Why positioning identity matters in decolonising research and knowledge production: How to write a ‘positionality statement’
By Sarah Homan* / 15.02.2023
“For feminist decolonial scholars, our positionality is the embodied pivot from which our knowledge-making materialises.”
Yvonne Te Ruki-Rangi-o-Tangaroa Underhill-Sem, Cook Island and Niuean New Zealand scholar (2020)
By Sarah Homan* / 15.02.2023
As the Senior Research Associate at The Equality Institute (EQI), I was recently tasked with a, frankly, intimidating project; researching and authoring a ‘learning lessons’ paper on how we at EQI are striving to ‘decolonise’ our research practice. If I’m honest, I was overwhelmed with whether this was something I should do. As an Australian-born, White-coloniser/settler, descendent of Irish and Welsh immigrants, I certainly don’t believe I’m best placed to be speaking on decolonial practices.
However, in the same ways we need men and boys to engage with gender equality work, I do think it is important that people from coloniser/settler backgrounds like myself, engage in the work of decolonisation in whatever tangible ways are available to them. So long as we do so mindfully, listening to, and taking the lead from, Indigenous and decolonial scholars, practitioners, and activists.
So, what can this look like?
As an academically trained researcher (anthropologist no less; anthropology as a discipline has a lot to answer for in terms of colonisation), one of the (many) ways I can contribute is to reflect on my identity, including my beliefs, attitudes and behaviours, and also my work and practice. In doing so, I acknowledge that my work is shaped by what I know and what I know is shaped by who I am and what I’ve experienced. In academia and research, this is called ‘positionality’ and writing a ‘positionality statement’ is just one simple way to integrate a decolonising approach to one’s work.
My positionality conveys ‘where I’m coming from’ and is made up of our various, intersecting social identities (gender, race, class, ethnicity, sexuality, dis/ability, geographical location, etc.). These identities combined (and their intersections) go on to shape how we understand and engage with the world around us, including what we know, our attitudes and perspectives and our work practices (Takacs 2003 ; Darwin Holmes 2020 ; Alcoff 1988). For me, as a researcher, it influences how I conduct research, as well as its outcomes, and results (Rowe 2014 ; Darwin Holmes 2020 ; Foote and Gau Bartell 2011).
It may feel uncomfortable at first to confront your positionality, especially when you aren’t used to it, and it can illustrate unearned privilege or disadvantage. It did for me. However, there are clear benefits to overcoming this and instituting it as a regular practice. These include (but aren’t limited to):
1. Making transparent what shapes our work.
Positionality statements help us to be aware of our perspectives, beliefs, and any underlying assumptions in our work. When we assess our biases (and what shapes them) we can ensure our work is well-informed, intentional, and respectful towards those we work with and whose work we draw from.
2. Displaying our values and commitment to ethics, and diversity, inclusion and belonging.
As Farhana Sultana, Bangladeshi scholar says, “to pay attention to positionality, reflexivity, (and how this shapes) the production of knowledge... (is) to undertake ethical research” (Sultana 2007). This implies that without this reflexivity, research may not be conducted ethically. Stating your positionality is an action that demonstrates, publicly, that you are invested in the principles of decolonising research and knowledge production.
3. Decentring your position as the default/norm, especially if you are of a White coloniser/settler background.
A key feature of colonisation is the assumed centrality and superiority of one racial identity over others, particularly those of White coloniser/settler backgrounds. When it comes to positionality statements in research, it is unusual for scholars of coloniser/settler backgrounds, particular White scholars, to position themselves. This is because mainstream research disciplines have evolved along ‘scientific’ and ‘objective’ lines, where subjectivity has been deemed less scientific (Westmarland 2001 ; Jafar 2018). As such, it is almost universally Indigenous, decolonial and scholars of colour who adopt positionality statements. When White coloniser/settler scholars avoid positioning themselves, it is a demonstration of their privilege and the assumption that their position is the default (Nguyen 2017). Laila Lalami, Moroccan-born writer, says, "’White’ is seen as the default, the absence of race” and that when we remove Whiteness as the default, White privilege could cease to exist and potentially ease some interracial tensions (Lalami 2016).
4. Removing assumptions
Yvonne Te Ruki-Rangi-o-Tangaroa Underhill-Sem writes about the unfairness of being left to assume the positionality of others. She writes, “I do not always recognise the positionality of authors. So, if scholars do not position themselves, I must somehow position them myself. By ignoring the difference their positionality makes, these scholars become complicit in colonising mainstream knowledges” (Underhill‐Sem 2020). Stating positionality removes the effort others must make in assuming who we are and what has shaped our positions. This is an act of solidarity and fairness.
