How can applicants think about positionality and inclusion in their research teams? The academic enterprise is rife with practices, routines, and structures that replicate inequality along the dimensions of race, ethnicity, gender, economic standing, language minority status, and immigration status. As a foundation that supports rigorous research studies that aim to reduce inequality in youth outcomes across these dimensions, we pay close attention to how we encourage and support equity and inclusion in the research process itself, especially in how a team is constructed.
When foundation staff, selection committee members, or external reviewers evaluate the strength of a proposed study, they consider whether the research team is adequately staffed to carry out the project. The most straightforward indications of adequate staffing are when there are enough people to perform the proposed work and when the team is staffed to draw on relevant disciplinary and methodological perspectives. Still, we pay attention to the composition of teams in ways that are more nuanced, especially with regard to positionality and inclusion.
Considering power and perspective
As we look to fund studies that hold the potential to improve youth outcomes, we are intentional in our assessment of a research team’s ability to develop gender, racial, and otherwise culturally appropriate concepts, methods, and measures. Assessing a research team’s ability to do so aligns with an idea that stems from qualitative research: positionality. Jennifer Reich notes that positionality requires “researchers to consider power within and surrounding the research process.”1 Small and Calarco used the term self-awareness, or the extent to which a researcher understands the impact of who they are on the research, to define a similar idea.2
It is perhaps easy to see why positionality and self-awareness are essential when conducting interviews or ethnography. A researcher in the field, interacting directly with participants, must remain cognizant of how their presence influences the very behaviors they hope to study and measure. But even when a researcher does not directly encounter research participants, reviewers still consider the impact of who the researchers are and the perspectives they bring to the research.3
Take the secondary analysis of census data for example. In this case, data collection happens decades before analyses, and scholars analyzing the data are not typically involved with collection. Therefore, when reflecting on positionality in this scenario reviewers think beyond a researcher’s ability to influence how someone responded to a census question.
Even when a researcher does not directly encounter research participants, reviewers still consider the impact of who the researchers are and the perspectives they bring to the research.
Instead, reviewers may consider whether the team has the expertise necessary to interpret the political and social circumstances under which data about race or gender was collected and how this milieu may have affected answers provided to or recorded by census enumerators.
If a reviewer considers positionality from this perspective and determines that as presently configured, a research team lacks the requisite expertise to collect and interpret data in a culturally appropriate manner, then the applicants must remedy this is issue.
Engaging cultural expertise
In addressing a reviewer’s concern about their team’s positionality, some applicants may be tempted to “pick the brain” of a colleague more adept with issues of race and gender. The act of getting feedback from people more expert than oneself is, after all, a normal part of academic discourse. However, we caution researchers to ensure that principles of equity guide their efforts to supplement existing expertise. Historically marginalized faculty are more likely to field such requests without being asked to join the research team.4
As we fund research that holds the potential to reduce inequality in youth outcomes, we do not wish to promote extractive or exploitative relationships within the research process. For this reason, when an investigator relies on a colleague to attend to the cultural nuances of measurement and interpretation in the framing and implementation of the study, reviewers usually expect to see that the colleague is an official member of the research team.
We caution researchers to ensure that principles of equity guide their efforts to supplement existing expertise.
With this in mind, we urge researchers to consider alternatives to picking a colleague’s brain that allow for formal recognition and participation. This could be in the form of recruiting that colleague as a co-investigator, consultant, or advisory board member, depending upon the level of contribution and commitment required throughout the project’s duration.
Regardless of how colleagues are incorporated into the team, it is important they be purposively engaged throughout the research process. Too often, scholars with expertise in race and gender find in hindsight that membership on a grant team was not an invitation to actively contribute to or shape the research project but done so to merely signal the demographic or intellectual diversity of the team to potential funders.5 Symbolic inclusion of this sort brings little value to the research process and is the opposite of what we value as we assess a proposal’s merits. We seek evidence of how the processes guiding the research will enable all team members to influence the project from beginning to end.
Regardless of how colleagues are incorporated into the team, it is important they be purposively engaged throughout the research process.
The research process—and its potential to tackle the deep problems of inequality—is more rigorous when research teams acknowledge their positionality and build teams that allow them to develop and interpret culturally appropriate concepts and measures while equitably engaging and crediting all who contribute to this undertaking.
- Reich, Jennifer A, “Power, Positionality, and the Ethic of Care in Qualitative Research,” Qualitative Sociology, 44, (2021), 575.
- Small, Mario L. and Jessica M. Calarco. 2022. Qualitative Literacy: A Guide to Evaluating Ethnographic and Interview Research. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
- Castillo, Wendy and Davide Gillborn. 2022. How to “QuantCrit”: Practices and Questions for Education Data Researchers and Users. (EdWorkingPaper: 22-546). https://doi.org/10.26300/v5kh-dd65
- Owens, Marcia Allen. 2020. “Closet Chair and Committee Side Piece: Black Women STEM Faculty at HBCUs” Pp. 233-244, in Presumed Incompetent: Race, Class, Power, and Resistance of Women in Academia, (Eds.) Yolanda Flores Nieman, Gabriella Guitierrez y Muhs, Carmen G. Gonzales. Utah State University Press.
- Tran, Nellie. 2020. “In Name Only: A Principal Investigator’s Struggle for Authority” Pp. 245-255, in Presumed Incompetent: Race, Class, Power, and Resistance of Women in Academia, (Eds.) Yolanda Flores Nieman, Gabriella Guitierrez y Muhs, Carmen G. Gonzales. Utah State University Press.