Physicists have known for decades that the process of observing and measuring phenomena changes those very phenomena—the so-called “observer effect." It does not even matter whether the “observer” is a human or some mechanical apparatus—there is an unavoidable impact on what is being measured, even at the quantum level. Further, the more watching, the greater the effect.
Social scientists know that researchers can affect outcomes too. This is the reason for double-blind studies because it turns out that experimenters can unconsciously give cues to participants and bias study results. This is one way to create a placebo effect.
Really, despite how incredibly well-known these researcher effects are, it’s kind of remarkable the extent to which social scientists still adopt the cloak of objectivity. The cloak of objectivity basically involves pretending that pure, objective reason guides every aspect of psychological research—the choice of topic, the research questions, the measures, the analyses, the interpretation.
In some circles, it is so important to maintain this charade of impartiality that we even avoid using pronouns in our sentences. We say things such as “the surveys were administered” in a way that suggests that humans were not the actors passing out the surveys. (As an aside, disguising the role of researchers through the extensive use of passive tense is also one reason why so many research articles are so difficult and dull to read.)
In research on social problems, we can be particularly sensitive about the issue of neutrality. “Advocacy research” is hurled like a slur at people who study violence, who—shocking!—are openly against violence.
I’ve always found this to be especially ridiculous. Researchers are not typically neutral about their topics. The cancer researcher is not neutral about whether a new drug makes a tumor shrink or grow. The rocket scientist is not neutral about whether the rocket reaches the moon.
We need to abandon the cloak of objectivity. Social scientists are part of the social contexts that they study. A physicist may create an artificial vacuum in the lab (and still not be fully immune from the observer effect), but social science has never and will never exist in a vacuum.
Social scientists cannot step outside of culture, nor their place in history. We cannot get “outside” of the phenomena we are attempting to study. Or, more pithily, “wherever you go, there you are.” 1 Awareness of your place in the social-cultural context can help keep you from inadvertently reinforcing harmful hierarchies or social dynamics.
However, lack of objectivity is not just a problem, it is also an opportunity. For decades, feminist and post-modern scholars have encouraged researchers to acknowledge their cultural, political and social context, and to “reflect on” (hence the term “reflexivity”) the ways that these contexts influence research and scholarship.
One way to do that is by preparing and disseminating a reflexivity statement (also sometimes called a positionality statement). Reflexivity statements are becoming more common. My team and I were required to prepare a reflexivity statement for a recent foundation grant, and I was recently encouraged to include one in a peer-reviewed journal article.
In addition to the influence of your social position with respect to gender, race, age, sexual orientation and other characteristics, your own values, ethics, and training affect how you conduct research as well.
All of these can be strengths—they may give you unique insights that others do not have and are part of what you have to contribute as a scientist or scholar. However, they can be weaknesses as well, and you may be making assumptions or not noticing aspects of the phenomenon you are studying. More awareness can help you make use of the strengths and minimize weaknesses.
Although you may want to prepare a reflexivity statement that is customized for every project (for example, here’s one I prepared for a project that focused on boys and men or color), it can also be helpful to have a more general one that reflects who you are as a researcher.
The personal characteristics that define your social position.
Start with the basics. In a lot of mainstream professional settings, it can feel pretty radical just to acknowledge your basic social position, such as something like “I am a white, upper-middle class, cisgender, straight, non-disabled female.”
If that feels like an incredibly strong statement to include in a research article, then you have had your first glimpse of how bound you are by professional conventions. As the saying goes, “This is water.” You are swimming in social conventions all the time, even when you are conducting science, and it can be hard to realize that.
Once you have acknowledged these characteristics, you can start to ponder their meaning for your work. How are your personal characteristics sources of power and privilege, or, alternatively, marginalization and disadvantage?
Many of us have a mix of characteristics, some of which confer privilege, others marginalization. What does the recognition of the power that you have mean for your work? How can you take steps to make sure that you don’t reinforce the social context from which you come in your work?
Ask yourself: What characteristics orient you in society? Age, gender, race (as a social construct), sexual orientation, gender identity, social class, and health status are some of the key characteristics that will situate almost everyone in their broader social context.
How do you define yourself? Has that changed over time? Has your awareness of the impact of these characteristics changed over time? Think about how your characteristics may confer power, privilege, or marginalization and ways characteristics can “intersect” with each other to create your unique viewpoint.
