Dear Political Science, it is time for a SELF-REFLEXIVE turn!

Dec 18, 2018

This is a guest post by Lahoma Thomas, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Political Science at the University of Toronto. This piece on reflexivity and positionality emerged from a panel she organized at APSA 2016, titled: “Race in the Field: Understanding How Identity Frames Field Research”and has evolved as one of her primary research agendas. Follow her on Twitter at @LAHOMAthomas.

The issues of reflexivity and positionality have been prominent features of my academic career, especially throughout my doctoral studies in political science. Reflexivity entails a critical reflection on one’s own interpretations and their influences. It requires one to consider that one’s positionality—that is one’s location in the society’s system of social stratification— informs the way one sees and makes sense of the world, and shapes the way one engages and conducts oneself within it.

I came to the discipline as a social worker, where my professional praxis demands an awareness of my own positionality, along with ongoing self-reflexivity concerning the impact of my interventions on the lives of those I work with. The discussions and ethical considerations with which I was familiar, contrasted with those I experienced in the political science classroom and the broader political science literature on methodology. As a doctoral student, I experienced the absence of this awareness especially in the scholarship on fieldwork.

For most political science doctoral students, the training provided in anticipation of conducting fieldwork is quite broad, involving instruction on methodological procedures (i.e. securing ethical approval from one’s institution, establishing institutional and personal contacts in the field, and developing a strategy for scheduling and conducting interviews). While this preparatory instruction is helpful in guiding graduate students to a stage of readiness for the doing of fieldwork, it inadequately prepares them for the being’ in/of fieldwork. As anthropologist Kirsten Hastrup observes, fieldwork is situated between autobiography and one’s discipline of study.

Fieldwork is an inherently interactive and relational process. Not unlike interpersonal interactions outside of the research context, the social locations an individual inhabits influence their relationship with others while in the field. While other disciplines such as feminist studies, education, sociology, anthropology and geography have been actively grappling with the complexities of positionality and subjectivity in the conducting of fieldwork and the production of knowledge, political science largely remains steadfast in its belief that the researcher is a neutral and objective instrument. A notable exception is political scientist Erica Townsend-Bell, who notes, field work requires the researcher to negotiate the “sticky issues of race, class, gender, nationality, and so forth,” just as one might need to in the context of life at home.

Relational Reflexivity and the Fieldwork Experience

Relational Reflexivity (RR), I argue, is a corrective that centers power in our relations with others into the practice of reflexivity. The emphasis on relationality moves beyond self-reflexivity, an active ongoing process of self-examination, to a critical examination of how power operates in our relations with others. An RR framework emerges out of the intellectual legacy of Black women activists and scholars, such as Sojourner Truth, Claudia Jones, Kimberlé Crenshaw, Patricia Collins, and bell hooks, among others, who have long grounded their methodological and epistemological practice in a reflexive analysis in order to account for the ways in which race, gender, class and sexuality yield relational power.

In my own fieldwork experience in the inner-cities of Kingston, Jamaica, I found the relational power dynamics in the field were often in flux. As a Black Canadian woman of Afro-Caribbean descent, to varying degrees, my Blackness situated me as an insider; whereas at other times my social class, education, country of origin, and my physical appearance often situated me as an outsider. The landscape of my positionality was fluid, shifting from the center to the semi-periphery and even to the periphery[1] depending on how informants interpreted my attributes, interactions, and behaviours as being (in)congruent with their group membership.

It presented specific challenges and privileges around the manner in which information was conveyed to me, my ability to establish rapport at the community level, as well as informed the specific research methods and approaches I employed in differing contexts. For example, sometimes building rapport required repeated interactions with community members to reassure them that I was not a CIA operative. In other instances, my repeated interactions never resulted in the establishment of a rapport. Then again, under other circumstances, a positive working relationship was established once it was determined I was “cool” and “real” based on how I conducted myself during confrontation. Finally, sometimes the relationships were established in moments unbeknownst to me, and were only identified to me by the informant months later.

