Feminist Research Ethics

Feminist Research Ethics

6. Reflexivity and Self-reflexivity

The practice of self-reflexivity begins with the researcher reflecting on their own positionality. That is, becoming critically aware of the social, cultural, political, economic aspects of their own background, experience, education and embodied presence in the world, and how these have shaped their intellectual orientation and world view.

The importance of positionality is rooted in feminist work that has argued that, rather than there being universal or objective claims to truth, all knowledge is shaped by the specific contexts or circumstances in which it situated and produced (Valentine 2002, pp. 116-117).

Awareness of your positionality as a researcher is an important part of understanding the situated nature of knowledge. Positionality is central to shaping your research agenda, your presence in the field, your data analysis and, ultimately, your research findings (Kirsch 1999, p. 3; see also, Peake 2017).

Reflexivity enables you to reflect on the politics of representation, or how positionality in the field affects the ways in which you represent your research participants. Reflexivity further involves exercising critical reflection and introspection on:

  • the researcher’s position of power in relation to research participants,
  • the researcher’s position of power in relation to the field of research in which they are situated, and,
  • how the research process or goals of research may need to be modified in response to what is learnt about the research context and research participants.

This includes assessing “how social, historical, and cultural factors shape the research site as well as participants’ goals, values, and experiences” (Kirsch 1999, p. 3).

Central to the exercise of reflexivity is awareness about different forms of privilege that researchers may hold in relation to their field of research or their research participants. Awareness of privilege is central to understanding the operation of unequal power relations in research and the creation of knowledge itself as an exercise of power.

Moments of discomfort and doubt in the research process can be important in exercising reflexivity:

“…they can prompt us to be more reflective, self critical, and sensitive in our interactions with participants; they can guide us toward more thoughtful renderings of participants’ lives and literacies” (Kirsch 1999, xii).

Case Study

In her article, ‘Getting Personal: Reflexivity, Positionality and Feminist Research’ (1992), Kim England discusses the questions of reflexivity that led her to abandon a potential project about the intersections of gender, sexual identities and space that would have involved studying lesbian communities in an urban space. These included questions about:

  • the ethics of identifying the place of study in light of the implications it would have for the communities involved;
  • the ethics of her relationship with her research assistant, who was a lesbian; and
  • whether she was engaging a form of “academic voyeurism” by studying a marginalized community “in the hopes of gaining some fleeting understanding of …the ultimate “other”…” (1992, p. 84).

As England explains:

“The complicated layering and interweaving of power relations between myself, my research assistant, and the project became too much for me. I began to engage in what I can only describe as the mental hand-wringing of a straight, white (my research assistant is an Afro-Caribbean Canadian) feminist academic” (England 1992, p. 84).

 

Reflection Exercise

An exercise of reflexivity and self-reflexivity could include asking yourself:

• What are the class, gender, ethnic, racial, or national, and historical aspects of your own identity, or biography, that shape your positionality as a researcher?

• What relationships do you have with those being researched and the sites being researched?

• What effect does your presence and prior knowledge have on your research subjects or sources?

• To whom are you accountable for the knowledge you produce (Ramazanoğlu and Holland, 2002)?

 

References

  • Kirsch, G. E., 1999. Ethical Dilemmas in Feminist Research. Albany: State University of New York Press.
  • Ramazanoğlu, C. and Holland, J., 2002. Feminist Methodology. [e-book] London: Sage Publications Ltd. Available through: York University Library website <https://www.library.yorku.ca/web/> [Accessed 29 Nov. 2017]
  • England, K., 1994. Getting Personal: Reflexivity, Positionality, and Feminist Research. The Professional Geographer, 46(1), pp. 80-89.
  • Peake, L. Feminist methodologies. In: D. Richardson, N. Castree, M. Goodchild, A. Kobayashi, W. Liu and R. Marston, eds. The AAG International Encyclopedia of Geography. Vol. V. Oxford: John Wiley and Sons Ltd. pp. 2, 331-2, 340.
  • Valentine, G. 2002. People Like Us: Negotiating Sameness and Difference in the Research Process. In: P Moss, ed. Feminist Geography in Practice: Research and Methods. Oxford, Malden, MABlackwell Publishers Ltd. pp. 116-117.