking “mental” field notes. Later I wondered, should I have disregarded all that I saw and heard outside of intended data collection? Or should I have taken advantage of these opportunities to gain further insight into the dynamics of the ILS community? Ethnographic researchers may have to consider how they will address unplanned opportunities for data collection, whether they welcome or dismiss them, and how these opportunities may impact perceptions and subconscious ideas about research subjects.

My experiences as a beginning researcher conducting ethnography of a living learning program raised questions about the impact of identity and positionality on this type of education research. Reflecting on these questions during the early stages of my research helped me to better plan for and enact fruitful and rigorous research as a participant observer. I have learned that researchers must constantly self-reflect and consider how identity and positionality impact the decisions they make throughout the research process as well as the behavior of research subjects. Establishing presence, building relationships and trust, and being able to connect on a personal level with research subjects are all crucial aspects of conducting ethnographic research in education. 


[1] Siddle-Walker, V. (2005). After methods, then what? A researcher’s response to the report of the National Research CouncilTeachers College Record, 107(1), 30-37.

[2] Jardine, H.E., Levin, D. M., Quimby, B., & Cooke, T. (2017). Collaborative learning in an undergraduate life sciences living-learning program: Case studies at multiple planes of analysis. Learning Communities Journal, 9, 75-106.

About the Author:

imageHannah Jardine is a doctoral student in Teaching and Learning Policy and Leadership in the College of Education, specializing in Science Education. She holds a BS in Biochemistry and an MA in Curriculum and Instruction, both from the University of Maryland. Before graduate school, Hannah taught high school chemistry for three years. At UMD, she has taught pre-service teacher education courses, supervised student teachers, and worked as the graduate assistant for the Integrated Life Sciences living-learning program. Currently, she works at the Teaching and Learning Transformation Center, supporting instructor development through learning communities, workshops, and consultations. Hannah is interested in the development and assessment of student-centered instruction in undergraduate courses, particularly peer instruction and collaborative learning groups. Her research examines the role of undergraduate teaching and learning assistants in supporting course reform and enhancing formative assessment.

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