Khadeegha Alzbouebi

As researchers we need to maintain an informed reflexive consciousness to
contextualise our own subjectivity in data interpretation and representation of
experiences in the research process. Self-reflexivity promotes the
reconciliation of personal motivations for conducting research and the extent of
accountability owed to the population studied. Since no research, using any
mode of inquiry, has no point of view and since research is not a value-free
exercise, the challenge is not to eliminate but to document the effects of
personas that influence our behaviour and positionality. As researchers we need
to be committed to showing our place in the setting being investigated. We
need to carefully monitor our position in the research process, and the
relationship with the informants, which is critical to maintaining a focus on the
research agenda. Hence as self-reflexive researchers it is important that we
maintain a research agenda to secure a forum for informants to express, be
accountable to and defend and validate knowledge claims. I offer my own
reflections below as an Arabic speaking female from a Jordanian heritage
doctoral student researching multilingual women’s social literacy practices in the
Yemeni community in South Yorkshire.

In any qualitative research study that seeks to give meaning to participants’
voices, it is important to remember that the interpretation and process of
inquiry can be influenced by the researchers’ social and cultural identities. I
faced and continue to face a number of challenges and opportunities as a result
of my positionality in the current research. I have come to recognise how
significant individual and cultural contexts allow access, rapport, and trust to
groups of multilingual female learners.
The insider-outsider position is sometimes seen as an epistemological principle
centred on the issue of access. From the literature I have reviewed in my study
it seems that issue of access can take two forms. One is a ‘monopolistic access’
(Merton, 1972), in which the researcher possess exclusive knowledge of the
community and its members, or where the researcher has privileged access, in
which he or she has a claim to the hidden knowledge of the group that an
outsider as a ‘professional stranger’ who is detached from the commitments of
the group under study would be unable to access (Agar, 1996). In this sort of
framework the insider is an individual who possesses intimate knowledge of the
community and its members, and the general assumption in the literature is that
this intimate knowledge offers insights that are at times difficult or impossible
to access by an outsider. The values of shared experience, greater access,
cultural interpretation, and deeper understanding and clarity of thought, are
closely tied together and inform one another in a variety of ways. As an insider
I am also able to interpret the Yemeni culture; having a shared understanding of
the normative rules of the community contributes to minimizing marginalisation.
An ability to utilize insiderness to create a rapport relatively free from
tensions contributes to the legitimacy of the research in the eyes of the
informants. This also helps to facilitate a shared knowledge of the normative
rules, values and belief systems. I and my research informants come from
different class positions in our respective countries of origin but in the UK we
have, to a certain extent been homogenised under the gaze of a hegemonic
cultural identity that partially erases class within the more general category of
‘Other’. This in turn impacts on the concept of Britishness as we daily
experience it. Our Britishness to a certain extent is constructed for us by being
subject to the gaze of others. Our adoption of Islamic dress marks us Muslims;
as ‘other’ and that visibility constructs us as outsiders, a commonality that cuts
across our own class and geographical locations. In relation to the meanings
attached to an over-riding Arab culture and shared ‘insiderness’, in terms of
gender relations, class, rural/urban orientation our identities get flattened and
erased, excess being replaced with singularity. I am an insider in this sense for
my research informants because of my outsider status in the eyes, hearts and
minds of people who view all Muslim women as a possible threat in the light of
7/11 and other terrorist attacks. Under this all other differences are subsumed
and I would suggest that all our identities as Arabic women have been
transformed by being subject to a gaze that at best regards us as being
different and as not belonging.
There are issues concerning the conceptual definition of insiderness and its
relationship to outsiderness, and the search to understand why insiderness is
considered revealing in an epistemological manner that is considered
inaccessible to an outsider. As an Arabic speaking researcher I may be seen to
have advanced cultural knowledge of the community; which serves as a source of
understanding that informs the researcher. However, no matter where we are
positioned as researchers, we should not disregard questioning one’s own inside
knowledge. As a researcher who shares cultural, linguistic and ethnic identities
with my informants, I still had to negotiate objectivity and accuracy before I
entered the research setting with the same rigour as any other researcher,
whether I had easier access to the research field or not. However these
advantages are not absolute and it is important to be aware of ethical and
methodological dilemmas associated with entering the field, positioning and
disclosing shared relationships and disengagements.