The settings where you grew up and relevant family information.
For me, it feels a little easier to acknowledge some historical facts about my upbringing, perhaps because these are more commonly discussed in casual conversation between acquaintances. These are also important to understand as sources of potential insights and potential blindspots.
In my case, I grew up in the south, have been living in Appalachia for 10 years, and have multi-generational roots in Appalachia and in the southern U.S. more broadly. I have spent most of my adult life living in rural areas and small towns. My father went to college on the GI bill and became the first person in his family to get a college education. I was the first person to get a graduate degree (my sister was the second).
I think this history is one of the reasons that I have focused a lot of my work on marginalized and disadvantaged communities. My background has also given me “code-switching” skills—or the ability to shift language, dialect, or other communication features from one setting to another, as I learned to navigate the working-class Southern culture of my extended family and the professional classes of the Washington, D.C .suburbs where I grew up after my father’s engineering degree took him to NASA.
Code-switching is an under-appreciated skill and one that I have used to try to bring the perspectives of marginalized people to a more prominent place in research. See for example, this article on Appalachian resistance to modern technology.
More recently, but no less significantly, becoming a parent had a profound impact on the ways that I see many aspects of dealing with adversity and navigating social services.
For example, when I first started working in domestic violence, many shelters did not take male children, even as young as age 6. Adolescent sons are still not welcome in some settings. Still, I used to encourage women to consider these options, for their own safety.
However, now, as the mother of an adolescent son, I realize I would never leave him alone in a dangerous environment. When I was a young professional without a family of my own, I had a blind spot about parenthood that I had not recognized. Becoming a parent has fundamentally changed the ways that I think about many aspects of coping with family violence.
Ask yourself: How did your early childhood experiences affect your career choices? Your scholarship choices? How has your upbringing and positionality influenced the opportunities available to you? As you think about your own course of development over the lifespan, have these impacts changed as you have moved through adolescence, young adulthood, middle adulthood, and late adulthood?
The frame offered by your discipline or institution.
Whenever I go to the American Psychological Association convention, I have the constant experience of thinking I see someone I know out of the corner of my eye. I have many colleagues outside of psychology and consider my work multidisciplinary, but these trips to APA always remind me of how much of a psychologist I am. Or, even more specifically, a clinical psychologist.
My colleagues and I have manners of dressing, walking, and expressing ourselves that reflect our training as clinicians. More cardigans than blazers, and those cardigans reflect a worldview as much as a sartorial choice.
On the positive side, my clinical training helps keep me focused on application of research. How can people use the latest scientific findings? What do providers need to know? On the negative side, psychology has a tendency to be too focused on individuals and not social systems, and I still struggle with having to remind myself to look at systems and not just people.
Recognizing and acknowledging the professional lens through which you approach any given research question is also part of self-awareness.
Related to this will be the specifics of any given project. Did you choose qualitative or quantitative methods (or both)? Are you relying on self-report, observation, official records, medical tests, or other measures? Are you focusing on a specific age group or another subgroup in the population?
All of these choices will affect the kind of information you obtain and what you end up thinking are the answers to your research questions. Qualitative researchers are used to justifying their approach in papers, but it is something that all researchers could benefit from.
Ask yourself: What does it mean to see your research questions through the lens of your discipline, whether it be psychology, social work, public health, medicine, law, criminal justice, or something else? Are there ways that your research or scholarship methods affect the information that you gain or create potential blind spots in your work? How are these conventions upholding the status quo or reinforcing the privileges of people in positions of power and influence? What are the strengths and weaknesses of these professional lenses?
Professional Spaces Versus Therapeutic Spaces
Finally, one last issue to consider is navigating the boundary between professional and therapeutic spaces and deciding how personal to get.
The most important thing to remember is that you are entitled to control your own narrative. You are not obligated to make any disclosures you do not want to make, nor are you obligated to keep silent about issues that you want to address.
In reflexivity or positionality statements, people often mention where they grew up, but seldom go into details about their parents’ divorce. There’s a balance there. You do not have to sacrifice your professional persona in order to be reflective about what you are bringing to the work as a real-life person.
It is also important that you not use these statements as a substitute for any healing that you need—these are for research, not therapy.
