Positionality, values and metaphysical stance in qualitative research

Contributing to debates on ‘positionality’ in social research, Profs Sarah Johnsen and Suzanne Fitzpatrick reflect on the methodological implications of researchers’ values, and in particular metaphysical stance.  These observations are the focus of a recently published journal paper which was inspired by their experiences during a study of the role of faith-based organisations (FBOs) in homelessness service provision.

The issue of positionality has long been a preoccupation for qualitative researchers.  It is widely accepted within academic circles that social scientists should be reflexively conscious of the way that different ‘facets of the self’ shape the design and conduct, and thereby influence the credibility or trustworthiness of research.  Debates on this subject typically revolve around the impact of unequal researcher-participant power relations and/or differing identities on the situated and partial process of knowledge production.

Reflexive assessments of positionality generally examine the ways in which a researcher’s sociodemographic characteristics such as gender, age, ethnicity, dis/ability, sexuality and/or the intersections between these affect research encounters, processes and outcomes.  Perhaps surprisingly, religion features relatively rarely in such interrogations, and then usually only in relation to participants’ ethnic or racial affiliations, albeit that a handful of scholars (contributing to the geographies of religion literature in particular) have reflected on the effect of their own religious affiliation or lack thereof on the development of rapport with interviewees.

The degree of rigour applied in positionality assessments varies markedly, and opinion is split on the extent to which reflexive accounts of positionality should be ‘written into’ research outputs.  For some researchers, consideration of positionality is entirely absent or includes little more than a tokenistic ticking off from a laundry list of key identifiers.  At the other end of the spectrum, however, some scholars have been accused of ‘positional piety’ for claiming moral authority via sociodemographic affinity with participants or confessional declaration of difference and comparative privilege.

We are unconvinced of the (so often presumed) merit of public proclamations regarding sociodemographic aspects of positionality for two reasons.  First, we question the relevance or utility of such pronouncements given that sharing characteristics (or being a so-called ‘insider’) does not somehow automatically confer privileged access to knowledge.  Second, we are uncomfortable with what can sometimes appear to be little more than solipsistic self-indulgence on the part of hard-wired positionalists.  We remain mindful of the differing ways in which our sociodemographic attributes – alongside other personal characteristics – shape the design, conduct, dissemination, and reception of our research.  But we do not believe that public musings about such attributes offer audiences an effective barometer with which to gauge the credibility of our (or indeed anybody else’s) work.

On the other hand, we do think there is substantial merit in public articulations of the moral, political and intellectual ‘values’ and assumptions that shape social research design, conduct and researcher ‘objectivity’.  To our mind, this offers audiences a much more effective means of assessing the trustworthiness and orientation of research. 

In this, we echo calls from a number of other academics for more transparency and critical reflection regarding the philosophical propositions underlying research.  However, we take this a step further in making the specific case for greater consideration to be given to of metaphysical position, that is, belief or non-belief in the existence of God(s) in discussions of positionality. In building this argument, we emphasise a key distinction between: firstly, a person’s fundamental orientation towards belief or non-belief in God(s), that is, their metaphysical stance as either theist or atheist; and secondly, which particular form or manifestation of God(s) they believe in (or have rejected a belief in). For the purposes of the argument presented, the latter is considered ‘secondary’ (in a logical not pejorative sense) to the former. This is not to suggest that specific religious identities or affiliations, which are themselves fluid, embodied and performed in myriad different ways, are unimportant. Rather, we argue that metaphysical position is of a different order and nature to specific faith identity/ies, and to other more commonly documented sociodemographic positionality markers (such as age, gender, and class etcetera).

On this issue, the paper documents our own personal experiences as research collaborators with different metaphysical stances – a person of faith (Sarah) and atheist (Suzanne) respectively – during a study exploring what if any effect a faith-based vis-à-vis secular organisational affiliation or ethos has on the provision of services for homeless people in the UK. The issue of whether and if so when and how it is appropriate to ‘reveal’ one’s metaphysical position presented interesting practical and ethical questions and challenges.  Our metaphysical positionalities also affected our roles in and relationships with participants during the study’s fieldwork, our familiarity with and interpretation of aspects of the interview narratives shared (e.g. doctrinally-based motives for social action), participants’ presumptions regarding which side of contentious policy debates we were likely to align ourselves with, and in some cases audience members’ reception of the study findings.

Based on these experiences, we observe that metaphysical position may be of a different order than other ‘values’ that social scientists bring to the research process.  It is arguably more profound, non-negotiable, and very difficult (if not impossible) to ‘suspend’ for the purposes of attaining ‘value-neutrality’ during the research process.  In this sense, metaphysical position may be more akin to other more commonly documented aspects of positionality such as age or ethnicity which are ‘ascribed characteristics’ (which cannot be altered), rather than value judgements in social and political matters which are more malleable and often change over a person’s lifecourse.  A person’s metaphysical position may of course change – if they ‘find’ or ‘lose’ faith for example – but this tends to be experienced as a profoundly life-changing event rather than something that can easily and temporarily be ‘suspended’.  On the other hand, metaphysical position is clearly a belief system and in this sense is more like a personal value base than a given set of ascribed or achieved characteristics.

This being so, we argue that metaphysical orientation should be understood as a sui generis aspect of positionality, which fits into none of the existing categories and requires separate analysis with respect to its ethical and practical implications. Indeed, our experiences suggest that metaphysical position, as theist or atheist, may be a ‘special case’ of such profound and value-loaded positionality that it is even more challenging to deal with than the traditional social or identity categories and value systems that have been the focus of academic attention to date.

Read the full open access paper here.