England (1994) argues that research is a process not a product and Bourke (2014) expands this concept to explain that the research process continues as the researcher reflects on the data collection, the findings and the implications. Qualitative research positions the researcher as the gatekeeper for data collection and analysis and, thus, the researcher’s identity in regards to cultural background, gender, race, socioeconomic status and other identifying characteristics are variables that can affect the entire research process as these characteristics shape and influence how an individual interprets and processes information (Bourke, 2014). Accordingly, a level of reflexivity on behalf of the researcher is important to understand how one’s subjectivity can influence the research and dissemination of findings (Bourke, 2014). Reflexivity involves applying close inspection on the shared space and relationship between the researcher and participant (Bourke, 2014; Mullings, 1999).
Positionality refers to the perspective of the researcher or participant that is shaped by one’s unique mix of identifying characteristics (Mullings, 1999). Positionality theory often contains discussions of insider/outsider participant divides. Insider position refers to a researcher who shares similar cultural, linguistic, ethnic, national and/or other characteristics to that of the research participant whereas an outsider does not (Ganga and Scott, 2006). There are advantages and disadvantages associated with both positions (Mullings, 1999; Ganga and Scott, 2006).
I had assumed that my positionality as a white, American, female, middle class and postgraduate student would always be an outsider position in that I was interviewing participants from different cultures, ethnicities and educational backgrounds, however, my identities and positionality proved more complex during my time in India. The research literatures concerning positionalities of researcher and participant in regards to power often focus on the situation in which the researcher is in a position of power (Mullings, 1999). However, my sample of elite researchers and policy stakeholders had more power in socioeconomic status, experience, career accomplishments and I was wholly dependent upon their status, knowledge and opinions for my data.
Although I felt the power differential in all of the interviews, I did so more with male economists. India is a patriarchal country and I was constantly aware of my diminished status as a single female. However, this positionality did enable me to feel more comfortable with female participants. Several female participants talked about safety issues with me and warned me that it was very unsafe at night for women in India, in particular, if not in a large group. One participant gave me her personal mobile telephone number and encouraged me to phone her at any time if I experienced any safety problems. These candid conversations—while very concerning—did enable me to feel partially accepted as an insider in that we were both women in a male dominated environment. I remember one female participant who I admired greatly stated twice in our time together that she thought I was very brave for traveling to India alone to conduct my research. Thus, with female participants I felt more comfortable and more of an insider and this may have impacted the data gathering process in that I may have, unknowingly, participated more in the interview and asked more follow up questions in comparison to male participants with whom I felt more uncomfortable.
At times, I did worry that my position as a researcher from a developed country studying “development issues” might have caused participants to perceive me in a negative light. I remember two participants, in particular, were quite curt at times and I wondered if my ethnicity played any part in their apparent annoyance. After trying to elicit a conversation regarding social policies and economic growth, one participant stated, “Oh that is such a vague notion to make…it’s not that we don’t understand that social policy can help economic growth…” and he went on to explain budgetary constraints and other logistical problems of social welfare in India. His comment made me feel that I was coming across as a ‘white woman from the West trying to figure out what India is doing wrong’. Another participant stated, “You cannot ask that question, I will answer what is holding back manufacturing growth not the economy.” On both occasions I felt scorned and I may have held back in asking clarifying questions in comparison with other interviews where I felt more comfortable. Had my interviews been standardised rather than non-standardised, these issues may not have had the same impact. Although I hoped participants would not perceive me negatively because I was from the USA (and a university in the UK), the ways in which I interacted with participants was based on my own experiences as a citizen of a developed country and the ways in which I perceive issues of development. As I analysed the data and looked for emergent themes, I did so, inevitably, with a perspective shaped, in part, by my identity as a white, American woman.
However, my nationality as an American and ‘not from India’ did facilitate my feelings of an insider position with other participants who were not from India. Four participants were not from India and during these interviews; participants would discuss India as an “other”. During these interviews, I felt I shared a commonality with these participants in that we were both researching India from an outside perspective. One participant who had a high ranking position with a neoliberal IGO responsible for monitoring the economic performance of member countries was of Indian-Asian ethnicity and American nationality. I had assumed, however, prior to our meeting that we would not have many commonalities largely due to my sociological background and beliefs which can be sceptical of neoliberal ideology. However, his American nationality permitted me to feel we had more in common than I had anticipated. He indicated that he had only been in India for seven months and he spoke of India from an outsider position. For example he stated, “In all the places I have worked, I have never seen such swings from absolute despair to euphoria depending on what is happening in the markets...as much as I have seen in India.” I believe that he felt a commonality with me as well and even openly shared that his wife was a sociologist. Here our shared nationality, I felt, enabled me to feel more of an insider with him than I had anticipated.
My identity as a doctoral candidate from a sociological perspective was an interesting dynamic. The majority of participants discussed my thesis with me at the beginning of our meeting; many even asked detailed questions regarding the research design. I felt that my status as a postgraduate student enabled me to acquire access to interviews as participants often recalled some of their experiences when they were “in the same position.” This enabled me to feel somewhat of an insider, however, my positionality as a student of sociology studying FDI was brought up and specifically mentioned by nearly every participant. At times participants expressed support for multidisciplinary research. However, others appeared to find this simply perplexing. To be honest, continually discussing why I chose to investigate FDI became a little draining and continually reminded me of my outsider position with participants from other academic and research disciplines. Furthermore, I sometimes felt that some economists perceived me to be out of my depths. However, these feelings also resulted, no doubt, due to my own feelings of inadequacies and self-doubt that arose from the culture shock of India, elite interviewing and conducting ‘doctoral’ research all of which were new and intimidating experiences. On the other hand, this outsider position could have also afforded me advantages. At times I felt the participants who were economists took more time to explain their opinions and deconstruct these for me. My position as a sociology student as well as being from a different country may have promoted the participants to give me more information because he/she could not assume that I automatically possessed insider information.
My sociological position also permitted me to feel more of an insider with participants who were activists and/or came from human rights disciplines. One activist heavily involved in the movement to stop FDI in multi-brand retail invited me to two marches and informed me of two very helpful conferences that were taking place in New Delhi.
Finally, my sample of participants all had middle and upper class socioeconomic status. Having a sample with participants with the same socioeconomic status does create problems of representativeness. Although many of the participants’ research focuses on inequalities, empowerment, pro-poor growth and informal labour sectors, the researchers themselves are from the top castes and socioeconomic status in India and, as discussed above, positionality impacts the research process. Thus their ethnicity and socioeconomic status will play a role in their research however accomplished they may be in the field. Thus, the data from the interviews has filtered through two separate perceptual lenses—the participant’s as well as my own— both shaped by a unique mix of positionality and identity.