In never having stated my positionality, I realised I had been situating myself as a default from which all other experiences diverge. This is not ethical nor fair practice. Why should others be left to do the heavy lifting of positionality? In making public my positionality, I am committing to ethical practice.
Where to begin?
I would encourage all researchers and practitioners to think about what elements of your identity, experiences and worldviews, shape your research, scholarship, and practice.
I have included references and resources below that have been helpful in my practice and may be in yours.
Furthermore, here are some questions that can help guide your own positionality statement (adapted from Queens University 2023):
What are my different social identities and how significant is each identity to my work? Social identities can include, but are not limited to, gender, race, nationality, sexual orientation, age, social class, religion, dis/ability and so on.
What experiences do I have? How have they shaped who I am professionally? As a violence against women (VAW) researcher, it may also be appropriate to consider lived experience as a victim/survivor (if you feel comfortable in doing so).
In what discipline did I train? What role did my discipline play in establishing dominant worldviews? What role do I play in this work? In what ways do I challenge or divest from some of these practices? Why or why not?
What are my values and what do I hope to achieve through my work?
As I’ve started to engage in the practice more, it’s become easier and has certainly informed my ongoing work. And while this is just one simple way we might integrate a decolonising approach to our work, it can help to interrogate and strengthen research and knowledge practices. It’s my hope that, as more researchers adopt positionality statements, it becomes the norm.
Author's positionality statement
Sarah (she/her) is a White, Australian-born settler, descendant of Welsh and Irish immigrants, who received her PhD in Anthropology and Development Studies from the University of Adelaide, on the unceded lands of Kaurna Yerta, (the Country of the Kaurna People). She is the Senior Research Associate at The Equality Institute. As a trained anthropologist and scholar from a coloniser/settler background, Sarah understands that the disciplines in which she’s trained (anthropology, International Development, and academia) have significant histories (continuing to the present) as tools of colonisation. She also acknowledges the systems and structures which afford her unearned privilege. As such, she is committed to improving her understanding and practice around decolonising research, guided by feminist, Indigenist and decolonising perspectives and by people with lived experiences different than her own.
References and other resources
Alcoff, Linda. 1988. "Cultural Feminism Versus Post-Structuralism: The Identity Crisis in Feminist Theory." Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 13 (3).
Boudreau Morris, Katie. 2016. "Decolonizing solidarity: cultivating relationships of discomfort." Settler Colonial Studies 7 (4): 456-473. doi.org/10.1080/2201473x.2016.1241210.
Darwin Holmes, Andrew Gary. 2020. "Researcher Positionality - A Consideration of Its Influence and Place in Qualitative Research - A New Researcher Guide." Shanlax International Journal of Education 8 (4): 1-10. doi.org/10.34293/education.v8i4.3232.
Foote, Mary Q., and T. Gau Bartell. 2011. "Pathways to Equity in Mathematics Education: How Life Experiences Impact Researcher Positionality." Educational Studies in Mathematics 78: 45-68.
Jafar, A. J. N. 2018. "What is positionality and should it be expressed in quantitative studies?" Emerg Med J 35 (5): 323-324. doi.org/10.1136/emermed-2017-207158. ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29326239.
Lalami, Laila. 2016. "The Identity Politics of Whiteness." The New York Times Magazine.
Nguyen, Josh. 2017. "Why is White the Default? ." Gender Theory (blog), Medium 3rd February medium.com/gender-theory/why-is-white-the-default-23a5d0df5564.
Queens University. 2023. "Positionality" Resources, Equity, Diversity, Inclusivity (blog), Queens University. queensu.ca/ctl/resources/equity-diversity-inclusivity/positionality-statement.
Rowe, Wendy E. 2014. Positionality. In The Sage Encyclopedia of Action Research, edited by David. Coghlan and Mary Brydon-Miller: Sage.
Sultana, Farhana. 2007. "Reflexivity, Positionality and Participatory Ethics: Negotiating Fieldwork Dilemmas in International Research." ACME: An International E-Journal for Critical Geographies 6 (3): 374-385.
Takacs, David. 2003. "How Does Your Positionality Bias Your Epistemology?" Thought & Action 27.
Underhill‐Sem, Y. T. R. 2020. "Audacity with obligation: decoloniality in Pacific geographies. Response to Sarah Radcliffe and Tracey Skelton. ." Singapore journal of tropical geography 41 (2): 339–340. doi.org/10.1111/sjtg.12340.
Westmarland, Nicole. 2001. "The Quantitative/Qualitative Debate and Feminist Research: A Subjective View of Objectivity." Forum: Qualitative Social Research 2 (1).