Reflecting on My Own Positionality
Looking through the literature on researcher positionality, I found it difficult
to find a term that best describes my positionality; a term that I felt
represented the role I play in the research. Reading through the literature on
insider, outsider, native, indigenous and marginal researcher, I still could not
find a term that seemed to fit. I came across the term ‘outsider within’ by
Collins (1998). This term seemed to describe researchers like myself who find
themselves between groups of unequal power. This unequal power stems from
the interaction of hierarchies of race, class, gender, and language. My social
location in specific historical contexts of race, gender, class and language
inequality needs to be explored to examine the influence this may have on the
research process and this examination needs to be made explicit.
There was a dimension of risk built into my research, one that I had not really
prepared for, and only became aware of later in the research. As a multilingual
researcher, information about me, my family, and my place in the community
became part of the research process. Disclosure reinforced the duality of my
role in the community, as an ‘outsider within’. My role as a researcher, and thus
an outsider, enabled the informants to ask about my education background,
experiences, and identity. My community membership meant that this kind of
information was significant to the informants in different ways. They were not
asking an ‘other’, or an ‘outsider’, they were asking a community member. And so
this dynamic status made the research relationship equalised in a different way
than that advocated by feminist methodologists with outsider status (Smith
1987, Oakley, 1991). I found that there were multiple ways that my membership
would be read. This demonstrates that my researcher identity was not one-
dimensional or certain, but needed to be negotiated.

To do justice to the research and to my informants, it was critical that I
examined my own positionality as a multilingual, ethnic, female researcher,
affiliated with a British institution, conducting ethnographic research with
Yemeni women in South Yorkshire. I often ask myself whether I have been too
involved with post-modernist discourse about presentations of selves and
identities. I also ask myself why do I continue to seek other ethnic minority
women in order to investigate their marginality, hybridity, resistance and
empowerment? However, I tend to find that the combination of my identity has
led me readily to people, most often ethnic multilingual women, who are from an
Arabic speaking background, and whom I perceive as being marginalized in terms
of educational opportunities. Nevertheless, other aspects of my identity, such
as my educational background, fluency in English and social class often set me
apart from the women. The shared points of cultural commonality and language
allow me to attain an emic rather than etic view. The dominance of women in my
study is another feature that fits with my identity as a female researcher, with
an interest in women’s studies. The shared cultural assumptions about gender
roles and the acceptability of certain behaviours within the Arab culture, the
value of shared experiences; greater access, cultural interpretation and deeper
understanding and clarity of thought, are all closely tied together and inform
one another in a variety of ways. The reasons for studying ‘my own kind’ that
represent common themes found in the nature of my identity and life
experiences as a marginalized ethnic minority female, motivated me to seek
more meaning about my own social identity. I was also motivated by the sense of
being constricted within the boundaries of traditional theoretical explanations
and conceptual frameworks that rarely spoke of ‘the stigmatised social identity
and educational experiences of minority women’ (Collins, 1986:34).

In my own research I have become increasingly aware of the contribution of the
different levels of my own cultural identity to my researcher ‘persona’. My own
macro-cultural frame of reference is an overarching cultural identity as a
person of Arabic-heritage, whereas the micro- cultures with which I identify
include Arabic and British cultural frameworks. Aspects of my identity have
lead to a persona, which I explore further in my study. My preference for
ethnographic and life history research has led to a persona where the
researcher maybe seen as advocate, and my preference for an inclusive and just
view of education has led to a persona that I label ‘critical researcher’. My
third persona is interested in the education and literacy practices of
multilingual women and some form of justice for them.
