Researcher stance as a resource
“Technology is the result of human imagination” and so “all technologies to some degree reflect, and reciprocally affect, human values”.
(Friedman & Hendry 2019, p.1)
If we’re designing and adapting technologies stemming from our imagination, then what’s shaping our imagination?
Biases, assumptions, ‘researcher stance’, ‘ reflexivity’, ‘positionality’… these are all things that have been front and centre throughout this year of studying a Master of Applied Cybernetics at 3A Institute. And also before this year, as I was a part of delivering unconscious bias workshops and training to organisations tackling how to improve recruitment and retention of Indigenous employees.
It leads to this rather obvious notion: who you are influences what you do and how you see the world.
I think we all intrinsically know this.
What I haven’t been able to work out, however, is what to do with that. Once I’ve uncovered a range of biases stemming from my Western worldview point, my gender, my educational background, my socio-economic status, my religious and cultural beliefs, my experiences to date and once I’ve recognised that this is just the tip of the iceberg and there are a range of implicit things that may never come to the surface… what do I do about it?
Am I (merely) trying to build self-awareness muscles by making my biases explicit? or
By being aware, am I then trying to compensate for my blindspots and become more ‘neutral’ somehow (if so, how?)?
These are questions I’ve struggled with for a while.
In a conversation with Dr. Carly Schuster I was testing a range of ideas for some research I’m doing as part of my Masters with Thea Snow and Centre for Public Impact using discourse analysis. The conversation turned to this question: so… I’ve uncovered a lot of biases shaping my research… what do I do about it?
In researching discourse analysis, a few things came to light connected to researcher stance.
Firstly, discourse doesn’t describe reality neutrally, but “actively shapes our understanding of reality” (Cameron & Panovic, 2014 p. 66). This constructivist viewpoint reminded me a lot of data lifecycle coursework in the 3A Institute Masters Questions course and the notion that data is not neutral (which I’ve reflected on previously here). The discourse that I’m researching is not neutral and neither is the discourse that I will produce as a research report.
Secondly, one of the main criticisms of discourse analysis is that it is too subjective (Breeze 2011). However, many scholars of discourse analysis argue that subjectivity is inevitable and it is better to make your position explicit so that others can judge your research with this in mind (Cameron & Panovic 2014). Being explicit about researcher stance has also been the approach in books that I have been reading recently such as Data Feminism (Catherine D'Ignazio & Lauren Klein 2020) where the authors have included a specific section — ‘Our Values and Our Metrics for Holding ourselves Accountable’ — on their researcher stance as a way of being explicit about their stance and how they will endeavour to uphold their values through the communication of their research.
What this conversation and subsequent reflections revealed to me was that yes, making your stance explicit is part of doing good social sciences research. And I can also see how it would be a demonstration of responsible practice when designing or implementing technology.
But it’s more than that.
By interrogating your own position, you’re not trying to neutralise your positionality or somehow be ‘less biased’ (though you may take some steps to actively include voices you’re missing for example). Rather, it helps to further clarify what the boundary is that you’re drawing in your work. It helps you be more specific regarding what you mean when you use certain words, which perspectives you’re interested in and why they’re important.
It helps you to communicate to your audience the context within which your research or technology stems. And, most importantly, it helps you unpack your motivations for why you’re fascinated by that viewpoint - why do you really care? What about your position has led you to this point?
“See your positionality as a resource” (Dr. Carly Schuster)
Reframing positionality as a resource, instead of something you’re trying to counteract (or something to despair about!) is a fascinating way to think about it.
It reminded me of a conversation I had with Dr. Karen McPhail-Bell a couple of months ago. I had presented a PechaKucha on ‘scaling dignity’ at the EPIC 2020 conference (you can read about some reflections on this here)— a conference for ethnographers in business — and we ended up talking about the nature of research. It was through this conversation that I began to see how research can be used as a tool for change. It’s a platform. It’s shaped by your motivations. I had seen this clearly when talking about the design and implementation of technology, but I was now beginning to see research itself as a vehicle, not just the (technology) product that may come from it.
Ultimately, doing research is a way of finding out more about yourself and making a mark on the world. It’s part of a process of self-discovery. It also is an act that holds immense responsibility as you consider how to wield this platform for impact.
So, what agenda do you want to be progressing? And how will you use your stance as a resource to make the most impact?
Breeze, R 2011, ‘Critical discourse analysis and its critics’, Pragmatics: Quarterly Publication of the International Pragmatics Association, Vol 21(4), pp. 493- 525, doi:10.1075/prag.21.4.01bre
Cameron, D & Panovic, I 2018, ‘Critical Discourse Analysis’, Working with Written Discourse, pp. 66–80, DOI: https://dx.doi.org/10.4135/9781473921917
D’Ignazio, C & Klein, LF 2020, Data Feminism, MIT Press, Cambridge.
For context: I am an aspiring tri-sector collaborator, born in Sydney, Australia and citizen of the globe. A strategy consultant by trade, I have worked across many industries and seek to combine technology of the future, business acumen, social impact and human compassion. An alumnus of Singularity University, I have a particular interest in the intersection of AI, technology, humans, leadership and systems change. In 2016, I became an Acumen Global Fellow and spent a year building a marketing / innovation /customer insight capability at a fast-growing solar energy social enterprise in Uganda. I have most recently been a Director focused on systems change, social business innovation, Indigenous Affairs and cross-sector collaboration with PwC’s Indigenous Consulting.
I am currently on a sabbatical as part of the Australian National University’s 3A Institute 2nd-ever Master of Applied Cybernetics cohort.
I like to reflect on my experiences as a way of making sense of them and with a hope that my sharing may spark something in others too. Thank you for reading!