Social Justice Usage
Positionality is the notion that personal values, views, and location in time and space influence how one understands the world. In this context, gender, race, class, and other aspects of identities are indicators of social and spatial positions and are not fixed, given qualities. Positions act on the knowledge a person has about things, both material and abstract. Consequently, knowledge is the product of a specific position that reflects particular places and spaces.
Issues of positionality challenge the notions of value-free research that have dismissed human subjectivity from the processes that generate knowledge and identities. Consequently, it is essential to take into account personal positions before engaging in research, especially qualitative research.
Source: Thompson, Sherwood. Encyclopedia of Diversity and Social Justice. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. Kindle Edition, p. 568.
Positionality is a critical understanding of the role a scholar’s background and current (socially constructed and perceived) position in the world plays in the production of academic knowledge, particularly in qualitative research in the social sciences. Multiple epistemologies—ways of knowing or understanding the world—exist as researchers come from varied vantage points. Undermining positivist constructions of knowledge, the theoretical construct of positionality refutes dominant notions of objectivity in the academy. Instead, it highlights that the way an academician is situated in space and time fosters a specific understanding of social reality. Positionality provides a space to critically interrogate the researcher’s motivations, assumptions, and decisions at each and every stage of the research process.
New Discourses Commentary
In Social Justice Theory, positionality is where you stand by virtue of your (intersecting, group) identity and its relationships to the alleged power dynamics that define socially constructed reality. Put more simply, each individual is understood by Social Justice to be a member of a number of social groups (usually demographic), and these groups are Theorized to have a particular relationship to the various dimensions of systemic power pervading society. One’s positionality is the sum total of her (relative, or relational) status as privileged or oppressed along all of the various axes of power, as understood through intersectionality. That is, your positionality is your set of various relative statuses as privileged oppressor or as marginalized oppressed, which is also believed to influence your potential status as a knower (see also, knowledge(s), lived experience, and standpoint epistemology).
According to Social Justice, one’s positionality “must constantly be engaged.” What this entails is that one must constantly engage in a “lifelong process” of self-reflection and self-awareness about the ways in which one is oppressed and the ways in which one has privilege and is thus oppressing others. A black man, for example, would assess that he is oppressed as a black person (thus has authority on that oppression) but is privileged as a man (thus lacks authority on issues related to sex and gender). That is, positionality is the foundation for praxis for intersectionality. Engaging one’s positionality roughly means obsessing about these things and the impact it has on one’s ability to make authoritative statements about social reality, and one is expected to do this constantly (see also, antiracism)
Awareness of one’s positionality and its implications is known as critical consciousness (see also, wokeness). This attitude proceeds ultimately from standpoint epistemology, which is a theoretical idea that suggests that knowledge about oppression is only available by directly experiencing it. This view is a kind of gnosticism that carries the implication that experiencing oppression confers more and special knowledge to the oppressed, which the dominant cannot directly know or fully understand (see also, shut up and listen). It proceeds from a valid observation about subjective experience that it then confuses for other kinds of knowledge. This is considered important not just to establish “authority” to speak about identity political issues but also so that one can declare that one is aware of his own allegedly self-interested biases and ignorance and attempting to account for them (and the ways they are likely to lead to devaluing others in their status as knowers – see also epistemic injustice, epistemic oppression, and epistemic violence).
In practice, this would mean, for example, that before offering any opinion, a homosexual Hispanic man would be expected to take pains to describe his identity statuses and how those position him with respect to societal power dynamics: dominance as a man, oppressed as a homosexual, oppressed by white people but oppressor to black people as a Hispanic, and so on, including also ability status, trans status, and other identity markers (see also, BIPOC, people of color, privilege, and white adjacent). The purpose of this exercise would be to credential him through his lived experience in the system as a knower about the “realities” of oppression where he is oppressed and to acknowledge and disclaim his necessary ignorance where he holds dominance.
A speaker or writer’s qualifications to speak or write on the issues or topics at hand will be judged based upon his positionality and what it allows. Our Hispanic friend would not be deemed competent to speak on trans issues, women, or issues of race relevant to those deemed more racially oppressed than he is, but he could talk at any length—and expect to be believed—when talking about the problematics of white men, whiteness, white supremacy, heteronormativity, and homophobia.
The performance of engaging one’s positionality is, essentially, a woke ritual that, besides signalling compliance to Social Justice ideology, also conditions the speaker (especially) and hearers to further embrace any conclusions of Theory that follow. This acknowledgement and engagement ritual precedes many or most communications because, as critical race educators including Robin DiAngelo (author of White Fragility) tells us, it “must be intentionally engaged.”
Ableism; Antiracism; Bias; BIPOC; Critical; Critical consciousness; Critical race Theory; Dominance; Epistemic injustice; Epistemic oppression; Epistemic violence; Gender; Heteronormativity; Homophobia; Identity; Identity politics; Ideology; Intersectionality; Knower; Knowledge(s); Lived experience; Marginalization; Matrix of Domination; Oppression; People of color; Performativity; Praxis; Privilege; Problematics; Race; Racism (systemic); Sex; Sexism (systemic); Shut up and listen; Social Justice; Standpoint epistemology; System, the; Systemic power; Theory; Transphobia; Universalism (ideology); Value-neutral; White; White adjacent; White fragility; White supremacy; Whiteness; Woke/Wokeness
Source: Sensoy, Ozlem, and Robin DiAngelo. Is Everyone Really Equal?: An Introduction to Key Concepts in Social Justice Education, first edition. Teacher’s College Press: New York, 2012, p. 187.
The recognition that where you stand in relation to others in society shapes what you can see and understand.
Source: Sensoy, Ozlem, and Robin DiAngelo. Is Everyone Really Equal?: An Introduction to Key Concepts in Social Justice Education, first edition. Teacher’s College Press: New York, 2012, p. 173.
Unfortunately, because acknowledging one’s positionality is a rare occurrence in mainstream classes, doing so reinforces students’ perceptions of mainstream classes as objective and critical social justice classes as subjective. Of course all knowledge is taught from a particular perspective, but the power of dominant knowledge is that it is presented as neutral and universal. We name our positionality in order to challenge the claim that any knowledge is neutral. Yet many students use that to reinforce the belief that only our courses are not neutral.
Critical Consciousness: A level of sociopolitical awareness through which a person understands their positionality in the world.
The racially oppressed have a more intimate insight via experiential knowledge into the system of race than their racial oppressors. However, white professors will be seen as having more legitimacy, thus positionality must be intentionally engaged.
Revision date: 2/5/20