Integrating Your ‘Self’ Into Your Research: Transparency, Truth or Pure Navel Gazing?

Tamanda Walker is an independent consultant and researcher working on issues of equality, diversity and inclusion within education, employment, community and policy settings. Her PhD is funded by the White Rose College of Arts & Humanities/AHRC and explores how employers are engaging with issues of religion and belief in UK workplaces.

I’m now almost four months into my PhD research, and here’s one of the issues that’s been playing on my mind most: how much of my ‘self’ to share and integrate into my research and practice.

How much of my values…

My motivations…

Who I am…

And how I see and experience the world around me.

It’s a question that’s come at me from many angles over the last few months. First, as a facilitator and scholar participating in some pretty personal discussions around issues of race and faith towards the latter half of 2017. Second, through my initial research methods training around issues of reflexivity, subjectivity and positionality. And finally, as part of my outreach to various organisations and individuals with whom I’m collaborating in order to better understand how employers are engaging with issues of religion and belief within ‘modern’, ‘secular’ UK workplaces.

Most recently, these questions have come up as I’ve been writing and reflecting on my methods chapter – a piece of writing in which I’ve made some pretty bold claims. These include the suggestion that my research will make a ‘radical’ and ‘innovative’ contribution to knowledge, perhaps, in part because of the unique perspective and outlook I bring to my research questions – claims that, frankly, I’m not yet in a position to make since they represent my hopes for my project rather than any reality I could possibly know at this stage.

So, naturally this whole process has raised some important questions and fears – ones that I’ve been secretly working through in my quieter moments over the last few months: Am I at risk of over-sharing? Do I really have anything unique or interesting to say based on my particular standpoint? How do I know integrating my ‘self’ into my research won’t alienate the very people I seek to reach? And, perhaps most fundamentally, will including my personal narrative and experiences expose me to the charge of ‘bias’, ‘invalidity’, or excessive ‘navel-gazing’ – ultimately undermining the credibility of my research, and its potential to create change if and where it is needed most?

Though mostly irrational, these fears are not entirely without a basis in fact. And they do warrant very serious consideration, whether I ultimately decide to write my ‘self’ into my final thesis or not. Not least because such an approach can come at a personal cost that I know only too well. I do sadly know how it feels to risk sharing your personal experience when trying to emphasise a wider point about social (in)justice in academic or practice settings – how it feels to watch as that experience is publicly questioned, denied, dismissed or rejected.

I know how it feels to talk about personal experiences of racist or sectarian violence – to speak about the parallels and differences of a life lived between Botswana and Belfast as a child and teen. Of being taught Religious Education in one of the very few mixed faith schools in Northern Ireland during the Troubles. Or experiencing, and perhaps even being implicated in sectarian hate crime, through peer group pressure and the need to ‘survive’.

I know how it feels to speak of my experiences of being ‘othered’ – through subtle and insidious questions, or the presentation of particular ‘facts’. I know how it feels to pick up text books, or take part in group discussions, and not once hear reference to the traditional African belief systems I grew up around, or less still about the hybridity and multiplicity of the mixed race/faith experience. To hear troubling references to ‘religion’ or ‘race’ in a continent about which the speaker clearly has very limited, if any, meaningful personal experience.

Mostly, I know how it feels to raise these issues when it’s relevant to a discussion, knowing all the while that my anecdotal evidence of prejudice, intolerance and injustice may be dismissed, however ‘sensitively’ and ‘respectably’, as just that: ‘anecdotal’, ‘biased’, or ‘solipsistic’. As something that happens ‘out there, but definitely not here’. Despite the fact that I seem to know too many people that share similar experiences for them to be simply brushed off as such.

…And yet… I still feel – almost as though I have a penchant for punishment – that it matters to speak about, reflect on and integrate these considerations into my work. That it matters very much, in fact, that we do share who we are and what shapes our research and outlook. What potentially (mis)informs the questions that we seek to ask. Or how we propose to analyse our data.

It matters, because the truth is, my experiences of growing up during apartheid in Southern Africa, or ‘The Troubles’ in Northern Ireland fundamentally shape the way I view issues of race and religion, of justice and injustice, of relationships between different people, for better or for worse.

And it’s important that I own that. That I am transparent. And let my readers and examiners judge for themselves whether I can provide a perspective that is of value to the world, or anyone at all, for that matter.

It matters, because the reality is, even if my experiences are dismissed as purely anecdotal – and whether or not they are that widely shared (and I happen to believe the general trends are) – it is precisely from the margins, as Angela Davis so cogently argues in relation to the experiences of black, trans women in the US prison system, that new and valuable insights are so often found about hegemonic social norms and processes.

It matters, because the facts are, that my research questions have been fundamentally shaped by my experiences and observations in employment. As a direct response to challenges I have encountered and struggled to make sense of as a Human Resources Management and interfaith and intercultural training practitioner and consultant working across issues of religion and belief in the public, private and voluntary sectors. Questions and experiences that I’ve come to understand that some share, and others don’t even realise are worth asking, precisely because they are not at the margins, or even remotely connected to the experiences of those that are.

Perhaps, most of all, as I found out at a meeting of potential research collaborators back in October, it matters quite a lot – in fact, a surprising amount – to those I am collaborating with. It matters to them that I’m transparent about who I am, and open to questions about what my motivations and intentions are for the data I plan to collect. And not just in the ‘are you going to be ethical or throw us under the bus kind of way?’, but in the ‘Who are you?’ kind of way. ‘What do you actually believe about the world and people around you?’ ‘Are you really willing to be transparent and have integrity about how you go about this process, whether or not you happen to be a so-called ‘religious person’ or not’? And ‘are you actually willing to do the things you are asking of us – to share your personal motivations, thoughts and ways of making sense of the world?

…So that’s where I’m at. No hard and fast decisions as yet. No sense of what aspects of my ‘self’ will ultimately end up in my thesis. But keen to retain open to the idea that who writes and researches, and the ways in which they draw on their own experiences and ‘embodied knowledge’ matters very much indeed and constitutes something of the uniqueness we each bring to our areas of interest.

…What’s your perspective? How do you decide how much of yourself to integrate into your work, whatever your field of expertise? Have you come up with any particularly clever or creative ways of doing this? And what advice would you give to an early career researcher or practitioner just starting to think in depth about such personally affecting issues?

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