As a poly-victimization researcher, I have learned that virtually everyone who survives to adulthood will eventually experience adversity. In our samples, it typically runs 98 to 100 percent of the sample reporting at least one significant adversity, and more than 8 out of 10 report some form of victimization, especially when one includes childhood bullying, property crime, and other widespread offenses.
There is also the very real issue of stigma, and it is important to be intentional about the choices you make regarding disclosing potentially stigmatizing information, such as a history of trauma. As we have recently seen in the #metoo movement and also others before it, it can be powerful to disclose, especially with others’ support, but it can also be risky.
For example, some of my recent work focuses explicitly on Appalachia, and I have experienced a lot more stereotyping when I talk about having roots in that community—from questions about my lack of accent (see the code-switching skills noted above) to one professor’s total surprise that I had (of all things) the same Fitbit as her (as if people from Appalachia can’t access or afford modern technology).
Most reflexivity statements focus on more public sorts of information—the sort of information that many of your acquaintances or casual friends might know about you. However, that can depend on the setting. In Indian country, for example, where I have worked some, more personal disclosures are the norm and I often disclose a lot more about the details of my own history in those settings than I do elsewhere.
Ask yourself: How do you want to control your narrative? What would you like people to know about you? What are the advantages and disadvantages around particular disclosures? Are there different settings where different levels of disclosure make sense? (Be aware that your choices for disclosure may not work for someone else, even in the same setting.) Are there ways that you can use your social capital and/or professional privilege to help you navigate disclosures about adversity or marginalization? This is how I see my current work in Appalachia—as a chance to use my professional privilege to push back against common stereotypes. (On a somewhat different topic, it is also worth thinking about ways that you can use your own social capital or professional privilege to help others who are more marginalized or disadvantaged.)
Conclusions and Implications
It can be a very powerful experience to prepare a reflexivity (aka positionality) statement—one that tells your professional autobiography and how you came to be the researcher you are today. A longer statement, of approximately three to five pages, can give you space to really explore some of these issues.
I have personally found it to be a powerful professional and personal exercise to write a detailed reflexivity statement. Sometimes, only a brief reflexivity statement is warranted in the space available. An example of a shorter one is below.
Once you have written it, there are several steps you can take to put it to use. In addition to simple acknowledgment, the statement might give you ideas about alternative research questions or measures.
Consider research methods, such as community-based participatory research (CBPR) that include the voices of participants as stakeholders and more explicitly recognize researchers as part of the context of any project. Reach out to colleagues who have a range of characteristics, and make sure you do not unintentionally only find yourself collaborating with people who are very similar to you in key personal, social, or educational characteristics.
Examples and Resources
Here’s a recent example of a brief reflexivity statement included in a peer-reviewed article in a prominent communications journal.
This research is based in the Appalachian Center for Resilience Research (ACRR), which seeks to improve the study of this unique region of the country. Not only is Appalachia understudied, but much of its portrayal is still governed by stereotypes. The ACRR mission is to present a more evidence-based portrayal of the region. The first three authors were residents of the community when the study was conducted. S.H. has multigenerational roots in Appalachia. She has spent most of her adult life in rural communities and has lived on the Cumberland Plateau, in the southernmost region of Appalachia, for nine years. E.T. and A.S. are newer residents of the area, who came for work and school (respectively). E.T. had lived in the area for two years and A.S. for four years at the time of the study. Both were raised in the southern United States. K.M. and L.J. are experts in online behavior and are from New England. This is their first study based in Appalachia.
Thanks to Martha Dinwiddie for her comments on an earlier draft of this article.
© 2018 Sherry Hamby. All rights reserved.
1 The origin of the quote “Wherever you go, there you are” is much debated online, with a popular reference in the cult classic movie Buckaroo Banzai getting many mentions, but the original source appears to be Thomas à Kempis, ca 1420, in the devotional entitled The Imitation of Christ. A best seller for six centuries, it has numerous passages that can appeal to many people seeking insight and wisdom, whether or not they are particularly religious. (p 49, William Creasy translation, Mercer University Press, 1989/2007).
In an early article on reflexivity, Sue Wilkinson (1988) described three types: personal, functional, and disciplinary. Each of these entails analyzing the particular lens that is brought to a problem. Personal reflexivity explores the lens related to the identity and experiences of the researcher. Functional reflexivity explores how the form and nature of the specific study impacts the knowledge that is obtained, while “disciplinary” reflexivity explores the impact of approaching an issue from a specific field of inquiry.