People’s social positions, cultural traditions and other factors influence their
identities and so there are different levels of distinction between insider and
outsider. However, these notions of difference between insider and outsider
are also subject to change. The fact that I was born into an Arabic community
means that both outsiders and insiders see me as an ‘insider’, but I feel that I
can only be considered as someone on the periphery. My position is on the
margins of Arabic society, of Yemeni traditional culture, and also of western
society. I am both someone inside (an Arabic speaker), and someone adrift
without (outside Yemeni society). In my particular situation I found it very
difficult to define the concepts of ‘insider’, ‘outsider’, and at times I felt that
this form of debate is inadequate in explaining the complexities of the insider
and outsider dichotomy; as Deutsch (1980; 123) explains ‘We are all multiple
insiders and outsiders’. The researcher’s positionality seems to be a process of
achievement rather than simply a positionality which is ascribed, a ‘process of
ongoing evaluation’ Deutsch (1980), which seems to be located somewhere,
always moving back and forth.
Finally, there still remains a need to develop a more sophisticated understanding
of the status of a researcher as both object and subject within qualitative
inquiry. Through reflections of my own positionality, I find that it is more
epistemologically beneficial to view researcher status not in terms of an
ascribed or achieved status, which gives the impression that one can actually
reach a final level of understanding, but in terms of a continuously shifting
positionality.
Translation Dilemmas: Reframing the Gaze
As a multilingual researcher involved in cross-cultural research, for me it is
fundamental that the act of translation/interpretation is explored and that the
epistemological implications of being the researcher and translator/interpreter
at the same time are examined. The debate on translation/interpretation in
research should involve the hierarchies of language, power, and the situated
epistemologies of the researcher, and issues around naming and speaking for
people who may be seen as ‘other’. In mainstream society, individuals who do not
speak the dominant language in that country became dependent on others to
speak for them; ‘speaking for others, in any language is a political issue, which
involves the use of language to construct self and other’ (Temple & Young,
2004:167).
Being the researcher and translator/interpreter, it is important that I situate
and engage myself with these issues, because they relate to my own
epistemological positions. As a multilingual individual, I have always lived my life
across languages, code switching, translating for my parents, and being involved
in the dilemmas of the translated worlds, this all being part of the way I have
learnt to communicate, all being entirely normal to me. The importance of
identifying the act of translation/interpretation was particularly important in
terms of exploring my epistemological position as the researcher. From reading
through various cross-cultural research studies, it seems that a discussion of
the epistemological and methodological issues around translation/interpretation
across languages has been neglected in cross-cultural research. An explanation
for this neglect could be because the status of the languages involved in the
research, the status of the speakers of such languages and the hierarchy of the
languages. As Temple and Young (2004) explain, ‘translation itself has power to
reinforce or to subvert longstanding cross-cultural relationships but that power
tends to rest in how translation is executed and integrated into research design
and not just in the act of translation per se’ (P167).
It has become a common trend that when reading literature on ethnic
communities in Britain, little reference is made to language issues,
translation/interpretation or even identification of the process of
translation/interpretation, and when reading interview data, the informants all
seem fluent English speakers. In this sort of research, as the reader I find
myself entirely lost in terms of understanding the research process, the
language used to collect and later interpret the data. As a reader I found it
very difficult to engage with such texts, particularly when there is no available
information on the research process and the source language or languages of
the research are seen as being obstacles that have been overcome and
controlled. This type of research where the researcher collects data and
presents it as a collection of facts from the informants, and where the
translator/interpreter, the act of translation/interpretation, the identity of
the researcher are seen to be irrelevant to the representation of the
informants and to the informants engagements with that representation
(Temple and Young, 2004).
Redefining the Dual Role: Researcher and Translator/Interpreter
It is important that as researchers we acknowledge our locations within the
social world, and explore how our locations influence the way we see things.
Temple and Young suggest that, ‘there is no neutral position from which to
translate’ (Temple & Young, 2004:164), therefore the power relationships within
research need to be acknowledged, whether it is the relationship between the
researcher and informants or between researcher and translator/interpreter.
The implications of multilingual informants of multilingual locations within
language hierarchies also need to be explored.
Researchers and academics with an interest in the power of the written word
and the process by which it is produced have argued that there is no single
correct translation/interpretation of a text, and as a multilingual researcher I
acknowledge that translation/interpretation is not about synonym, syntax and
definitely not a matter of finding the meaning of a text in a culture, by using a
dictionary, but in understanding that the language is ‘tied to local realities, to
literacy forms and to changing identities’ (Simon, 1996:137).
