‘Our’ positionality?

“Staggered” flickr photo by Jingles the Pirate https://flickr.com/photos/jinglesthepirate/2886174816 shared under a Creative Commons (BY-ND) license

Statements of researcher positionality are often more closely associated with qualitative studies, which, by their nature, may not have complete objectivity as a primary goal. Recognising that the researcher is bound up within the study, rather than separate and viewing it dispassionately from the sidelines, it is important to acknowledge what baggage they bring to the study. This requires acknowledging amongst other factors, one’s gender, race, beliefs, socioeconomic status, age, cultural background, political views, and how they might influence the research as it unfolds. Though important, this is not merely a matter of what effects these factors have on participants, but since the researcher as the primary instrument of data collection, what effects they also have on how findings are presented and interpreted. It’s important to remember too, that reaching the position of interacting with participants only comes after the research has been designed and planned; one’s beliefs and background will also have an influence here too.

This post then is my first attempt to pull together the foundations of the positionality statement which will eventually find its way into my thesis. A first draft, which will be improved by your feedback 😉

Bringing a sociomaterial sensibility built on actor-network theory to this study positions me in a particular way. This eschews the notion of a pre-existent reality ‘out-there’ waiting for the knowing subject to discover and explain it. Nor is reality constructed by the distant researcher through a set of discursive practices. Instead, reality is performative, brought into being as a result of the relationships which form and reform when actors, both human and nonhuman, intra-act. As a researcher of and with teachers using Twitter then, I am entangled with a heterogenous mix of educators, software platforms, digital devices, terms of service, time zones, screens, hashtags and notifications. What emerges from the study depends on the knowledge practices which are brought to bear, but these do not solely involve a researcher, research participants and standard qualitative methods, but also an eclectic mix of other nonhuman actors. Together their relational performances constitute ‘methods assemblage’ (Law, 2004), where different realities become enacted depending on the actors which participate. One implication might be that this should not be statement of my positionality, but of ours.

In acknowledging that, for example, the interview might produce different knowledge than participant observation, by using NVivo rather than coloured sticky notes, scissors and highlighter pens, might also do the same. Collecting a bunch of tweets using DataMiner, TAGS, NCapture or Storify will produce different sets of data, will offer different manipulation tools and analysis support, and will consequently perform different knowledge. All software is ‘opinionated’ in that ‘… it encourages (and discourages) certain ways of thinking, of solving problems, of structuring ideas. Software embodies a vision of the world’ (Raymond, 2007, p. 11) and as a consequence. It too has a positionality. Unfortunately, the commercial nature of much of the software that is involved in the research endeavour means that those ‘opinions’ may be buried within the hidden algorithms and code. I think it might helpful to produce an appendix which provides an account of the different applications which participated in this study, and discuss their role in more detail as they make appearances within the thesis. I’ll be guided by Adams and Thompson (2016: 89) who remind me that:

Situating the researcher as the sole arbiter in how a research project ultimately unfolds, while superficially correct, overlooks entirely the many subtle, but sometimes profound knowledge and practice implications at stake in digital technology integration.

Bio_positionality

Although the positionality of Twitter or Google or Skype might be challenging for me to render, my own positionality ought to present fewer problems, so it is to that that I now turn. I am a white, middle-class, male from the north of England in the UK and am nearing retirement age. I am fluent in English as my first language and have only an A2/B1 CEF level of competence in French, Dutch and German. The first half of my career (twenty years) was spent teaching Physics in the English state secondary system, and the second half in various roles supporting schools and teachers in implementing digital technologies. During this second phase, as my interest in and enthusiasm for digital technologies grew, I became increasingly interested in furthering my understanding, so completed certifications Masters level (Technology Enhanced Learning, Innovation and Change) and in vendor qualifications (e.g. Microsoft Office Specialist Master). Towards the end of this period I also achieved Certified Member of the Association for Learning Technologies status.

Within the research environment, this positions me as an experienced (but former) teacher, with specialism in Physics, who is now a researcher. Anyone checking my bio before interacting will find themselves reacting differently depending on their own positionality. They might see me as more experienced or from a lower hierarchical position, as from the same phase of education or not, as having teacher status or not, as having similar subject interests or not, or as having a similar cultural background or not. My positionality is therefore both relational and contingent on the circumstances. It is dynamic and the effects it produces shift from one encounter to the next.

Whilst all of the aforementioned factors which contribute to my positionality will influence the nature of this study, arguably, the one which requires closest scrutiny is my interest in, and predisposition towards digital technologies. By way of illustration, let me provide one example. In 2011 I was keen to take part in a 365 Project, however, as I often do, I was also keen to riff on that idea rather than use it as is. Instead I elected to produce a short podcast each day for a year, with each episode introducing a different Web2.0 tool.

I set up a blog through which they were delivered, tweeted a link each day and successfully completed the project on the 31st December 2012. With each five to ten minute episode taking at least half an hour to produce, in total the project took over two hundred hours during the year. This was unpaid and just for my interest, pleasure and the challenge, but also to make a contribution to the edtech circles within which I was involved. That’s what seemed to be the norm, as I saw it; people produced things they thought might be of use or of interest to others.

The above example and other (somewhat less time-consuming) activity also positions me as a ‘prosumer’ (Toffler, 1980: 265). As someone who is not simply a consumer of what the community produces, but who contributes to that economy. This once again presents me as one thing to those who might be familiar with my activity, and may even have benefitted from it, but perhaps as something else to those who aren’t aware of that activity. The follower-followee relationship might have a part to play here, with those who follow me on Twitter being more likely to be aware of my activity than those who don’t. Whether that translates into a greater or lesser likelihood that they might participate in the research is of course debatable. For Kristian, one of my interview participants, this had a positive effect:

…you’ve been on Twitter a lot and you’ve always been pretty [pause] a positive contributor, and that’s how this conversation came about.

In other situations, the reverse might have been true, but whatever the case, the data which form part of the study have been generated in a particular way as a result of my history.

With an ostensibly positive bias towards digital technologies, it would be natural to assume that I would be predisposed towards portraying the contribution of Twitter in a positive light. I have attempted however, to build research questions which are sufficiently neutral so as not to require either a positive or negative outcome. Given the posts I wrote back in the day, I shall nevertheless need to guard against the possibility of presenting an uncritical rendering of the data and what they suggest. Through the thesis, and previously through the reflexive blog posts here on my research blog, I have endeavoured to be as open as possible in providing a commentary on the decisions I made and the directions they took the research. Such reflexivity is not to forestall or counter accusations of bias, but to make plain the ways in which my research may have been affected.

Adams, C., & Thompson, T. (2016). Researching a posthuman world : Interviews with digital objects. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
Raymond, S. (2006). Ajax on rails. Sebastopol, Calif.: O’Reilly.
Toffler, A. (1980). The Third wave. Pan in association with Collins.

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