Positionality of a “native” researcher

January 5, 2018

In November 2017, I came to my homeland—the southern Indian state of Kerala—to conduct my dissertation research. I am visiting India after two years, and in these two years, I did not realize how I internalized the ebb and flow of the graduate student life at the University of Iowa. Although based in the small town of Iowa City, the graduate student life there was what I thought fast-paced, with regular work deadlines. Typically, one doesn’t really notice this pace, until one is outside that environment. And so I have, after coming to Kerala. This is not to say that there are no deadlines now, but everything around me has slowed down—something I realize in everyday conversations with people, in the “long” bus and train journeys to meet my subjects. It has taken me days, perhaps weeks, to come to terms with the pace of life in Kerala.

I had a complicated relationship with my homeland. Although I trace my lineage to Kerala, I have never lived here for more than a few months. I was raised in the North Indian city of Jaipur, 2000 miles away from Kerala. During my travels in this narrow sliver of land, the inhabitants of this state (called Malayalis) have considered me as an “outsider.” This is a bit surprising, because Indians outside Kerala consider me as a Malayali! At any rate, as I am doing my fieldwork, oftentimes I wonder about my positionality as a researcher. I seem to be fluent in conversations in the local language Malayalam, but struggle when the interviewee speaks in Malayalam that is too “literary,” as with one subject, the other day.

Anthropologist Charles Briggs famously advised researchers to master what he termed as the “meta-communicative patterns” of the community being studied. These patterns mainly refer to cultural codes—the ways of talking, behaving, and integrating with the norms and values of the society. Because of my relationship to Kerala, I certainly knew some of these “meta-communicative patterns,” but periodically, in my field research, they also seemed to escape me, perhaps as a result of spending bulk of the time outside the state. The solution, as Briggs recommended, is to recruit people or “small-town intellectuals” who apparently share some of the meta-communicative patterns with researchers. I would say that I have so far partly followed this recommendation. For the most part, however, I have relied on direct dealings with my interviewees—and it seems to be working, after a jittery start!

I will close this post by saying that positonalities are fluid. Categories such “native” or “outsiders” are opposite poles of a continuum, and usually a researcher’s identity falls somewhere in between these poles. Moreover, that precise position is not fixed; it is mobile, such as becoming more “native” from “outsider” with the time spent within a community. As such, this talk about “positionalities” seems to be reserved for anthropologists, but I think even communication scholars doing field research think about it. It’s useful to engage in these reflections every now and then.

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