Chiseri-Strater: “Turning in Upon Ourselves”

In “Turning In Upon Ourselves: Positionality, Subjectivity, and Reflexivity in Case Study and Ethnographic Research,” Chiseri-Strater calls for researchers must position themselves within the qualitative descriptive research design, locate their potential influence on the study, and recognize their impact on subjects and the data presented. As ethnographers often engage in the research environment itself, they are subject to shaping the entire study, whether as a “literary expert,” an individual seeking to uphold a critical feminist perspective, or as a participant observer who can shape the communication dynamics found in small group discussion.

Chiseri-Strater, remaining true to her point in this piece, reflects critically on her previous work in a study entitled “Composing in Context: Revision Strategies of Freshman Writers” as well the role of her personality in Academic Literacies, a larger study in which her observations, not her interactions with subjects, may have worked to dramatically alter the research design without taking her own role into account. Through critical self-reflection, Chiseri-Strater calls her own work into question. Her role in “Composing in Context,” she notes, was far detached from the context at hand, and although context served as the primary focus of her research design, she failed to accurately describe the context of the classroom. Most importantly, Chiseri-Strater did not situate herself within the study and “reserved no space to describe the researcher-informant relationship of to include my own subjective reactions to these students’ writings” (118). It was her reliance on presenting an “objective” set of data that distracted her from presenting valuable insights provided by subjects and informants.

As Chiseri-Strater identifies, “the ethnographer’s stance-position-location affects the entire ethnographic process: from data collection, theory construction, and methodological understanding, through the creation of the narrative voice and overall writing of the ethnography” (117). To bring in a theoretical underpinning and elucidate her point, Chiseri-Strater applies, in passing, Kenneth Burke’s notion of the terministic screen as a heavily influential concept in shaping the research perspectives of ethnographers. A descriptive qualitative research design, for example, may become heavily influenced by a cognitive paradigm, shaping the discourse used during the research and especially in presenting the research through writing. While the terministic screen may seem problematic, Chiseri-Strater seems to stress that the real issue is recognizing the researcher’s position in all aspects of the ethnography, including the epistemological means for performing the research.

Chiseri-Strater continues her discussion of the drastic effect personality can leave on the ethnographic process as she outlines four categories on how the researcher can impact “(1) theory construction, (2) methodological disclosure, (3) development of narrative voice, and (4) writing of a polyphonic text” (120). It is the classifications aforementioned that serve as the pillars of Chiseri-Strater’s argument as she critiques her own Academic Literacies, through which she allowed her study to be driven by her position as a female ethnographer and feminist. Pulling from outside research during her study, Chiseri-Strater was able to identify masculine dominance exemplified by her male informant during in-class discussions. It was her experience witnessing the informant in a domain that seemed to foster his masculinity that encouraged Chiseri-Strater to revisit her own feminist perspective throughout the study.

Recognizing positionality, much like the general role of an ethnographer fitting into a broad research design, calls objectivity into question. Removing objectivity from the scenario enables subjectivity to take charge, yet this is not the goal of ethnographic research. In her Academic Literacies, Chiseri-Strater summarizes her role within her own study, one directly applicable to a fair number of qualitative research designs involved with both case studies and ethnographic field methods: “…I share how I designed and conducted my study through its various stages not so that others will imitate my design, organization, or analytic categories (since that is impossible), but to share some aspects of how I was positioned to gather my data…” (123).

On narrative voice, Chiseri-Strater seems to support the “messiness” of mixing both journal entries and the narrative of the researcher. Citing Linda Brodkey, Chiseri-Strater notes that doing so can enable the ethnographer to take the position as a “secondary character,” thus creating “a narrative voice that relies on intuitive hunches and changing perspectives about the research” (126). Citing Brodkey here is an interesting choice. In Thomas Newkirk’s “Seduction and Betrayal,” in which he critiques Brodkey for her lack of sympathy toward subjects in her “On the Subject of Class and Gender in the Literacy Letters.’” Through Brodkey’s approach, Newkirk argues that Brodkey’s tone teachers over her subjects as she seeks to maintain strength in her authorial voice.

Readers must also be afforded with an opportunity to scrutinize the ethnography in question, yet readers have no opportunity to investigate the researcher’s role in the ethnographic design if this information is not indicated in its presentation. The rate at which the researcher provides self-reflexivity to the reader that remains questionable (Chiseri-Strater 119). When the ethnographer reveals every aspect of their own subjectivity, reliability of the study may become problematized. Chiseri-Strater highlights, however, that the greater risk lies in research that either assumes or seeks to position itself as objective (119-20). In a sense, principles guide our behavior, and it would be unforgiving to ignore the principles that guide the research paradigm through which the ethnographer operates.

It is, Chiseri-Strater argues, the ethnographer’s responsibility to ensure that their perspective is recognized as a determining factor of the research design and the data presented. Further, reliability and validity is not the goal of ethnographic research. Instead, “ethnographers learn from their informants and from their field experiences” in a process of sharing and reflecting, in turn contributing to literary research.

References

Chiseri-Strater, Elizabeth. “Turning in Upon Ourselves: Positionality, Subjectivity and Reflexivity.” Ethics and Representation in Qualitative Research Studies. Ed. Peter Mortensen and Gesa Kirsch.Urbana: National Council of Teachers of English, 1996.

Newkirk, Thomas. “Seduction and Betrayal in Qualitative Research.” Ethics and Representation in Qualitative Research Studies. Ed. Peter Mortensen and Gesa E. Kirsch. Urbana: NCTE, 1996. 3-16. Print.