By Jo Bushell
Researcher positionality is an intrinsic feature of research, especially qualitative research. Being reflexive and adaptive to the changing, iterative conditions of one’s research, and recognising where one is situated in the world and as a researcher when considering one’s participants, is crucial to researcher positionality. Covid-19 has resulted in researchers reflexive and adaptive skills coming to the fore. Existing insecure employment contracts are becoming even more so, and funding streams are being repurposed. Research projects are being put on hold or extended, and qualitative data collection methods are being rethought and going online to facilitate social distancing. However, it is my researcher positionality within my PhD – working with Somali immigrants living in Bristol, examining their food, energy and water values and practices for positive influences in the broader population – which I focus on here.
When I agreed to write this blogpost, before Covid-19, my thoughts around my researcher positionality related to my being a white, middle-class woman, researching with members of the Bristol BAME community. Theories of postcolonialism – which highlight entrenched and unequal power relations throughout all spheres of life – frame my research and so filled my mind. Specifically, the stark warning by Robbins (2006:415) that postcolonial research needs to be robust and extensive, mutually beneficial, and that “anything less is theft”. So, while vital to know, recognise and act on these inequalities, when thinking about undertaking my fieldwork, they unhelpfully served to create chasms and pitfalls into which I was bound to fall. To bridge these gaps, I found fortitude in theories of care. Care theory provided an academic framework which helped elucidate that central to my researcher positionality is a caring approach: towards my topic and its importance, for conducting good research, and towards my participants – rightly valuing them and their insights.
In these days of Covid-19 – where ‘take care’ has become a mantra, the societal contributions of key workers who care for society are revalued and as Black, Asian and minority ethnic communities (BAME) across the United Kingdom are disproportionally affected due to Covid-19 – I am revisiting care theory. In particular, the writings of Joan Tronto. In Moral Boundaries, Tronto (1993), argues that care takes place in public and is political as well as in private and being personal, and highlights that many forms of care work are undervalued in our society, as well as being racialised, classed and gendered. On my rereading of Moral Boundaries, I was also struck by Tronto’s (1993) theorising on the concept of social distance; explaining that as well as it being the physical distance between two people, it also describes the ways that people perceive and act towards each other, due to the political, economic, social or anthropological bonds that connect them. Considered thus, despite the tragic and uncertain conditions that Covid-19 has created, it has also provided a common bond between us and provided ways of reaching out, connecting and closing the gap of social distance to friends, family and many kinds of others. Which, for myself, includes across postcolonial divides.
Through the Somali community group, Talo, working with me in my PhD research – and working to support families in St Paul’s and inner-city areas through activity-based projects or housing, employment or benefits support – I have started volunteering at a new Bristol foodbank: The Food Hub Consortium Project (FHCP). The FHCP was established in April 2020 as a response to the need for foodservice and delivery created by the Covid-19 pandemic within local BAME communities in Bristol. This consortium will operate for three months, funded by the Quartet Community Foundation, with Black South West Network (BSWN) as the grant holder and project managing organisation. All volunteers and individuals operate from the Malcolm X Community Centre. The FHCP is currently supported by Fareshare for food and Karshare who provide the van and driver to collect the food donated by Fareshare, and also receives ad-hoc donations from other local organisations, community groups and individuals. As such, the FHCP demonstrates the proactivity of BAME communities across Bristol and beyond for establishing initiatives that provide community support during Covid-19. However, it also illuminates the existing disparities for BAME communities which are further exacerbated by Covid-19.
Yet, despite these inequalities, I am deeply grateful for this volunteering opportunity. At a time when personal connections have been reduced to the household and the virtual, my involvement enables me to reach out practically across communities and to close my positionality of social distance.
In these ways, in addition to assisting with an invaluable volunteering service, I am hopeful that my time at the foodbank, will help close social distance gaps and create new bonds of friendship to demonstrate that I care about people as well as my research.
Thus far, during the pandemic, I have not been a facemask wearer. However, as lockdown restrictions are to loosened, and we venture out again into public spaces, it feels wise to follow protection advice on cloth facemask wearing which have also been recommended for their comfort and environmental credentials. So, during this time of stay-at-home creativity and repurposing, I have engaged the sewing services of my Mum to make facemasks from pre-loved fabrics for the food hub volunteers, as a small, gesture of caring and connectedness as we go about our duties.
As is the way with qualitative research, writing this blogpost has been an iterative process. What began solely about my positionality as a researcher has broadened into being multipurpose. During my writing and while reflecting on the ethics of conducting postcolonial research, I recognised that I must share my writing with Talo and the FHCP to let them know of its existence and for them to have the opportunity to comment and contribute. I also recognised that, with their agreement, this blogpost could provide an opportunity to publicise the FHCP and Bristol’s BAME Covid-19 food situation to a wider audience.
Additionally, I reflected further on care theory and that it contains vulnerability: it is that by opening up and making oneself known to others that relationships can be enriched and become closer (Engster, 2019). Thus by sharing this writing with Talo and the FHCP, I revealed myself and my caring position. There were moments in the temporal gap between sharing and response when I wondered how Talo and the FHCP would react towards my writing. So I’m grateful that Talo and the FHCP’s response was positive. They both agreed that this blogpost would be an opportunity for exposure to a wider audience and so were happy to be mentioned and provided comments, text and photos.
Going forward, I recognise that in both my volunteering and researching, I am still likely to encounter postcolonial pitfalls into which I will stumble. But I hope that sharing my caring position has also reached out across postcolonial divides and helped to close the social distance gap.
So here it is. A blogpost about my researcher positionality, which has been reflexive and adaptive. And which has evolved, I hope, to be mutually beneficial to Talo and the FHCP, as well as to myself. I like to think that Robbins (2006) would also approve.
Engster, D. (2019) ‘Care Ethics, Dependency, and Vulnerability’, Ethics and Social Welfare, 13:2, 100-114.
Robbins, P. (2006) ‘Environmental enquiry in a postcolonial world’ in S. Aitken and G. Valentine (eds) Approaches to Human Geography: Philosophies, Theories, People and Practices. London: Sage Publications Ltd.
Tronto, J. (1993) Moral Boundaries. London: Routledge,
Thank you too, to my Mum for the facemasks and researcher friends Dr. Nathalie Hyacinth and Arif Jamal for their insights and comments.