Tips on considering “subjectivity” in qualitative research

Many newcomers to qualitative studies struggle with the idea of how one’s self, and “subject positions” or “subjectivities” might be represented in qualitative inquiry. For those more attuned to positivist approaches to research in which the researcher is depicted as “neutral” and “objective,” discussing one’s own interests and relationships to a topic and participants of a research study can be viewed as erring dangerously into the territory of “biased” research that is viewed as problematic, if not lacking in validity.

One scholar who wrote about his subjectivities in relation to his research was Alan “Buddy” Peshkin (1931-2000), who was an educational ethnographer who worked at Stanford University. Over the course of his career, Peshkin used ethnographic methods to explore how schooling was accomplished in multiple settings in the United States. His ethnographies include studies of a Midwestern school (1978), a fundamentalist Christian school (1986), an ethnically diverse school in California (1991), a Native American school (1997) and an elite school (2001). What all of these ethnographies have in common is an interest in providing multi-faceted and in-depth portrayals of what goes on in school settings.

Peshkin also talked about how his own subject positions intersected with those of research participants in these studies. For example, Peshkin describes how his positionality as a Jewish person conflicted with that of his hosts in his study of Bethany Baptist Academy (1986). In this book, Peshkin details the personal challenges and costs of undertaking a study in which he was consistently made aware of his “potential nonexistence, or disappearance” (p. 287) as a Jewish person. The participants he worked with believed that non-Christians would not be saved and were “fair game for conversion” (p. 289). In this book, Peshkin considers the personal and societal costs inherent in these views, and ponders over the potential problems represented by the positions taken by fundamentalist groups within a pluralist society. More to Peshkin’s liking was the cultural diversity and ethnic maintenance promoted at Riverview High, a school attended by a multicultural student body, including Sicilians, Mexicans, blacks and Filipinos.

Peshkin takes up the idea of how one might consider one’s subject positions in a much-cited article (1988) entitled: In search of subjectivity: One’s own. Peshkin defines “subjectivity” as the “amalgam of the persuasions that stem from the circumstances of one’s class, statuses, and values interacting with the particulars of one’s object of investigation” (Peshkin, 1988, p. 17). He inventories his “subjective I’s”, describes how these I’s surfaced in the conduct of his research students, and gives each “I” a distinctive label to indicate how it surfaced in his research in schools, namely:

  • The Ethnic-Maintenance I
  • The Community-Maintenance I
  • The E-Pluribus-Unum I
  • The Justice-Seeking I
  • The Pedagogical-Meliorist I
  • The Non-research Human I

Suggesting that qualitative researchers need to notice the emergence of the various “subjective I’s” in any given study, Peshkin (1988, p. 17) observes that

When researchers observe themselves in the focused way that I propose, they learn about the particular subset of personal qualities that contact with their research phenomenon has released. These qualities have the capacity to filter, skew, shape, block, transform, construe, and misconstrue what transpires from the outset of a research project to its culmination in a written statement.

I’ve found reading Peshkin’s ethnographies and thinking about his reflections on how his subjectivities emerged differentially in the studies he conducted helpful in my own research, as well as in teaching.

Although some scholars have critiqued how the notion of reflexivity has been taken up in qualitative inquiry (e.g., the writing of subjectivity statements), for newcomers to qualitative research, Peshkin’s (1988) article is still a useful reminder and starting point. This article suggests that qualitative researchers ask themselves questions, such as:

  • What subjectivities might you bring to your research?
  • How might you label your “subjective-I’s”?
  • What have you left out?
  • What do each of these subjective-I’s allow with respect to your research study?
  • How do these subjective-I’s potentially limit you as a researcher of your topic?

Through his use of ethnographic methods to examine a multitude of school settings, Alan Peshkin has left a wonderful legacy in qualitative inquiry that contributes not only to how qualitative research studies are conducted, but how schools work.

There are many more articles and books on the issue of subjectivity and reflexivity in qualitative research. For starters, I recommend the following texts to begin (Finlay, 2002, 2012; Finlay & Gough, 2003; Macbeth, 2001; Pillow, 2003; Roulston & Shelton, 2015).

Kathy Roulston

References

Finlay, L. (2002). Negotiating the swamp: The opportunity and challenge of reflexivity in research practice. Qualitative Research, 2(2), 209-230.

Finlay, L. (2012). Five lenses for the reflexive interviewer. In J. F. Gubrium, J. A. Holstein, A. Marvasti, & K. McKinney (Eds.), The SAGE Handbook of interview research: The complexity of the craft (2nd ed., pp. 317-331). Los Angeles: Sage.

Finlay, L., & Gough, B. (Eds.). (2003). Reflexivity: A practical guide for researchers in health and social sciences. Oxford: Blackwell Science.

Macbeth, D. (2001). On “reflexivity” in qualitative research: Two readings: and a third. Qualitative Inquiry, 7(1), 35-68.

Peshkin, A. (1978). Growing up American: Schooling and the survival of community. Chicago: Chicago University Press.

Peshkin, A. (1986). God’s choice: The total world of a fundamentalist Christian School. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press.

Peshkin, A. (1988). In search of subjectivity: One’s Own. Educational Researcher, 17(7), 17-22.

Peshkin, A. (1991). The color of strangers, the color of friends: The play of ethnicity in school and community. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Peshkin, A. (1997). Places of memory: Whiteman’s schools and Native American communities. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Peshkin, A. (2001). Permissible advantage? The moral consequences of elite schooling. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Pillow, W. S. (2003). Confession, catharsis, or cure? Rethinking the uses of reflexivity as methodological power in qualitative research. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 16(2), 175-196.

Roulston, K., & Shelton, S. A. (2015). Reconceptualizing bias in teaching qualitative research methods. Qualitative Inquiry, 21(4), 332-342. doi:10.1177/1077800414563803

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