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Researcher Positionality

September 13, 2019

By Dr. Eric Toshalis

“What you see depends on where you stand.
And where you stand is the result of where you’ve been.”

Many of us may be tempted to dismiss these pithy maxims because they’re just plain self-evident. “Right,” we might say, “tell me something I don’t know.” But really, they’re kinda radical observations. Maybe even revolutionary. Let me explain.

Researchers are taught to establish the rigor, validity and reliability of their investigations by controlling for or eliminating the influence of any bias. They learn to design studies and use methods that yield observations whose trends and implications can be defended, largely because they are cleansed of any idiosyncratic interpretations. The logic is that others should be able to look at those same gathered data and make the same inferences. When this is achieved, the study is understood to be authoritative. But is it?

Whose authority are we talking about here? Who gets to decide what counts as “valid,” “reliable,” “rigorous,” or even “important”? Can we rely on existing systems – and the individuals trained within them – to render judgments about the veracity of research without any predisposition? What if the whole systemic approach to eliminating bias can sometimes erase the insights, funds of knowledge and expertise we actually need if we are to see where and how bias functions?

These are the questions we raised in the Student-Centered Learning Research Collaborative as we designed our most recent RFP. In that RFP we set out to support research projects that examined the impact of student-centered practices on marginalized populations, namely Black and Brown students, students from low-income families, English learners and students with learning differences. To do that well, we realized we needed to go beyond traditional “objective” investigations of students’ experiences. We needed to find and support researchers who could make meaning of diverse participants’ experiences of student-centered learning, who possessed the necessary critical sophistication with various forms of marginalization and inequity in education and who were familiar with the techniques used to overcome them. In other words, we needed researchers who understood their position and used it (rather than controlled for it) when designing an investigation. So we built the RFP around a concept called “positionality.” And the results couldn’t be more promising.

Guided by the field-defining work of one of our Advisors, Rich Milner, the Cornelius Vanderbilt Endowed Chair of Education and Professor of Education in the Department of Teaching and Learning at Peabody College of Vanderbilt University we integrated “researcher positionality” into the way we solicited and evaluated proposals. We reasoned that if we’re going to use research to move the needle on equity, we need to consider very carefully who is conducting the investigations and how they are prepared to answer questions related to forms of oppression that occur in and through education. History has shown that people from dominant backgrounds tend to use dominant funds of knowledge and forms of inquiry to reproduce dominant interpretations of educational phenomena (sense a theme here?). Scholars’ from nondominant racial / ethnic / cultural / linguistic / disability backgrounds (or those who have done the hard work to become allies) therefore bring essential insights into research question formation, method selection, data collection and findings interpretation. So we crafted an RFP that required applicants to answer a host of prompts about design, staffing, timelines, deliverables, budgets, etc. — pretty standard stuff — but we also asked these two questions to place positionality in the foreground:

  • In what ways do your team members’ backgrounds influence your research approach and design? For instance, how do your racial/ethnic/cultural/linguistic/disability backgrounds influence the research questions you pose, the data collection tools you employ and the way you interpret research findings?
  • In what ways do you expect to encounter race, racism, ableism, discrimination, marginalization and other forms of systemic oppression in your study and what specific staffing and research design features prepare you to capture and interpret such phenomena with rigor and responsiveness?

And in our evaluation criteria we introduced a weighted category on “capacity” that included typical components like the team’s prior history of success, staffing allocations, access to data and sites and a management plan. It also included this:

  • The research team possesses the requisite expertise in, experiences of and/or sophistication with identifying and understanding issues of inequity and marginalization and provides evidence of members’ ability and willingness to appropriately name and account for researcher positionality.

The range of responses these prompts yielded was striking. Many applicants couldn’t or didn’t address them at all, choosing instead to characterize the legitimacy of their proposed inquiry based on how well-practiced they were at removing preconceptions that would bias their interpretations. But the proposals from teams who demonstrated their capacity to read and respond to issues of systemic oppression in their work just jumped off the page. Theirs were careful, measured, insightful and critical investigations of student-centered practices that might promote more equitable outcomes. The funds of knowledge they drew from, the responsiveness of their designs and the intentionality of their interpretive methods demonstrated a kind of rigor that uses positionality as a strength. The ones that rose to the top were clear, and we were thrilled to award grants to the research teams at the High Tech High Graduate School of Education, the NYU Metro Center and Rowan University.

Our current grantees are now beginning the second year of their two-year cycles of research at sites in Denver, New York, Philadelphia and San Diego. We gather together twice per year to analyze data, discuss problems of practice, refine public-facing deliverables and identify where the field of student-centered learning needs to go if it is to truly prioritize equity. And at each turn, we foreground our positionality both to frame the limitations of our view, and also to underscore where our expertise is most useful. This approach is as scientific as it is strategic, as political as it rigorous. Really, we’re all herebecause we’re from there. Conducting research with this positioning in mind helps us to name what we can see and move with purpose toward where we want to go.

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