Voices in Education

Studying Change Over Time: How Do We Make Shifts in Researcher Positionality Transparent?
As researchers, we are instruments of our research. Who we are shapes how we frame the questions we ask, design our studies, build research relationships, and analyze our data. My experience doing research at the same Cape Town, South Africa, high school at two different times, twenty years apart, forced me to confront a new dilemma in researcher positionality: How do we talk about and make transparent our researcher positionality and its role in our research in ways that are not static, but that recognize the malleability both of our participants and of ourselves over time?

One shifting dimension of my positionality was an orientation around and connection with the role of teacher. When I first began this research twenty years ago, I could almost be mistaken for a student. What did I not ask teachers or observe in their practice then, as connected to their decisions in the classroom and their interactions with students, before I had had experiences making my own split-second pedagogical decisions or building classroom community? Attention to my shifted positionality vis-à-vis student and teacher allowed me to bring new lenses to my analysis of the data from both time periods.

A second shifting dimension of my positionality was the comparative frames I brought to the research. We know that teachers are shaped by how they themselves were taught. Yet often invisible in our research are the education biographies we carry as researchers, despite the indelible influences of our own experiences of schooling. When I was first in this Cape Town school, it was one of few schools I had visited. When students stood to greet their teacher, I was surprised. Two decades later, after being in hundreds of classrooms in Uganda, Botswana, Kenya, and Lebanon, among others, I understood that my own experience of staying seated when a teacher entered the room was by far the global outlier.

When we circumscribe our research sites, or our researcher identities, by placing neat boxes around schools or around ourselves, we impede our ability to understand the ways in which meaning works across the often artificial boundaries of space and time. I challenge all of us to consider and to make transparent the ways in which our positionality is connected not to fixed states of being, but to processes of our own identity development, to transitions in comparative frames, and to new understandings that happen over time.

You can read more about this research in Sara Dryden-Peterson's article in the Spring issue of the Harvard Educational Review: "Transitions: Researchers’ Positionality and Malleability of Site and Self over Time."

About the Author: Sarah Dryden-Peterson (https://orcid.org/0000-0002-0849-9489) is an Associate Professor of Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Her research focuses on education in armed conflict and the ways in which learning, pedagogies, and relationships may alter trajectories of conflict for nation-states and individuals. She is recipient of the Palmer O. Johnson Award for outstanding article from AERA and a National Academy of Education/ Spencer Foundation Postdoctoral Fellow. You can read her article in the Spring issue of the Harvard Educational Review, "Transitions: Researchers’ Positionality and Malleability of Site and Self over Time."