Reflexivity in Research Design and Method Selection
Feature article by Rowland Anthony Imperial, Jesus College, University of Oxford
Reflexivity is “the process of a continual internal dialogue and critical self-evaluation of [a] researcher’s positionality as well as active acknowledgement and explicit recognition that this position may affect the research process and outcome” (Berger, 2015, p. 220). In this article, I underscore the importance of reflexivity in making decisions involving research design and method selection. I draw insights not only from my reading of relevant literature on reflexivity, researcher positionality, and research methods, but also from my ongoing experience of doing a doctoral study of language teaching ideologies and practices in the Philippines’ transnational TESOL industry.
I hope to share the value of reflexivity with current and prospective graduate students who may have been thrown or have thrown themselves into precarious and uncertain situations brought about by the global pandemic. I believe that being reflexive allows us to better deal with such situations because we can exert greater control over the research design and process (Berger, 2015). Having greater control of the research also allows us to better understand our relationship with, and treatment of, our data (Bucholtz, 2000), and ensure that we uphold ethical standards in our practice (Sultana, 2007).
Background of the study
For my doctoral research, I am adopting a critical applied linguistics approach to examine the preponderance of normative ideologies and practices that are often tied to Western models of English and also to appropriateness-based approaches to language education (Flores & Rosa, 2015). Situating my study in the Philippines, I aim to reconceptualise how relevant stakeholders from non-Anglosphere backgrounds reify or challenge ideologies and practices in English language teaching. This is a direct response to recent calls for change that have been put forth by several applied linguists and language educationalists. Rose and Galloway (2019, p. 222), for example, have been advocating for “new pathways forward” to transform TESOL into a more adaptable profession.
I am particularly interested in examining the notions of change and adaptability in the Philippines’ transnational TESOL industry. This is because Filipino teachers who teach English as a Second Language (ESL) have historically been perceived to be ‘inauthentic’ sources of English by international students (Jang, 2018) because of their accent, pronunciation, or lack of American or British cultural knowledge (Choe, 2016). Indeed, “idealised, native-speaker oriented visions of English and English language learning” (Llurda, 2016, p. 60) have had a profound effect on Filipinos’ self-perception as ESL instructors. Despite this, many of these teachers have found ways to adapt to their students’ needs and gradually develop “distinctive curricula designs and pedagogical labor” not only to manage their “assumed inauthenticity” but also to legitimize their classrooms as spaces for learning (Jang, 2018, p. 230). What I am witnessing here is a neoliberal form of adaptation that has allowed a group of minoritized language teachers to thrive in their profession by capitalising on their teaching skills and pedagogical innovations. But we do not know for sure whether such an adaptation is doing anything to challenge or resist normativities in language education that lie at the level of ideology.
I am a second-year DPhil student in Education at the University of Oxford. I do sociolinguistics and critical applied linguistics research. Previously, I carried out work using mixed-methods and sociophonetic approaches to the study of Philippine English in ESL contexts and sociolinguistic variation among Tagalog-English and Korean-English bilingual speakers. I also worked for three years as an instructor of English academic writing at the National University of Singapore before moving to the UK. Naturally, my research and teaching experiences led me to TESOL research.
Although I have previously done ESL-related research, I am not a trained ESL instructor. I am also not affiliated with the Philippine TESOL industry. Furthermore, despite my Filipino heritage and multilingual background (I am well-versed in Tagalog, Cebuano, and Ilonggo), I have lived away from home for more than 15 years, spending most of my time in Singapore where I received my secondary and tertiary education. Based on my social, academic, and professional background, I cannot claim that I share the lived experiences of Filipino ESL teachers; I am practically an outsider to them. I thus cannot put myself in a position that directly dictates what they should or should not do in their own classrooms. I also cannot allow them to be directly involved in my study in ways that might compromise their profession and livelihood. I believe, however, that I am in a position to create an avenue for ESL instructors and other relevant stakeholders in the field of TESOL to engage in meaningful dialogue and work collaboratively to make transnational language education a more democratic space for teaching and learning.
Self-appraising the research design and method selection
I knew I could not claim membership within the TESOL community, so I made a conscious effort to strategically control the direction of my work so that I could “move from the position of an outsider to the position of an insider in the course of the study” (Berger, 2015, p. 219). I wanted to achieve this by reaching out to a few select English language learning centres (LLCs) and working in close partnership with them. I purposively sampled LLCs by designing a case-oriented comparative approach that adopted a most similar systems design; see, for example, Panke (2018, pp. 150-168) for a detailed explanation of this design. I dedicated the early stages of my fieldwork to building rapport with LLC administrators, programme coordinators, teachers, and students. I wanted the study to be as collaborative as possible, despite my status as an outsider.
Because I am interested in examining both language ideologies and practices, I thought that it would be ideal to gather various sources of qualitative data, such as recordings of online lessons, field notes, lesson materials, and teacher and student interviews. I incorporated ethnographic methods within a case-oriented research design (Bartlett & Vavrus, 2017) in order to systematically gather and organise the data. I was initially convinced that by amassing a plethora of data I would be able to effectively identify critical themes related to my research topic. But over time, this has proven to be problematic for a number of reasons. For instance, I have found it extremely difficult to manage huge amounts of qualitative data on my own. I also questioned my approach to data analysis: if my primary goal is to explore critical themes related to language ideologies and practices, will I then achieve this goal by watching and transcribing hundreds of hours of classroom recordings? Wouldn’t it be more sensible to just ask teachers and students about their thoughts on language teaching? And if I should insist on analysing the lesson materials used by the participating ESL instructors, then would I not inevitably be making normative judgements about their pedagogical practices? Throwing these difficult questions at myself allowed me to exert greater control over my research. For instance, I recently decided to forgo any attempt to evaluate my study participants’ lessons, classroom management practices, and teaching materials because this approach to data analysis would go against my positionality. I also felt that this would negatively affect the relationships I have built with the ESL instructors and partner LLCs.
Critical reflections on reflexivity and researcher positionality
While being reflexive has helped me exert greater control over my study, it has brought me much anxiety. I worry about how theories of language ideology and practices would affect my reading and interpretation of data. I doubt my ability to effectively use my data “to think with theory” (Jackson & Mazzei, 2014, p. vii). I fear that the emergence of new or unexpected findings would completely change the direction of my research. Truth be told, engaging in constant self-appraisal and critical evaluation has not done much to boost my confidence as a researcher. Sometimes I feel that being reflexive actually hinders me from doing research. Even Bucholtz (2000) admits that a high level of engagement with reflexivity runs the risk of the researcher “displacing the research as the centre of discussion” (p. 1463). But the line that separates the researcher from their work is often a blurry one. As mentioned by Brown (2010, p. 238), “a different researcher, or the same researcher in a different frame of mind, might write a different report from the same data” (cited in Dean et al., 2017). Hence, decisions about design and method selection should be made in light of the researcher’s social, cultural, political, and temporal positionality, wherever possible.
Often, research processes unfold and outcomes emerge in unpredictable ways. There are circumstances that cannot be regulated, manipulated, or tinkered with, no matter how reflexive, adaptable, and creative we may be. Needless to say, research is a human activity that remains deeply entrenched in relations of power, and so we must strive to take responsibility for the elements of research that we can control. By doing so, we uphold ethical standards in our practice, accord all study participants equal respect, and minimise harm (Sultana, 2007).
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Brown, A. (2010). Qualitative method and compromise in applied social research. Qualitative Research, 10(2), 229-248.
Choe, H.-S. (2016). Identity formation of Filipino ESL teachers teaching Korean students in the Philippines. English Today, 32(1), 5–11
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