Chapter 27: Researcher positionality

Danielle Berkovic

Learning outcomes

Upon completion of this chapter, you should be able to:

  • Understand the definition and dimensions of positionality.
  • Describe insider (emic) and outsider (etic) research and their differences.
  • Articulate your positionality in your research projects.


What is positionality?

Human perception is subjective: it can differ markedly between people who, when looking at the same scene, will observe different things.1 Positionality describes an individual’s worldview and the position that they adopt about research and its context.2 Positionality encompasses beliefs about reality (ontology), knowledge (epistemology) and values (axiology), which contribute to how researchers approach their work.3 Beliefs can be influenced by parts of our identity that are fixed (e.g. age and ethnicity) and parts of our identity that are fluid (e.g. political views, geographical location and life history). The positionality that researchers bring to their work, and the personal experiences through which their positionality is shaped, can influence the data collection and analysis.2 Secules et al.4 summarise 6 dimensions of positionality; this chapter adds the 7th dimension of axiology (Table 27.1).

Table 27.1: Dimensions of positionality

Dimension of positionality Reflection prompts
Research questions What research do you choose to do, and why?
Epistemology How you know what you know? How does this knowledge relate to your qualifications, work experience and life experience?
Ontology What can you observe as a researcher?
Axiology What research do you value, and why?
Methodology How do you make methodological choices?
Researcher-as-instrument How do you relate to research participants? How is this shaped by your life experiences? Religion? Family composition? Ethnic background?
Communication How do you present yourself in writing and other communications?

This table is licensed by the author under CC BY-NC-ND

How does the researcher describe their positionality?

Researchers may undertake exercises in reflexivity to understand and articulate their positionality. Reflexivity is a process by which researchers acknowledge and disclose themselves within their research, seeking to understand their part in it, or their influence upon it (see Chapter 26).5 Positionality and reflexivity suggest that the researcher is not separate from the health and social worlds they study. The use of a reflexive approach to inform positionality acknowledges that health and social research are not separate from wider society and the individual researcher. A reflexive approach suggests that, rather than trying to eliminate their effect or influence, researchers should acknowledge and disclose themselves in their work, with the aim of understanding their influence upon, and within, the research process.2 Table 27.2 provides examples of positionality statements included in health and social care research articles.

Table 27.2: Examples of positionality statements

Article title Relational embeddedness and socially motivated case screening in the practice of law in rural china6

Low-income Black mothers parenting adolescents in the mass incarceration era: the long reach of criminalization7

Associations between learning assistants, passing introductory physics, and equity: a quantitative critical race theory investigation8

CC Licence CC BY 4.0
Positionality statement ‘My status as a native Chinese speaker, familiarity with the local dialect, and intimate knowledge of the surrounding communities facilitated the efforts to cultivate rapport with the legal workers in the offices.’ (p931) ‘Both authors are middle- to upper-middle-class white women—one is a mother, the other is not. A commitment to antiracist, intersectional, and feminist principles guides our research efforts, and we conducted this work with an awareness of the politics, dangers, and limitations of affluent white academics writing about the lives of low-income Black Americans.’ (p204) ‘I identify as a White, cisgender, heterosexual, continuing-generation (CG) man with a colour vision deficiency. I was raised in a pair of lower-income households but I now earn an upper-middle class income… my experiences working with marginalized students, particularly those whom I have had the honor to mentor as researchers, have motivated my attempts to use my position and privilege to dismantle oppressive power structures. As someone who seeks to be an ally it is easy to overlook my own privileges. I try to broaden my perspective through feedback from those with more diverse lived experiences than my own.’ (p5)


An example of a researcher’s positionality and its influence on their work

Smales writes about their potential influence on their research with young people experiencing out-of-home care.9 In the methods section they include a description with a subheading, ‘The researcher’, namely that they had ‘lived in a resident care unit and other forms of care for four years… and [have] had ongoing experience working within the out of home care system’.9 The researcher acknowledges that their lived experience shaped the interview guide, based on understanding the knowledge gaps in this area of research. Smales also describes interacting with participants on a deeper level, through shared experience that provided additional meaning and context to the study. They acknowledged that the shared experiences between the researcher and participants was likely to influence the data collection and analysis, but sought to ensure that ethical, moral and professional processes were followed, so as to minimise bias in the reporting of results.

