Reflections on researcher positionality when applying digital research methods

Categories: Contemporary Issues, Creative Methods, Data Collection, Online Research, Other, Research, Research Design, Research Roles, Research Skills

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Jamie Halliwell and Samantha Wilkinson co-authored “Chapter 20: Mobile phones, text messaging and social media” in Creative Methods for Human Geographers. We are featuring posts from editors and contributors for this innovative text throughout the year. See Creative Methods for supporting social science students in qualitative remote research and Facebook Groups as Research Method

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One of the key issues that I (Jamie) had to deal with and negotiate in my research was my researcher positionality. As well as being a researcher studying fan and sexual identities within digital spaces of Eurovision Song Contest (ESC) fandom, I am also a hardcore Eurovision fan. I turned to Twitter to network with fans while we listened together to an online ESC radio show. It was from this experience that I used Twitter in my research to understand the shaping of fan and sexual identities through ESC fan practices. Hence, my fandom and research have become intertwined on the platform. As an active participant within Twitter’s ESC fan networks, I would often ‘like’ certain tweets to align myself with another fan’s thoughts, ideas, and music taste. This would be useful for collecting data and return to it at a later date. Some fans, however, would immediately ‘follow’ me and I was often hesitant to follow back in order to limit the development of a digital relationship. To mitigate this, I would save links to tweets in a Word document, screen-shot tweets, or use Twitter’s ‘bookmark’ function to return and analyse later. Ultimately, I have been internally conflicted as to how I as a fan researcher behave, or should behave, on Twitter.

Jamie actively negotiating his academic and fan positionality in his Twitter posts

On a daily basis, I am constantly negotiating the positions of being an ESC fan and academic which permeates my digital worlds. I have had a turbulent ‘love affair’ – to borrow Julie Cupples’s term – with my research as a consequence of my dual academic and fan positionality. My research and fandom became part of my daily life as it is always accessible in my pocket. It followed me on my smartphone when using Twitter, and when conducting WhatsApp group chats. I felt compelled to look out for potential data when entering the Twitter app and making decisions as when to ask questions and follow-up responses to WhatsApp group participants while working part-time and going about my social life. It was impossible to divorce myself from my research and now I feel that my use of social media has changed because of my research. I feel compelled to be more analytical towards the ESC in terms of its fandom, representation and identity politics, but there are still times when I just want to engage in digital ESC fandom for pure pleasure and enjoyment. More recently, Twitter ESC fan events such as #EurovisionAgain have allowed me to escape the stresses and anxieties of pandemic life and writing up my PhD in a pandemic.

Coming together with fans through online rewatches of previous Eurovisions through #EurovisionAgain

Samantha also reflects on her positionality when conducting research with young people and alcohol using digital methods:

My personality, a crucial aspect of my positionality, assisted me in developing bonds with participants, which maintained their interest in the research. Following a night out with a group of young people, I was greeted by a Facebook friend request. I chose to accept this and received a message asking if I had a good night. Prior to conducting the research, my Facebook account was already set up to ensure high levels of privacy, and so it was not that I took such precautions specifically – participants had the same restrictions as any of my other Facebook friends. A Facebook friend request may not seem like a big deal, but it made me feel like I had gained the status of an ‘insider’, which is so often favoured by ethnographers.

Research friendships were sometimes tested, however. Literature on research friendships has considered how researchers ‘use’ participants in order to obtain data, for instance, by only staying in contact ‘when they need something’, however I saw signs of this in reverse occurring. For instance, I received a text from a 15 year old participant in my study, asking: “You meeting us tonight? We’re going to try and get into The White Lion [pub]”. This text was significant in relation to a previous interview with this young person, where she claimed to have never tried to get into any bars / pubs / clubs, because she would be embarrassed about getting “turfed”, and too scared to try to gain access. The research affected me, as I begun to experience feelings of annoyance and stress. I believed that these young people under the legal drinking age, were ‘using’ me – as a then-23 year old – in order to help negotiate their access to alcohol and commercial premises. This particular ethically complex situation did not materialise, as the participant sent a follow up text message shortly after stating she had changed her mind and that she going to “hang around the streets” instead. I began to realise that I was not, and could not, be friends with my participants. Yet, this is not to downplay the fact that we shared moments of friendship. For instance, I met some participants for chats, over multiple cups of tea, about (prospective) partners. For others, I sent Birthday and Christmas wishes, over Facebook, after the completion of the research phase.

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