6. Preparing for fieldwork - positionality and reflexivity
Whilst the aim of participant-observation is to understand a setting/culture, the researcher decides what to focus on day-to-day in the field and therefore shapes the research in-progress. As a result, the researcher must constantly reflect on their own attitudes, perceptions and behaviours within the field, before and during observations in a process of reflexivity.
Reflexivity involves the researcher reflecting on their personal characteristics and their relationship to the research setting. These could include broad socio-demographic characteristics such as gender, educational level and professional background, for example. The researcher considers how these might influence their assumptions, how they conduct the research or how they interpret the results.
Critically, the researcher also needs to consider whether they are an insider or outsider to the field. An outsider may have limited knowledge of the environment prior to commencing the research, whilst an insider will have intimate knowledge. This positioning can influence the research in very many ways. In fact the researcher is likely to place them self somewhere along an "insider-outsider" continuum and this position may well change as the field work progresses.
Some obvious actions and decisions can help in this positioning. For example, a researcher commencing fieldwork on a hospital ward might reflect on how to engage with participants. One decision may be whether to wear a uniform or not. What would be the benefits and drawbacks of wearing a uniform?
Generally, the researcher does not want to 'go native' or become a complete insider. Here, the researcher is in danger of losing focus on their primary role as a researcher. By engaging in reflexivity the researcher aims to occupy the space in-between insider and outsider, in a space where they can engage with participants to identify and describe activities, but remain distant enough to represent experiences accurately and comprehensively.