Emic and etic perspectives

Researcher positionality is discussed in the literature as a clear distinction between insider (emic) and outsider (etic) perspectives. Insiders are considered part of the community within which the research is conducted, while outsiders are considered to be outside of the group being studied.10 Some researchers argue that the emic and etic perspectives are two ends of a positionality continuum along which researchers move back and forth during the research process, rather than distinguishing binary, insider-outsider perspectives. 11

The two categories of etic and emic remain largely theoretical, and the conversations about practically applying the theories can be challenging. For example, having either an exclusively etic or exclusively emic approach when conducting ‘outsider’ research is paradoxical. On the one hand, an etic approach to data collection would mean that the researcher is oblivious to how their presence, behaviours, attitudes or methodological decisions influence insider responses. On the other hand, an exclusively emic approach would mean the researcher internalises the preconceptions and assumptions of research the participants, and therefore compromises their ability to be objective or to communicate the research findings.12

How does a researcher know if they are an insider or outsider?

Bracketing is a method used in qualitative research to identify, examine and mitigate researcher preconceptions that may influence the research process.13 Bracketing works by the researcher explicitly noting their own beliefs and interactions with the research topic, in an attempt to remain impartial throughout the research process. Bracketing promotes methodological rigour and trustworthiness in the conclusions drawn from qualitative research. While bracketing is widely used to identify similarities between researchers and participants to epistemologically distance the researchers from their assumptions, an emerging method, diffraction, describes how researchers proactively engage within the research context, and their differences from participants.4 This approach encourages researchers to interrogate aspects of their influence that are unpredictable or unknown, thereby leading to research practices that are socially just and ethical. Diffraction identifies the material realities and differences between the researchers and participants, to ontologically anticipate and rectify issues such as ‘Othering’.

Articles in which researchers discuss their experiences with bracketing include Berkovic et al. and Dörfler et al.13, 14

In addition to bracketing, researchers Austin and Sutton15 outline 4 questions that researchers can ask themselves to commence the reflection process:

  • Why am I interested in this topic? Try to identify what is driving your enthusiasm, energy and interest in researching this subject.
  • What do I think I am going to find? Seek to identify any preconceptions or assumptions you may have about your research, through honest reflection on what you expect to find in your data. You can then bracket those assumptions to enable the participants’ voices to be heard.
  • What am I getting out of this? Consider how your circumstances affect your interest in your research question/s or outcomes, and the amount of data you will need to collect and analyse. This question is particularly important if you have a pre-existing relationship with the research topic or participants.
  • What do others in my professional community think of this workand of me? Research is part of a complex social world. The influences within that world can shape your views and expectations of yourself and your work. Acknowledging this influence and its potential effects on personal behaviour will help to facilitate greater self-scrutiny throughout the research process.

Strengths and limitations of emic and etic perspectives

Conducting research as an insider (from an emic perspective) may be advantageous because the researcher has established knowledge of the research topic and is immersed in its population. This may ease recruitment efforts and, during data collection, participants may be less cautious or guarded than they would be with an outsider researcher. However, being an insider can affect how the researcher is perceived, the information that participants provide and the analysis of the data. Participants may assume that the insider researcher will judge their responses to questions because of their shared identity, and may even seek to impress or agree with the researcher, based on their perceived connection rather than their true beliefs.16


Qualitative researchers need to articulate their positionality. Qualitative researchers can be primarily insiders (with an emic perspective), or they may be outsiders (with an etic perspective). Being an emic or etic researcher each has strengths and limitations, but there are several examples in the literature with strategies to help navigate these.


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