Master’s Research: Methodology, Part 8

Reflexivity, Positionality, and Reciprocity

In order to reduce and eliminate any sort of harm done to my participants, and to address any ethical issues, a critical conversation of reflexivity, positionality and reciprocity is important. The go-to conceptual framework that will guide this portion of my research is anti-ethnocentric and reflexive methodology (Roschelle, Toro-Morn & Facio 2010). In short, by critically examining my reflexivity in research, I can better understand my position within it and am therefore better equipped to reciprocate the information that was provided to me during the course of my project.

Reflexivity in social science acknowledges “the interconnections and mutual influence” between researcher and those being researched (Roschelle, Toro-Morn & Facio 2010).   Weak reflexivity is the recognition of the social position of the researcher and how it influences the researched. On the other hand, strong reflexivity entails moving beyond basic recognition and attempting to dismantle the inequitable relationships between the social scientist and their participants (Roschelle, Toro-Morn & Facio 2010). Strong reflexivity then, provides the opportunity to bifurcate one’s consciousness within the realm of social research. Bifurcation in this sense creates a double consciousness, a concept originally conceptualized by W.E.B Dubois in his analysis presented in The Souls of Black Folk. Taken into the context of multi-sited and macro-ethnographic methodology, double consciousness is the idea that as researchers, we must see ourselves and our respondents as we each exist in the social, cultural and material world. It “allows us to recognize that our own historical and cultural biases shape the research questions, methods, interpretation of interviews, and our own collaboration” (Roschelle, Toro-Morn & Facio 2010: 366).

A double consciousness then, elucidates our positionality within the context of the research. Geographically speaking, it could be our position within a space and how that biases our observations. Socially, a double consciousness acknowledges our hierarchical superiority, power and prestige as social scientists and the ethical dilemmas associated with doing field work and potentially ‘researching down’.   In my personal context, my double consciousness helps me navigate my positon with regards to the privileged color of my skin and gender identification, as well as my citizenship origination within a paternalistic and imperialistic hegemonic country like the United States.

According to Luker (2010), another item that we need in our “metaphorical back pocket” is an idea of how we will “repay the kindness of the people who agree to be researched” (p. 150). The most common way is to provide the finished product of research to them. However, this could take years and be unrealistic; especially considering my circumstances and the language barrier involved. Estrada & Hondagneu-Sotelo (2013) reciprocated by offering education services to their informants, such as assistance with filling out financial aid applications and job resumes. Luker (2010) gave back to her research site by donating blood, therefore making a service provided by her research site more affordable for community members.  How the researcher reciprocates is not important; what is important is that the role of the other (the researched) is holistically taken into account and cared for. My situation is distinct because I will be conducting research as a Peace Corps volunteer. I have the unique chance to participate in a service-learning Master’s program. I intend to use my role as volunteer as an opportunity to show reciprocity for my research sites and participants. What exactly is to be provided I do not know yet. However, my time, energy, physical and intellectual labor will be provided in order to leave my research site and participants in a better scenario than when I arrived.

Data Management and Analysis

The three ethnographic methods I will be employing are non-participant, participant observation and semi-structured interviews. Part of my informed consent will be permission to audio record the interviews. Most if not all of my interviews will be in Spanish. Recording my participant will allow me to focus more on the moment. Strict attention to translation will not be necessary because I will be able to listen back at my leisure. In the possible scenario where I will not be able to record, I will rely on hand written or typed notes that detail important paraphrases and quotations. For my observation, I will begin a field notebook. I plan to take notes in English and Spanish. However, writing in English might provide for some extra security; the language barrier in this sense might play in my favor. For extra security, I will use pseudonyms for individuals and codes for locations. My field notes will be color coded as well, allowing me to visually separate my empirical observations, thoughts and emotions, and sidebar notes. The audio recordings from my interviews will be transcribed and stored in a password protected computer file. My hand written notes from interviews and field notes will be also compiled and secured electronically.

Analysis of my data will begin simultaneously with observations and interviews. Lofland and Lyn (1995) share that “the field wisdom is to start coding quite early in the research process and to engage in it with as much regularity and frequency as possible” (3). I will use a systemic process when I begin my coding. The first step in this process is initial coding, “where researchers look for what they can define and discover in the data” (Charmaz 1983: 113). My initial coding will then slowly transform into focused coding. A sign that the coding process is becoming more focused is when “some codes begin to assume the status of overarching ideas or propositions” that will later “occupy a prominent or central place in the analysis” (Lofland & Lyn 1995). It is with this understanding that we can begin to conceptualize coding as the channel between the data collection and its conceptual and theoretical underpinnings; coding therefore becomes the means through which an analytical end is reached. This two-fold process, of initial and focused coding, will continue until a saturation of elements occurs.

During this coding process, I will also be writing memos. As codes develop, so too do the memos, serving as the beginnings of the eventual narrative. Charmaz (1983) clearly states that memos are the prose that “tells what the code is about” (p. 120). Miles & Huberman (1994) go one step further writing, “memos are primarily conceptual in intent. They don’t just report data; they tie together different pieces of data into a recognizable cluster, often to show that those data are instances of a general concept” (p. 72). This idea of memos as clusters resonates with Luker’s conception of the daisy diagram—where each petal of the flower signifies an important element and is related to a central idea (2010).

My memo writing will parallel the approach that my coding entails. At the ground floor of analysis, elemental memos are created. These are detailed analytic renderings of some relatively specific matter (Lofland & Lyn 1995). These memos correlate well with my initial coding processes. My initial discoveries will be archived into elemental memos, which will then be worked into the second type of memo writing—sorting memos. Charmaz (1983) explains the transition, “by going through accumulated [elemental] memos and sorting them, researchers gain insight into… core variables, key phases in a process…[and] major issues” (p. 122). Sorting memos serve well to bolster the focused codes that I will fabricate—again, serving as a type of story of the larger social phenomenon that I am trying to pin down. My memo writing will then go one step further than the coding process I am employing. Integrating memos, which are explanations of connections and relationships among the sorting memos (Lofland & Lyn 1995) will begin to weave a common thread between my various memos and focused codes. Integrating memos will be the last step before the ‘real’ writing begins. In fact, some of my memos at this stage will be worked into my paper verbatim, while others are slightly rearranged to fit the context of my paper more appropriately.

Lastly, it is important to comment on the epistemological context in which my coding and memo writing will be occurring and how these constructions of knowledge will come to fruition. The entire data collection and analytical process will be inductive and iterative (Dougherty 2016). My data collection will be inductive because I will allow for the data out-croppings to appear on their own as opposed to deductively going into the field searching for specific elements that satisfy a hypothesis. My data collection, and subsequent codes and memos, will be grounded in that sense—focused on hypothesis discovery rather than hypothesis testing (Luker 2010; Strauss and Corbin 1990). My coding and memo writing will be iterative because I will allow them to shape and reshape the research process. Pre-established codes can shrink the scope of observations. By allowing my codes and memos to be iterative, I am allowing them ‘talk to one another’, to be in constant conversation. In the eyes of the canon, this sort of flexibility is blasphemous. However, qualitative methods allow for this repetitive, open ended collecting and coding process— a method that is open to honest and in the moment observation and analysis.

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