Who are the authors? The challenges of positionality, partiality and reflexivity

All writing is inevitably positioned and partial. We all write from our experience, our history, our politics. But this does not mean that we can never engage critically with empirical realities. In our acceptance of a social constructivist take on knowledge, we should not resort to a desperate relativism where anything goes. There are plenty of philosophical traditions – critical realism being the most prominent – that help us think about how to balance commitment to empirical investigation with critical reflection on positionality, and so the inevitable partiality of any exploration of complex realities. This requires transparency, accountability and reflexivity in research and writing.

This is of course particularly important when engaging with a subject as contested as land reform in Zimbabwe. In our book, we attempted to do this up-front in the Preface and Acknowledgements. As well as our declarations of institutional affiliation and funding from the UK government (ESRC and DFID), we had this (page ix):

“The Livelihoods after Land Reform project research team in Zimbabwe was led by Dr Nelson Marongwe, an urban and rural planner, of the Centre for Applied Social Sciences Trust in Harare. He has been supported by Professor Ian Scoones, originally an agricultural ecologist, based at IDS, and Dr Chrispen Sukume, an agricultural economist from the University of Zimbabwe. The Masvingo province field team was led by B.Z. Mavedezenge, formerly the regional team leader of the Farming Systems Research Unit (FSRU) of the Department for Research and Specialist Services in the Ministry of Agriculture, but now of the Agritex (agricultural extension) department in Masvingo. He is also an A1 resettlement farmer in the province. He worked with Felix Murmibarimba, formerly also of FSRU and then Agritex, but now a full-time A2 sugar cane farmer in Hippo Valley, and Jacob Mahenehene, who farms in the communal areas near Chikombedzi, as well as having a new resettlement plot in an informal site in Mwenezi district”.

Roger Southall in his review of the book in Africa Spectrum picked up on this:  “It is interesting, in this regard, to note that three of the authors, Blaise (sic) Mavedzenge, Jacob Mahenehene and Felix Murimbarimba, are themselves beneficiaries of the land reform”. He continues: “There is certainly nothing wrong with this, and the research probably would have been impossible to conduct without their ability to negotiate the political and administrative landscape. But it does raise the question of whether their backgrounds shaped, blunted or constrained the political judgements of the research team as a whole”. In a similar vein, Blair Rutherford in his excellent review in the Journal of Contemporary African Studies (a forthcoming blog will discuss this in more detail), argues that “the authors’ positioning of the book as a detached promotion of the empirical realities contradicts their textured analyses of contested histories and masks their own politics”.

These are interesting commentaries reflecting directly on the challenges of positionality, partiality and reflexivity in authorship. On the following page to the quote above, we state:

“The research team came from very different backgrounds, with different experiences, outlooks and political persuasions. It made for an interesting, but productive, dynamic. We were always there to challenge each other’s assumptions and biases, but what held the group together was the commitment to explore the empirical realities on the ground, and root our analysis and policy recommendations in such solid evidence”.

Revealingly, neither Southall nor Rutherford particularly picked up on this passage. Yet this was an attempt – perhaps inadequate – to be honest about the challenges of being positioned, but also to describe how we managed a reflexive process as an authorial group. Multiple authorship is challenging at the best of times, but it is especially so when interpretations are politically charged and contested. This is why we presented the book in a highly empirical way, while still engaging critically with the interpretations. The myths-realities contrast became the device to present these, with the aim of raising the debate about what happened during land reform. In this, as both Rutherford and Southall remark, we succeeded.

Southall argues that land reform beneficiaries on the team may have coloured our judgement. I would beg to differ. Our methods and process of analysis would not have allowed for this, and as explained above we always engaged in a collective debate about findings. It has been implied that we had a bias towards ZANU-PF politics in our team, but this is not the case either. Around the 2008 elections, I recall that of those who could vote, we had one strong MDC-T supporter, one ZANU-PF (but not Mugabe for president) supporter, one Makoni supporter, and two who were equivocal, and said they probably would not vote at all. As for myself, I cannot vote in Zimbabwe, but would not count myself as a supporter of any political formation – indeed, as these blogs show, I am critical of them all!

Given backgrounds, politics and interests, it is therefore not surprising that the group did not agree with everything! It is also why, particularly at that time, it was not easy to write about the wider political context, and some of the political implications of our findings. This is a valid criticism of the book, made by both reviewers. This is now easier, given the passage of time and the change in political dynamic post 2009, and it is reflected, I hope, in our more recent writings which I will discuss in a forthcoming blog on ‘Missing Politics?’

Meanwhile, I would defend our methodological stance and our findings, and object to the dismissal of our research for example by David Moore as showing only ‘positivist rectitude’. Of course any study will be positioned and partial, but a reflexive approach, combined with a critical stance, surely allows some valid insights from empirical study that cannot be so easily dismissed as simply emerging from personal, political or professional biases. I am all for revealing these, and discussing them explicitly. I wish some more of the commentators on Zimbabwe did so too!

 

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3 responses to “Who are the authors? The challenges of positionality, partiality and reflexivity

  1. Pingback: Missing politics? | zimbabweland

  2. Pingback: When is research ‘really authoritative’? Challenges of evidence, authorship and positionality in research on Zimbabwe’s land reform | zimbabweland

  3. Pingback: Documentaries on land reform in Zimbabwe | zimbabweland

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