Through my own experiences in translation/interpretation I have come to learn
that communication across languages involves more than a literal transfer of
information, because the translator/interpreter is involved in discussing
concepts, ideas, positions which are all important part of the negotiation
process of ‘cultural meaning’. Dictionaries are not sufficient in trying to
establish an understanding across languages. Language involves values, beliefs,
concepts and thoughts, which may not have the same conceptual equivalence in
the language into which it is to be translated. During translation/interpretation,
I had to make decisions about the cultural meanings which language carried, and
spent a lot of time trying to evaluate the degree to which different worlds
inhibit the same meaning. In a similar way to a researcher, as a
translator/interpreter I see myself as active in the process and am accountable
to the way I represent the informants and their languages. In the current
study I am fluent in the languages of my informants, I have opportunities in
terms of research methods that may not necessarily be open to other
researchers in cross-language research. I am able to discuss points in texts
where I had to stop and think about the meaning, and a discussion of the
translation/interpretation process became a kind of a check to the validity of
interpretation (Young & Ackerman, 2001). This by no means produces texts
that are ‘absolute truths’, because as a researcher I am always situated in
complex social locations.
Through my dual role as researcher and translator/interpreter, the role seemed
to be shifting, and this was linked to how I am positioned. Researching from
inside the language of the informants is an emancipatory and epistemological
position that Ladd (2003:186) suggests ‘can only be fulfilled by the researcher-
translator/interpreter who shares the common culture of those researched’.
This however does no necessarily mean that the multilingual researcher
produces better research than the monolingual researcher, my research is just
different. In addition, being multilingual is not enough to enable me to
‘represent other’, because translation/interpretation is not just about ‘racial
matching’ of researcher with informants; as Twine (2000) points out, race and
ethnicity are not the only, or always the over-riding factors in
translation/interpretation work. In addition to being Arabic speaking and having
a certain degree of insiderness, my position was not as unproblematic as
expected, and as Twine (2000; 16) argues ‘difference may be a stimulator as
well as a block to communication’, which suggests a further epistemological and
ontological point:
We see, then that the utility of racial matching is contingent on the subordinate
person having acquires a particular subjectivity…. In my experience…researcher
presume that different ideological positions are attached to one’s location in
racial hierarchies. It should be evident, however that when racial subalterns do
not possess a developed critique of racism or idealize the racially privilege groups,
race matching may not be efficacious methodological strategy (Twine, 2000:16).
In research where translators/interpreters are employed, it is important to
consider whether the translator/interpreter is playing the role of an informant
or a ‘neutral and objective transmitter of messages’ (Temple & Young,
2004:167). Without an open dialogue with the translator/interpreter about
their views and perceptions of the issues being discussed, it becomes difficult
to allow for differences in understanding of words, concepts and worldviews
across languages. Hence, it is important that we report the
translator/interpreter’s involvement in the research process, since they have
also contributed to the knowledge being produced and they are also socially
positioned, this would also mean extending calls for reflexivity in cross-language
research with translators/interpreters.
As individuals, we are all positioned differently in the social world, and so we
begin to understand people as social actors. Because we are positioned
differently, there is not one way in which to describe our social worlds, but
many different ways. Our social locations influence our experiences and the
way we describe these experiences. Young (1997) argues that as researchers,
informants, and translators/interpreter we are all produces of dispositioned
accounts. We all have different stories to tell, different histories, and we
occupy different social positions, but we understand each other across
difference through dialogue (Young 1997).
To conclude, as researchers we need to be reflective of the ways in which we,
as individuals with social identities and particular perspectives, have an impact
on the interpersonal relations of fieldwork. This involves placing such
perspectives into wider contexts and considering the consequences for the
production of research accounts. This means being explicit about our own social
and political positions, making visible the translation/interpretation process and
being ‘accountable’, in addition to including translators/interpreter in debates
on reflexivity. As a multilingual researcher, I have come to learn that one
cannot assume that there are no problems in translating concepts across
languages, instead in my study I have spent time trying to make my dual
identities as translator/interpreter and researcher visible which have
highlighted some of the tensions in asking the researcher to represent the
‘other’. My multilingual identity has at times left me belonging and not
belonging, being on the borders and the periphery, then in the centre, my
locations continually shifting.

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