Connecting the Dots: Researcher Positionality in Participant Observation

Aaminah Norris

Aaminah Norris

Editor’s Note: Aaminah Norris (@aaminahm) is just about to finish her PhD in the Graduate School of Education at UC Berkeley. She studies “critical making” and “design thinking” movements in an urban school, particularly the ways that its students use design thinking to develop methods to negotiate their racial and gender identities, which in turn relates to their self-efficacy. We’re excited to hear her perspectives on ethnographer positionality as a researcher and a woman of color as a contribution to this month’s theme on ethnography in education.

Ethnographic researchers all have to deal with issues of ethnographer positionality. Participant observers must make on-the-ground decisions about how much of their relationships to the communities that they research is participation and how much is observation, contributing to debates about the role of ethnographers. As a researcher of color whose background mirrors those of some of the individuals I study, I have had to make many such decisions about my positionality.  Sometimes, though, the participants in the community made this decision for me.

Diversity Image
The following narrative illustrates ways in which my participation was informed by the teachers at my field site.  I will relate a snapshot of my ethnographic field note data collected during participant observation of one teacher professional development training.

My research site, which I call Dimension (all names of locations and people have been provided pseudonyms), is the first charter school of its kind in its city. The school was born out of a desire to better serve low-income Latino and African American students, and the mission of the school is to use design thinking in order to encourage student learning. Design thinking is a 21st century pedagogical approach that calls for the development of tangible artifacts to solve complex problems, artifacts which tend to be digitally mediated. The administrators developed quarterly design thinking professional development sessions for teachers.

This particular design training was on diversity, and took place over the course of two days. The majority of the faculty consisted of people of color. Shanice, the facilitator of the training session, instructed all twenty of us to close our eyes as she placed a colored dot on each of our foreheads. We were informed that, although we were not able to see our dots and could not speak, we were to form groups with other faculty. Everyone started milling around the room making eye contact and seeking some sort of acknowledgement. For several moments I found none.

I looked across the room at Ms. Maya, the Director of Teacher Training, with whom I had met on several occasions.  She seemed to be standing outside of the activity making no attempt to find her group as she had been instructed. Suddenly, another teacher turned to me; he pointed at his head and then pointed at Ms. Maya. He did so to indicate that she and I were in the same group. Her dot was orange. This must have meant that mine was as well. I walked over to Ms. Maya smiling, as I was glad to have found my partner. She smiled back at me and then looked away. By the time I had reached her, I discovered that everyone else had formulated groups. Some of them were larger than mine. Teachers and staff members corralled themselves into groups as large as six, all of them having the same color dots. There were three teachers that remained without partners: one who had the only pink dot in the room, and two whose dots were two-tone. They had not quite figured out how to find their partners when the facilitator informed us that our time was up.

Teachers went around the room unpacking the experience. Those who had found larger groups responded that they felt relieved because they were a part of something. One of the teachers, Mr. Fred, who wore a two-tone dot, said, “even though I didn’t know the color of my dot, I went around trying to hook other people up. You both have blue so boom, there you go. Like I pointed to Principal Vargas and let him know that his dot is green and look there is green on the board.” Principal Vargas responded, “I did not like that. I did not appreciate being told where to go and what group I was in.” Mr. Jackson replied, “I was just trying to help you out there, brother.” Shanice interjected, “What would you have preferred, Mr. Vargas?” Mr. Vargas responded, “I would have liked for things to happen more organically. I wanted to figure out my group without someone telling me where I had to go.” Principal Vargas surmised that he would have been able to find his group without assistance.

Then Ms. Maya chimed in saying, “I felt the same way. I did not like being told who I was in a group with. I was purposefully trying to stand outside of the group because I knew from planning this activity how it would make me feel.” Shanice turned to Ms. Maya asking, “And how did it make you feel?” “Triggered,” Ms. Maya said.

Shanice then turned to me and asked, “You were in a group with Ms. Maya and she was not really attempting to participate. How did you feel?” I said that I felt uncomfortable because as I looked around I saw that others had larger groups. There I was with only one partner who did not really seem like she wanted to take part in the activity. I felt isolated.

Shanice described to the teachers that students have these feelings all of the time. She asked them what types of dots might students wear at this school. Teachers began to point out that students would group up by race, ethnicity, gender, and grade level.


Later, I reflected on my experience in the training, as well as how my relationship to this research was influenced by my role as a participant observer. As a researcher, I had attempted to establish relationships with my study participants in order to better understand their lived experiences – one of the goals of ethnography. Participants informed me that they viewed me as a member of their school community.

However, being a part of a school community is complicated.  When researching, I am circumscribed by the observations and relationships available to me at my field site. These include my ability to build rapport with teachers and students that I study. I spent a lot of time on the ground in teacher professional development training sessions – so much time that a few of the non-focal teachers mistook me for a teacher, even though the focal teachers within this study assisted me with making my role clear to their students. I was constantly balancing these feelings of being part of the community, yet being separate – a feeling that Ms. Maya brought home in our exercise.

I selected Dimension for multiple reasons that align to my own personal experiences and practice as an educator and woman of color. I was made aware of Dimension as a school that would support Latino and African American students from parents and other activist community members with whom I have worked. I found that as an African American woman, I had to be particularly reflective in my work and research especially as it pertained to African American students in this urban school.

Collins (1999) has argued that black women hold a special relationship to research as they have historically held relationships in which they were positioned as both insider (as caregiver) and outsider (due to their racial makeup).  Collins’s references to the “outsider within” stance pertain to historical depictions of African American women. It became evident to me that historicity played a role in my interactions when Ms. Maya expressed feeling “triggered.” She was speaking of previous experiences of isolation as a result of her status as a mixed-race Black and Chinese woman. I have experienced similar feelings of isolation as a result of my experiences as a woman of color, but I tried to use these feelings as a tool in my research: my goal was to be sensitive to both mine and their perceptions, to consciously use my ethnographer positionality as an asset.

My participants allowed me into their community. Building a trusting relationship with them meant that I had to continue to reflect on my involvement and assist them with reflection too, even when the reflection could be troubling, isolating or even triggering, like Ms. Maya and I both experienced in different ways in the exercise. I found that in connecting the dots between research and participation, I had to strike a balance between understanding meaning-making and building rapport – balancing my role as an “outsider within.”

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  1. July 2013: Ethnography in Education | Ethnography Matters - July 28, 2013

    […] and students use both to negotiate their transnational, racialized and gender identities. Here, she will discuss a particular professional training session that teachers participated in, focused on diversity. Aaminah also takes a reflexive look at […]

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