Session DV10: Positionality, Purpose, and Methodology in Social Media Research


Speakers: Dr. Laura Gonzales, Lizzy Nichols, Chandler Mordecai, Anwesha Chattopadhyay, Daun Fields, Motunrayo Ogunrinbokun, Judy Colindres, Maria Arcangel (all University of Florida)

Dr. Laura Gonzales framed the virtual lightning talks in this session by introducing key words– positionality, power, and privilege– citing both Baniya (2022) on the limitations of deploying Western methodologies and perspectives to understand networked interactions developed by non-Western communities and indigenous activist Janet Chávez Santiago on the particular importance of positionality when engaging with communities “whose knowledges and experiences are consistently extracted.” The projects shared by roundtable participants emerged from a recent University of Florida rhetoric and social media-themed graduate/undergraduate seminar, which also featured guest scholars joining the course over Zoom to talk not only about their work, but also about how their identities shape not only how they look at the work, but how they define, collect, and analyze data. Members of the class then developed projects tracing a social media event; they also described and reflected on their methods, methodologies, and positionalities.

In each of the mini-presentations offered by participants, the scholar shared their name, project title, research question(s),  methodology, methods, and positionality. I will summarize each project below before discussing their broader trends and contributions to our shared understanding and practice of positionality. 

  • Judy Colindres shared a project entitled “Rhetorics of Resistance: Examining Positionality in #DisruptTexts Dialogue and Criticism,” studying a hashtag originated by women of color and used by other English and language arts (ELA) educators to talk about anti-racist pedagogy, critical literacy, and centering Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) voices in the classroom. Colindres, a white Hispanic female scholar who strives to decenter whiteness, used intersectional feminism and critical race theory to study rhetorics that advocate and resist #DisruptTexts’s efforts to diversify literature in ELA classrooms. Critics, she concluded, worked to reframe those efforts as an attempt to remove “classic” literature from the classroom. #DisruptTexts users often used sarcasm and emojis to resist that framing.

  • Chandler Mordecai shared a project called “#Anxiety: A Multimodal Discourse Analysis of Narrations of Anxiety on TikTok.” She invoked her own anxiety diagnosis and avid use of Tiktok as positionalities guiding this project, in which she coded the top 10 videos ranked by TikTok with #anxiety (ranked by the algorithm by likes, comments, shares), ultimately identifying two themes: videos that feature calming practices to relieve anxiety, and personal testimony videos, which narrate the creator’s experiences with anxiety. She emphasized the multi-directionality of Tiktok’s affordances– hashtags create community and archives as well as targeting the algorithm, enabling content creators to shape public discourse about anxiety and mental health.

  • Lizzy Nichols offered a project entitled “Digital Homesteaders and the Settler Colonial Project in the 21st Century.” Nichols wove land acknowledgement into her description of positionality; she identified herself as a settler colonist from O’odham Jewed land, now living in Mascogo and Timucua land, and chose to focus on white settler rhetoric on instagram because of her own white settler positionality. Like the other scholars, Nichols described the time and tag parameters of her data collection; explicitly differentiating methodology (an approach) and methods (strategies of data collection, management, and analysis). She argued that among white settlers engaged in “digital homesteading,”  products of the land are decontextualized, and history is invoked, but its denotations ignored.

  • Anwesha Cattopodhyay described her project, “Cyber-Santali: Linguistic Reconsolidation through Online Santali Language Learning,” focusing on four apps designed for learning Santali, a language common in India as well as Bangladesh and elsewhere. Her methodology included collaboration and citation of non-White, non-Western scholars/creators  identifying biases associated with her own positionality as a Bengali woman from an area with a large Santali community who is also Indian, queer, hetero-passing, “upper” caste, and West/English-educated; and transparency in providing a copy of her interview questions to the interviewee. After analyzing the apps, comments in apps and videos, and interviewing an app creator, Cattopodhyay concluded that creators and users consider themselves “stakeholders in the knowledge creation process” particularly negotiating the absence of a common Santali script.