Relational Reflexivity and the Scholar

Adopting an RR practice through which to view identity in its multiplicity allowed me to see the full extent of the ways in which relational power develops and changes according to our social location, the type of relationship established, the interactions we share, and our place within the relationship. It revealed that where one stands with respect to power is determined by the individual’s position within the shifting network of relationships. This revealed to me the disparities of relational power in obvious instances, and in others that were less so, thereby reducing my tendency to make quick assessments and assumptions about how I could (or could not) relate to others in the field. These revelations impacted my decision regarding how, where and when I would engage with informants, soliciting access into a community through a gatekeeper, or negotiate an interview with a state official through their administrative staff.

The strength of an RR practice is that it illustrates how power is reinforced through particular subjectivities and relational dynamics, and highlights the complexity and fluidity of positionality. It requires us to think about the meaning of embodiment in a space and the given meaning and status attributed to this identity. Our identities are given a particular type of status based on the history of our embodied identity. This requires the researcher to explicitly examine how their personal ideological commitments, race, gender, sexuality, nationality, age, and other constructions of difference play a role in the methodological choices made in the field.

Some of the questions we should be asking ourselves before entering, and while in, the field, include: What are the social, racial, ethnic and historical (e.g. colonialism) pieces of this context? What are the power dynamics inscribed on bodies representative of your own social locations? In what ways am I reproducing those power dynamics? How does that shape my interactions with others in the community? How is that informing my decisions in the field? Absent this emphasis on the role of power in relationships, reflexivity can fall prey to being utilized as a buzz word appropriated by scholars who fail to do the actual deep work that reflexivity demands, as has been noted to be the case with other popularized analytical approaches, most notably intersectionality.

Implications for the Discipline

The discipline’s silences around the identity and positionality of the researcher are symptomatic of a larger neglect of issues of race and diversity in political science. As Roger Smith, President of the American Political Science Association, noted, “for too long” the common assumption within political science has been that “race is something that largely arises and exists outside politics and is therefore largely to be studied outside politics.”

This lack of scholarly attention preserves the mythology around the neutrality of the researcher, impeding crucial methodological analysis concerning the process of how, as political scientists, our subjectivities and positionality shape field work, the methods we employ to generate and analyze data, the interpretations and inferences we derive from data, and subsequently the theoretical knowledge we produce as truth (small t).

Given that fieldwork is increasingly becoming a component of the scholarship generated within the discipline of political science, this absence is particularly glaring. For instance, a 2011-12 survey found that 78.7 percent of political scientists faculty in American academic institutions conduct field projects. Of these, 49 percent were dissertation projects or extensions thereof. When the subject location of researchers is not recognized as comprising a central role in the conduct of the fieldwork,   a significant gap is created in our understanding of the challenges and opportunities faced by them.

The researcher’s biography is a relevant data point warranting critical consideration in knowledge producing processes, starting from the formulation, planning, and conduct of fieldwork to the interpretation and publication of the research. According to Townsend-Bell “identity forms your assumptions, affects the kinds of questions you ask, and the evidence you seek. If you ignore how your identities impact interpretation then you are arguably misspecifying your research model.” At all stages of research one must consider how ‘who we are’ as instruments of our research shapes the inferences and interpretations we make about the social world.

[1] Geographer Beverley Mullings described this duality in her own fieldwork experience as a person of British/Jamaican descent as invoking a partial and temporary status as an insider, similarly scholar Christina Chavez refers to this situatedness as the ‘partial insider.’

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Joshua Busby is an Associate Professor in the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas-Austin. He is the author of Moral Movements and Foreign Policy (Cambridge, 2010) and the co-author, with Ethan Kapstein, of AIDS Drugs for All: Social Movements and Market Transformations (Cambridge, 2013). His main research interests include transnational advocacy and social movements, international security and climate change, global public health and HIV/ AIDS, energy and environmental policy, and U.S. foreign policy. He also tends to blog about global wildlife conservation.