Notebook

Confessions of a Muslim Researcher – Considering Identity in Research (Publicity)

By Maisha Islam

In this Research Note, I discuss some of the contentions I have faced when conducting research with Muslim students. As a Muslim myself, I initially believed it to be advantageous in conducting research with a community I also belong to. However, I was not prepared to question fundamental parts of my identity as I was conducting this research and throughout the research process.

Although my piece for the International Journal of Social Research Methodology has been reworked for publication, this paper originally emerged from a module I was taking looking at theory and ethics in Educational Practice as part of my professional doctorate in Education programme. This module gave me the opportunity to unpack the tensions I had faced in a safe and structured way, where I could delve into the literature exploring researcher identity whilst situating my own experiences within it. Whilst there have been authors who have explored the double-edged sword of conducting insider research, I myself was not prepared for some of the experiences (and the emotions they brought) I had encountered.

The paper outlines three main issues I’ve considered when interviewing Muslim students about sense of belonging, provisions provided for them in relation to their religious needs, and whether or not they believe to have been settling for less in terms of their university experience. These issues included: whether or not I was using inappropriate means to gather Muslim student research participants; If I was simply over-representing my own experiences when I was an undergraduate student and applying it to a wider Muslim student population; And how I began to question not only my beliefs but also my sense of religiosity when meeting and interviewing a wide array of Muslim students.

Within the paper, I exemplify where and how these issues have manifested. In doing so, and at times, it felt vulnerable in having to take myself back to uncomfortable situations. For example, one particular interview with a student not only made me feel like my own views were ‘too liberal’ but I also questioned why I was undertaking research when I was opening myself up to conflictual encounters. Additionally, why was I undertaking research, with the core aim to better understand and improve Muslim student experience, when my participants (notably, only one) could not appreciate this?

However, the paper is able to detail how I as a researcher have been able to reconcile with these critical incidents’, and that the research process and journey is bound to be one which brings uncomfortable situations. I conclude that, as an early career researcher, it is imperative to not only be reflexive in acknowledging such situations but, to be confident in confronting these situations. It is hoped that researchers who are embarking on the start of their journeys (particularly Muslim researchers) are able to take away lessons from this research note about and be more prepared when going into their field.