  • Motunrayo Ogunrinbokun presented “#Nobodylikewoman: Exploring Feminist Constructions in Digital Space,” which explored how women undertake feminist rhetorical action through the hashtag originated by Nigerian singer Simi. She used a methodology of womanism and methods including collecting tagged posts and comments, interviewing women on instagram, and data analysis through networked coding. Ogunrinbokun identified herself as a Nigerian woman whose experiences were reflected in the tagged content, but acknowledged that she had to negotiate her Western education by holding space for interviewees to define feminism for themselves and conducting interviews in Nigerian languages with which research subjects were comfortable. 

  • Maria Rizza Arcangel shared a project titled “Netflix’s Sensation: Squid Game,” following social media responses to the September 2021 Netflix original series. Arcangel identified herself as a Southeast Asian woman of the diaspora, invoking that identity as a motivating interest for her study of Asian media. Using instagram mentions, actor follower counts, tiktok trends, and posts translated from the Korean, Arcangel contended that the show has amplified discussion of political and cultural issues in South Korea and among the diaspora, including war crimes, debt crises, elder poverty, union activity, treatment of migrant workers, and organized crime.

  • Finally, Daun Fields presented “#ClosedPractice on Tiktok,” following a hashtag used to debate cultural practices of smudging with white sage, an indigenous practice taken up by white people and Tiktok creators. Through discursive textual analysis, Fields explored instances of colonialist rhetoric and intersectional feminism. She described her methodology as communal care theory, which draws on concepts of relationshality from global, indigenous, feminist, and disability studies. In her positionality description, Fields invoked her identities as a queer, white, U.S. scholar as well as sharing her work as a musician and current focus in Victorian studies; she also spoke about her “stake” in the project, having owned and operated a witchcraft shop, stocking and using white sage until she became aware of indigenous social media creators posting about colonial histories and appropriation of cultural practices of smudging.

In her lightning talk, Fields described methodology as a lens through which to view a subject, rather than something that maps neatly onto a project or text and identified the ways that the specific methodology she chose guided her attention. In the concluding discussion, Fields surfaced the recurring theme of the discussion: whether you are conscious of it or not, the methodology you choose reflects your own values and beliefs. Judy Colindres further discussed the value of attending to our positionality not just as researchers but as social media users and consumers ourselves, as well as the positionalities of users under study, while Dr. Gonzales articulated the tensions surrounding both self-identification and perception: positionality is not just how you see yourself but also how others see you and your connection to the users and topic you discuss. The panel’s thesis was offered by Colindres: “even though it is not always clearly identified in digital spaces, [positionality]is always present.”

These scholars offer helpful a range of accessible models to negotiate positionality, methodology, and methods in social media research and an effective introduction for new scholars and students in similar courses. In their discussion of positionality, scholars primarily invoked identities or experiences that had motivated their pursuit of the subject area of their study, as well as acknowledging identities that placed them at particularly fraught remove from the social media users and phenomena under examination. They described the selection of methodologies that both reflected their values– e.g., Colindres’ use of critical race theory and her stated goal of decentering whiteness– and mitigated the power dynamics between researcher and subject– like Ogunrinbokun’s approach of asking Nigerian women to offer their own definitions of feminism, rather than imposing a definition drawn from the Western academy. The brief presentations opened questions about how the researcher’s identities not only motivated their choice of topic and shaped their data collection, but also shaped their interpretation of that data. Though I was unable to attend the in-person facilitated discussion accompanying this virtual roundtable, I hope that in that space and in future Computers & Writing fora, these scholars lead robust discussions about negotiating our identities in our use and study of social media through all phases of the research process. 

About Author

Kathryn Van Zanen

Kathryn Van Zanen is a PhD student in English and Education at the University of Michigan. Her research interests center on how writing instruction trains students to think about their political and civic identities.

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