Researcher, Practitioner, or Somewhere in-between? Reflecting on the ongoing negotiation between shifting positionalities in PhD research

26 July 2023

Interrogating positionality in qualitative research is a central concern due to the researcher's intimate role in data collection and analysis (Serrant Green, 2002). As white British women not from a sanctuary seeking background, we, Lauren and Connie, PhD colleagues at the same university, acknowledge this positionality informs our research. In this blog, we came together following a shared reflection: How do you negotiate practitioner-researcher identity in PhD research? Connie’s research focuses on the administration of asylum applications, and she engages with immigration practitioners who support people seeking asylum. Alongside her PhD, Connie is a trainee immigration adviser and volunteer casework assistant in a community law center. Lauren’s professional background is as an English language teacher, and she currently volunteers as an English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) teacher. Lauren’s ethnographic research explores adult learning in organisations supporting sanctuary seekers in the UK.

Below, we explore the professional identity we share with research participants. Rather than seeking to present an authoritative account of the practitioner-researcher identity, this piece aims to document one conversation to make sense of our reflections and untangle‘the fluidity of identities’ that complicate multiple ways of seeing (Millora et al., 2020).

Connie: As a trainee adviser with 2 years' experience, I hadn’t recognized myself as a practitioner-researcher until starting observational research at the immigration tribunal. In an ad-hoc conversation with a barrister ahead of a hearing, I mentioned my training and, as recorded in my fieldnotes, ‘he says – ‘oh so you know’ and changed tone to be more open.'

Researcher, Practitioner, or Somewhere in-between? Reflecting on the ongoing negotiation between shifting positionalities in PhD researchImage 1: Photograph of handwritten fieldnotes; ‘oh so you know’.

This interaction prompted me to consider how my identity was understood in the space. I became acutely aware that my role as a ‘researcher’ and ‘practitioner’ was continually defined and re-defined by myself and others. This made me reflect, how does being seen as a practitioner impact the PhD research process?

Lauren: Being an ESOL teacher certainly impacted how I was perceived in the organisations I was researching with. Knowing I was a PhD researcher, teachers were keen to talk about my qualifications – sometimes in a manner that undermined their own experience. Doing a PhD seemed to be viewed as an elite practice, and even some of my teaching credentials were seen as impressive; some of the teachers were volunteers or had come into their role through alternative routes. One teacher said, ‘oh I’m just a literacy tutor’. This made me reflect on how I was viewed by those in the space, and provided insights into how they viewed themselves.

Connie: For me, too, researching while practicing had an unexpected impact upon the data collection process. In the first weeks at the tribunal, I noticed I was recording instances of ‘best practice’ as an adviser rather than centering my PhD research. Reflecting on this, I found this excerpt from my fieldnotes:

I realized that I ‘understood’ the hearings I observed with much greater clarity because I was training to represent clients in that environment. … I wondered whether I was always thinking about how to use the observation as a learning exercise, and not simply thinking about my PhD.

But, as time went on, and by being alert to this in my fieldnotes, I was able to negotiate this role confusion more effectively. I wonder if this was because I was a trainee… as a more experienced practitioner, how did you negotiate the dual role?

Researcher, Practitioner, or Somewhere in-between? Reflecting on the ongoing negotiation between shifting positionalities in PhD researchImage 2: Author’s sketch of the courtroom layout. Observational research at the Immigration tribunal.

Lauren: Being an experienced teacher complicated my role as ethnographic researcher and I often found myself helping in the classroom. For example, I wrote in my fieldnotes: 

‘Florence asks me whether I can help Mariam while she goes to get the milk for the tea. I say ‘sure’, and we work through some of the vocabulary on the worksheet.’

Rather than distracting from my research, however, I think these interactive moments have contributed to my analysis.

Researcher, Practitioner, or Somewhere in-between? Reflecting on the ongoing negotiation between shifting positionalities in PhD researchImage 3: Author’s image of an ESOL classroom in Scotland

Connie: It’s interesting to learn that your analysis developed in part because participants invited you to contribute both as a colleague and an observer. This made me think about what knowledge is shared and to whom. Certainly, as a junior researcher, I wondered at times whether I was relying on my practitioner status for credibility with research participants. It will be interesting to see how this negotiation between researcher positionality and professional identity develops throughout the PhD journey and beyond. As I gain more experience as a researcher, will my practitioner status take more of a back seat?

PhD researchers continually negotiate multiple identities through time and space. Reflecting on our field notes showed a need to engage with both researcher subjectivity and how professional identity is socially constructed. Going beyond the outsider/insider divides, our experiences precisely demonstrate the fluidity of in/out positionalities, which urges an engagement with the space between.

References

Millora, C., Maimunah, S., & Still, E. (2020). Reflecting on the ethics of PhD research in the Global South: Reciprocity, reflexivity and situatedness. Acta Academica: Critical Views on Society, Culture and Politics, 52(1), Article 1. https://doi.org/10.18820/24150479/aa52i1/SP2

Serrant Green, L. (2002). Black on black: Methodological issues for black researchers working in minority ethnic communities. Nurse Researcher, 9, 30–44. https://doi.org/10.7748/nr2002.07.9.4.30.c6196

Researcher, Practitioner, or Somewhere in-between? Reflecting on the ongoing negotiation between shifting positionalities in PhD research

Connie Hodgkinson Lahiff is a PhD candidate in Law at the University of East Anglia, Norwich. Her PhD explores the administration of asylum applications in the UK.

Researcher, Practitioner, or Somewhere in-between? Reflecting on the ongoing negotiation between shifting positionalities in PhD research

Lauren Bouttell is a PhD candidate at the School of Education and Lifelong Learning at the University of East Anglia. Her research explores learning in organisations supporting sanctuary seekers in England and Scotland.

 

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