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The Purpose and Value of Positionality Statements

Five reasons to include them in your writings, as well as some potential pitfalls to consider

Never heard of positionality statements? Neither had we until our instructor asked us to explore them in the context of educational leadership and instructional technology. Our research revealed that positionality statements can tell us important information about the author because they describe the author’s worldview and how it influences their work. The author writes such a statement in an attempt to provide context and transparency about their specific connections to the research for readers. However, we found that including these statements in the context of research reports is not a common practice, and only a select few scholars bear the burden of publishing their positionalities.

We are two educational leadership doctoral students concentrating on media, technology and learning design. Currently, we hold positions at four-year universities in the southeast region. The following is a merging of our independent research, which includes a review of positionality statements, a list of reasons to use them and some potential concerns.

A researcher’s positionality is their worldview on a research question or topic. It can include declarations of beliefs, methodological preferences and existing or latent biases. What makes a researcher’s positionality so important is that it can shape their epistemology (what can be known), ontology (the nature of reality), methodology (process and procedures), and ultimately the interpretation of their research results by others, as various scholars— such as, Mark Fathi MassoudAndrew Gary Darwin HolmesBryan C. Clift and his coauthors, and Dongxiao Qin—have noted.

One important way to help articulate a researcher’s positionality and the identification of potential biases or subjectivities is through the practice of reflexivity: the ongoing process of a researcher critically examining their own actions, beliefs and motives in an effort to protect the research process. For example, one of us, Jessica, acknowledges that her position as a librarian and instructional technologist, combined with her education and commitment to equitable experiences and opportunities for all, influences her positionality. The other of us, Tracy, recognizes that her roles as a faculty member and instructional designer—in conjunction with her years of advocacy for diversity, equity and inclusion—all impact her positionality.

Positionality statements are often present in qualitative research in the social sciences but not widely included in instructional technology and other disciplines, which is problematic.

We think they can play an essential and integral part in reporting on research within other fields and higher education more broadly. Here are our five reasons why researchers should consider using positionality statements and our suggestions for their use.

No. 1: Positionality statements offer transparency about the background and potential motivation of the researchers. For example, in her article, “When the Music Changes, So Should the Dance,” Cynthia B. Dillard, now dean of the College of Education at Seattle University, proposed an endarkened feminist epistemology, so it makes sense that she would offer her positionality as an African American woman interested in culture and spirituality. She states, “I will suggest that for researchers of color in particular, there are deep and serious implications in choosing to embrace paradigms that resonate with our spirit.” It would almost seem disingenuous for her not to acknowledge her positionality when proposing this new epistemology.

But positionality statements can be useful in a wide variety of research fields. Anisa J.N. Jafar, from the University of Manchester, describes the value of such statements in quantitative as well as qualitative research, as Roehl Sybing at Doshisha University in Japan does in ethnographic research writing.

No. 2: Including positionality statements in research reports is an approach to equity. Marginalized populations tend to include position statements in their works more often than any other population. Furthermore, without these declarations, interpretations will likely skew to a Eurocentric view, as scholars including Massoud, Saran Stewart, and H. Richard Milner IV have noted.

No. 3: Positionality statements can increase the ethics, validity, accessibility and usefulness of the research. They allow for the continuation or replication of research as scholar-practitioners consider what they might do differently in another context. For example, Andrew Gary Darwin Holmes at the University of Hull in England has examined the cultural insider-outsider designation and how a researcher’s status might change over time. As a researcher spends more time with the participants in an ethnographic study, for instance, their status will likely morph from one of cultural outsider to the spectrum of cultural insider. Acknowledging this change is vital to the integrity of the research.

No. 4: Training students and researchers to think about their insider status can improve the rigor of the research. It can be empowering for students to liken positionality to their epistemology. Such training would, in the words of Christina Chavez at California State Polytechnic University, allow researchers to “verify or falsify their assumed interpretations.” Furthermore, Kim Miller of Bridges Academy Los Angeles argues, “... folklorists must clarify their own intentions and consider how their own multifarious roles and identities affect their fieldwork procedures and the way they write about their research.” Additionally, David Takacs of the UC Hastings College of the Law says that training researchers to think reflexively about their insider status would allow them to separate the information that they “know” from the information they “see.” For example, recognizing the knowledge we bring to the research process allows us to see other’s diverse lived experiences.

No. 5: Including one’s personality traits may be more beneficial than positionality statements alone. What could be more helpful to the research process and future readers is the researcher’s personality. Awareness of and documenting one’s personality traits may be more powerful than a list of phenotypic attributes or biases and may be more successful in developing rapport with participants. Indeed, when doing fieldwork in Indonesia, Sarah Moser found that what mattered more was her personalitynot her positionality. She argued that individuals in the village judged her more on her social skills, emotional responses, interest in local events and how she “navigated the personalities of others.” What mattered less was her positionality as a white, Canadian, female graduate student, and being middle class, which she describes as “… impersonal externally defined categories.” Researchers should consider including personality traits in their positionality statements to help develop authentic relationships.

While including positionality statements has these strong benefits, authors should also consider several important factors. For example, while stating one’s positionality is an attempt to be transparent about potential biases when interpreting results, not all researchers participate in this practice. As stated previously, it is the researchers who typically come from marginalized populations who bear the burden of communicating their positionalities. And when women, queer and people of color, for example, express their positionalities or share their experiences in their work, they not only open their research to scrutiny, according to Massoud, a professor at the University of California at Santa Cruz, but they open their personal lives to scrutiny, as well.

Additionally, when publishing their positionalities, authors can share deeply personal and traumatic stories that threaten to retraumatize them. As Massoud states, “These harms do not merely accrue when marginalized scholars speak about their own positionality; they also accrue when scholars from majority populations do not speak about theirs, because that omission renders positionality peripheral to mainstream socio-legal scholarship.” Furthermore, as the University of Cardiff’s Sara Delamont has observed, when stating one’s positionality, the author/researcher cannot regulate how the readers will interpret their stance and how their work is read.

Stating one’s positionality is not common outside the social sciences, perhaps because of the conceptual nature of many of the articles, or maybe positionality statements are viewed as unnecessary in technology research and similar fields. We recommend scholars from all disciplines include positionality statements in their publications to help diminish the burden on marginalized populations. In addition, training future researchers to acknowledge their insider statuses will result in more objective investigations. Even if researchers do not include formal positionality statements in their reports and share their limitations or shortcomings, we hope that, as part of their research journey, they are at least engaging in reflexivity so as to make informed and inclusive scholarly decisions.

Tracy Peña is an instructional designer and lecturer at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington. Jessica O’Brien is associate librarian and coordinator of instructional technology at Lenoir-Rhyne University. They are both concluding a doctoral program in educational leadership at Appalachian State University, with a concentration in media, technology and learning design.

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