By: Amy Kipp
In any type of research, it is important for researchers to understand how their identity may impact their findings. As a researcher whose focus is on identity, understanding my own positionality and how this might impact my research findings has been a crucial part of my project.
My research focuses on volunteer tourism, and the large gender gap that exists within the industry (with 80% of volunteers being female!). Specifically, I am examining how this gender gap impacts the activities, interactions and spaces that volunteers have access to while abroad, and in turn how this impacts understandings and representations of the Global South in the Global North. This summer, before entering the field (I spent 2 weeks in Guatemala on a volunteer trip doing participant observation), I reflected on my positionality and how it might impact my findings. In a journal entry prior to my time in Guatemala I stated:
I am a cisgender woman. I am straight and in a monogamous relationship. I am a white Canadian. I am university educated and relatively financially stable. I identify as a feminist and believe strongly in equal rights. I believe that all of these things at varying degrees impact my views on gender and how gender impacts a volunteer’s experience…Throughout my data collection, I am and will continue to try my best to be cognisant of how my positionality, “biases” and experiences impact the way I collect and analyze data.
One thing I neglected to write about, however, was my identity as a researcher and how this would impact my participant observation. I can easily say that playing the dual role of a researcher and a participant on a volunteer trip impacted my experience in many ways.
A main component of the volunteer trip was group debrief sessions. In these sessions we would discuss issues ranging from power and privilege, to the culture of Guatemala, to current news items. The organization that I had chosen to go with presented itself as a trip focused on education and solidarity, and as a result I assumed (wrongly) that participants would all be coming from similar academic backgrounds. In our discussions, however, I quickly realized that this was not the case. The discourse in these conversations was at times incredibly Western-centric, Islamophobic, sexist and homophobic. In many of these discussions I was incredibly conflicted internally, wanting to observe the natural progression of the conversation without interfering but also feeling a moral responsibility to challenge the harmful language being used.
It was very challenging to navigate my role as a researcher and participant; if I was solely a participant in the trip I would have felt more comfortable calling people out on their prejudice and ignorance. As a researcher, however, I was hesitant to be confrontational for several reasons. First, I wanted to be understanding that not everyone had studied these issues to the same extent that I had. Second, as I previously mentioned, I wanted to observe the team dynamic with minimal direct influence from me. Finally, I was concerned that if I was too confrontational it would impact my relationship with the participants and influence both their actions as well as willingness to participate in my study.
Another interesting experience during my field work was the participants’ responses towards me. At the beginning of the trip a volunteer participant asked me “so are you a researcher or a volunteer?” Her reaction to being observed was also interesting; one volunteer in particular told me “you make it very obvious… you’re very conspicuous when you’re taking notes, I can feel you watching me” (field notes, July 7th, 2017). The interesting part of her comment was that this particular participant had not been a key actor in my field notes. After this encounter my presence as a researcher became somewhat of a running gag with the participants. If someone did something particularly silly or someone agreed with me on something participants would say things such as “7 spills their water all over the table” or “6 is in solidarity with 9,” – dictating aloud what they thought I was writing. Additionally, every day at least one participant would ask me how my research was going and if I was getting “good information.” During these conversations I found it challenging to know how much to share because I had become close with several of the volunteers and did not want them to feel like I was being closed off or dishonest.
My experience this summer taught me many lessons about the challenges of field work. It revealed tensions around knowing when to listen and when to intervene. It helped me realize how important creating relationships with participants can be, but how challenging those relationships are to navigate. Finally, it reinforced the idea that research is not always a clear-cut process and that it is oftentimes messy and complicated. Although the messiness of research may prove to be difficult at times I also realized that this is part of what makes the process of researching engaging and exciting and something that, at the end of the day, I found to be incredibly rewarding.
Here group members (and sometimes colleagues and friends from our wider network!) write blog entries about interests, questions, and projects.