Qualitative Methods Intro 2: Ethics, Postionality

This post is part of a series of blogs offering a week-by-week account of my first year qualitative methods course. You can find them all under the tag GEO1018: Qualitative Methods

In the two part introduction to the module, my second lecture and seminar focus on ethics and positionality. My goal is that eventually I’ll go through a whole methods course without hearing that a qualitative method could be improved by being less ‘biased’; we’re not quite there but I have found that by getting in early how we work with rather than against subjectivity in qualitative analysis,  I can push the vast majority of the students to thinking more subtly about these methods.


At some point sooner rather than later, I’ll encounter a cohort of students who’ve never heard of some of these references…

It’s probably the most conceptual of the lectures in the course! Last week I skipped over some of the conceptual background to qualitative methods, so this week I start with a (very light) introduction to what, if we’re using isms, we’d call constructvism and interpretivism. My core points are that if the world is to some extent socially constructed, and that if social actors interpret the world meaningfully, we need to use qualitative methods to unpack how this meaning making shapes and reinforces or challenges these constructions.

I also include a short section on qualitative methods in physical geography; my go-to example is some of Carly Maynard’s work on river catchment managementwhich makes nice use of semi-structured interviews in an accessible way. Another really intriguing example is by Nyssen et. al.who use interviews in combination with contemporary measurements to assess gully erosion in a region of Ethiopia where local farmers are able to offer memories of past landscapes.

Most of the discussions of positionality are placed in the seminar; I briefly introduce it in the lecture, but then use the introduction of an excellent article by Farhana Sutlanato pose questions to students about positionality, particularly in relation to the projects that they will be doing where they interview fellow students; it’s nice to get them starting to think about positionality in these terms of insider/outsider, which I think is relatively accessible. The Sultana article in full is in Acme; the extract I use with questions for the students is here.

I also use adaptations of 5 ethical dilemmas that can be found in an ESRC Ethics guidebook online. I’ve simplified them a little and made them more geography focus – the actual slides I use with the examples are here. I find that this is quite a nice exercise in getting the whole seminar group involved; I can ask for a show of hands for some questions, and invite more of a discussion for others.


  1. Maynard, C. M. (2013). How public participation in river management improvements is affected by scale. Area45(2), 230-238.
  2. Nyssen, J., Poesen, J., Veyret‐Picot, M., Moeyersons, J., Haile, M., Deckers, J., … & Govers, G. (2006). Assessment of gully erosion rates through interviews and measurements: a case study from Northern Ethiopia. Earth Surface Processes and Landforms31(2), 167-185.
  3. Sultana, F. (2007). “Reflexivity, Positionality and Participatory
    Ethics: Negotiating Fieldwork Dilemmas in International Research.” ACME: An
    International E-Journal for Critical Geographies, 6(3), 374–385

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