Positionality refers to the steps taken by researchers to explain their ‘position’ in relation to their study, in other words how the study might be affected by their own particular background, beliefs and values. This will apply across any field: educational research is carried out by researchers who were once at school themselves; linguists were, and are, users of language; market analysts are themselves consumers of goods and services.
Positionality is always important but it becomes a more debated and sensitive issue when there is a greater asymmetry between the researcher and the researched. Here the researcher is facing not only problems of subjective interpretation but also gaps in background knowledge which might affect the very execution of a project. Mistry et al. (2008), for example, discuss very openly how a physical geography project to be undertaken in UK in collaboration with researchers in another country, Guyana, was made challenging by insufficient local knowledge, raising both practical and ethical issues. In another example, Huisman (2008: p372) discusses the tensions generated in her research with refugees in UK and seeking to balance ‘sometimes contradictory positionalities as a woman, a researcher, a friend, a graduate student, and as a person who was straddled between two classes’. Again this provokes both practical and moral dilemmas; as expressed in the title of the paper this left one respondent asking ‘does this mean you’re not going to come visit me anymore?’ at the close of the project.
Having a position which is different to those being researched does not mean we are incapable of understanding, in the sense of ‘make comprehensible’, the experience of others. Indeed, as a general point, if we could not ‘stand in another’s shoes’ then outside of autoethnography we might as well give up interpretive research as we will never be conducting research with people exactly like us. Positionality is important, because it helps us see the barriers and the limits on understanding.
Discussion of positionality remains a controversial area in social research. It is underplayed within the positivist tradition which either accepts the myth of value free observation or at least accepts it is as a pretence worth maintaining. After all, natural scientists do not state their position when investigating atomic particles and nor should social scientists when investigating people’s behaviour. At the other end of the spectrum post-modernist approaches to research sometimes explore at length the constraints of positionality and the impossibility of producing a value free narrative. In between these two ends of the spectrum most researchers struggle to find a comfortable midpoint, but are willing to be open about their background values and beliefs and to alert the reader for a possible slanting of the data in a preferred direction or, just as likely, an effort to over compensate in the opposite direction.
It is impossible to provide a full account of the implications of positionality but the researcher can provide exemplars, explaining, say, the importance of past professional experience for appreciating the significance of certain actions. In other words positionality is only useful if one’s position is reflected upon, and articulated with respect to its influence in terms of the research. This avoids the charge made by some critics that accounts of researchers’ personality and exercise of reflexivity are self- indulgent, even ‘narcissistic’. Some have suggested that discussion of positionality can lead to ‘delusions of grandeur’ and self-glorification and Troyna (1994) warned that it may be dangerous for novice researchers to lay themselves bare. Hard-nosed policy makers are often seen as having no truck with positionality when reading a report.
To address the concerns above, the researcher should find out what they can about the expectations of the reader, or the particular reader such as an examiner of a thesis, a peer reviewer of a paper, a project sponsor. Even those committed to in-depth discussion of positionality should appreciate a distinction between an investigation of one’s own positionality as a lifelong personal project and the reader’s interest in how positionality affects the conduct of a particular project. Hitherto the assumption has been that positionality limits our understanding of a particular context, but it is the fact that we have a position which enables us to make sense of a social situation. Observation and interpretation is necessarily theory laden and to do either without a position is not a neutral or value free stance but to exist in a state of mental disassociation and disintegration. Many practitioner researchers take advantage of their positions to inform their research as indeed did Weber when using his personal experience of Protestantism to explore early capitalist development (see interpretivism). Some researchers go further and use their ethical positions to self-consciously embrace what they see as universal values such as human rights, the right to the good society, reason and rationality (e.g. Carr and Kemmis 1986 in action research) and many feminist writers (e.g. Harding 1987) have argued that declaring a position leads to sounder research outcomes. There are positions worth embracing even while keeping a critical distance from events and policies (Wittrock 1991). Mortimore (2000) argues that researchers should ask difficult questions and speak up for what we believe is right. He cites the late Bishop Trevor Huddleston who described universities as the ‘eyes of society’.
Harding, S. (1987) Introduction: Is there a feminist method? in S. Harding (ed) Feminism and methodology: social science issues, Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Huisman, K. (2008) ‘Does this mean you’re not going to come visit me anymore?’: An inquiry into an ethics of reciprocity and positionality in feminist ethnographic research, Sociological Inquiry, 78, 3: 372–396.
Mistry, J, Berardi, A. and Simpson, M. (2008) Critical reflections on practice: the changing roles of three physical geographers carrying out research in a developing country, Area, 41, 1: 82–93.
Mortimore, P. (2000) Does educational research matter? British Educational Research Journal, 26, 1: 5-24. 177
Wittrock, B. (1991) Social knowledge and public policy: eight models of interaction in P. Wagner, C. Weiss, B. Wittrock and H. Wollman (eds) Social Sciences and Modern States, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.