In search of identity

Ruth Johnson contemplates the fluidity of academic researcher identity

Who am I now? This is a question I asked myself a lot over the past few years while completing my doctoral research. I should explain: I undertook my research and wrote the bulk of my thesis while I was managing the AQA GCSE English qualifications. My research project, completed in my spare time, investigated the relationships between policy, practice and assessment in relation to the GCSE English assessments, with a particular focus on how the assessment operates with regards to social equity.

Who am I now?

As I was undertaking a qualitative piece of research, focussing on how people interact with the GCSE English assessment in different ways, I interviewed teachers, students and senior examiners. Cue the question ‘who am I now?’: I was simultaneously a manager working on GCSE English and a doctoral researcher scrutinising GCSE English. Not only that, but I was a former English teacher interviewing English teachers. And, I was a manager of senior English examiners interviewing senior English examiners. So was I an outsider/researcher looking in at assessment practice? Or an insider/assessment practitioner looking out at educational practice? Or something in between?

And what of the students? I work for the awarding organisation they were taking their exams with. I directly managed the exams they were taking. How does that affect my positioning as a researcher? There are no easy answers but what I found important was the act of asking the questions. It meant that as a researcher I was alert to the dynamics of the research relationships.

Liquid identity

Thomson and Gunter (2011) write, helpfully, about the concept of liquid researcher identity (after Bauman, 2004), suggesting that identity is not fixed but fluid, continually changing. Being aware that identity can and does shift during the research process helped me to feel comfortable with my positioning and to view it as an inevitable and necessary part of the ‘mess’ of research.

This led me to a realisation that in a number of ways my fluid positioning was helpful. As an ‘insider’ to both the world of school and the world of assessment I understood the contexts of both: I knew which questions to ask and what the answers meant. Furthermore, as an ‘insider’ my relationships with the senior examiners and the teachers were helpful – they trusted me and, I think, felt they could talk openly with me. On the flip side, as an outsider/researcher I was able to shift to a position of distance necessary to analyse sensibly the data my interviews generated.

Back to the future

And now that I am a CERP researcher the question hasn’t gone away. If anything it’s got more complex. CERP’s research covers many aspects of education and assessment but has a particular focus on the assessment instruments owned by its parent company AQA. So, what is our positioning as researchers with regards to the assessments we focus on in our research? Or to the teachers, students and examiners we might ask to help us? There are no straightforward answers but we need to keep asking the question: who are we now?

Ruth Johnson

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