What is a positionality statement? I’ve highlighted them before: they are the (often long) statements about the politics, background, and goals of an author of an academic paper, written by that author and meant to locate him or her in a way relevant to the topic of a paper. Here are a few examples:
From this post:
I (first author) was raised as a Muslim immigrant-origin girl in a small Iowa town and constantly aware that my family was “different.” Having been an educator in PK-12 contexts, my goal in studying developmental psychology was to make the process easier for other youth who, like myself, were intersectionally minoritized and privileged because of religious, racial, ethnic, linguistic, and/or other identities or experiences. I was unprepared for the microaggressions embedded in developmental scholarship rooted in non-inclusive modes of knowledge production that resisted the nuances of the diverse individuals and groups I sought to better understand. . . . I seek to place myself in relationships and contexts to learn and engage in a co-conspiring, co-liberatory inquiry stance.
From another post, a statement about several authors:
Ash T. Zemenick is a nonbinary trans person who grew up with an economically and academically supportive household to which they attribute many of their opportunities. They are now the manager of the University of California Berkeley’s Sagehen Creek Field Station, in Truckee, California, and are a cofounder and lead director of Project Biodiversify, in the United States. Shaun Turney is a white heterosexual transgender Canadian man who was supported in both his transition and his education by his university-educated parents. He is currently on paternity leave from his work as a non–tenure-track course lecturer in biology. Alex J. Webster is a cis white queer woman who grew up in an economically stable household and is now raising a child in a nontraditional queer family structure. She is a research professor in the University of New Mexico’s Department of Biology, in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and is a director of Project Biodiversify, in the United States. Sarah C. Jones is a disabled (ADHD) cis white queer woman who grew up in a supportive and economically stable household with two university-educated parents. She is a director of Project Biodiversify, and serves as the education manager for Budburst, a project of the Chicago Botanic Garden, in Chicago, Illinois, in the United States. Marjorie G. Weber is a cis white woman who grew up in an economically stable household. She is an assistant professor in Michigan State University’s Plant Biology Department and Program in Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior, in East Lansing, Michigan, and is a cofounder and director of Project Biodiversify, in the United States.
And one given by Sally Satel in her article below:
Consider the positionality statement by the authors of “Low-income Black mothers parenting adolescents in the mass incarceration era: The long reach of criminalization,” which appeared in the American Sociological Review in in 2019:
“Both authors are middle-to upper-middle-class white women—one is a mother, the other is not. A commitment to antiracist, intersectional, and feminist principles guides our research efforts, and we conducted this work with an awareness of the politics, dangers, and limitations of affluent white academics writing about the lives of low-income Black Americans.”
There are many examples, and you can just about make an argument that statements along these lines (but much shorter) might be justifable in papers to alert readers to potential biases. But to me it’s more useful to see the “conflict of interest” statements that lay out who funded the research. I’d be much more suspicious, for examples, if a piece of research were funded by the John Templeton Foundation than by the National Institutes of Health, but I don’t care about any authors’ sexual proclivities or privilege. In fact, I’ve never seen a positionality statement that hasn’t made me cringe, for they are either full of confessed privilege, confessed victimization, flaunting of virtue—or all three. As I’ve mentioned before (but found that someone else hit on the same obvious idea below), these are personal equivalents of “land acknowledgments”: both kinds of statements highlight victimization, guilt, and the virtue and privilege of the author.
In this piece from Persuasion (click to read), Sally Satel explains why positionality statements aren’t that helpful, and could be misleading.
Satel first makes the best case for having such statements (though not, I think, statements as extreme as those above):
Why include these personal details? According to proponents of positionality statements, the disclosures shed light on the biases that investigators bring to the design, execution, and interpretation of their research.
Implicit in this rationale is that these statements will help neutralize bias, encourage ethical research, promote “equity and social justice” in the peer review process, and ensure that research “benefits from diversity in editing, writing, and participation.”
Like so many developments that seem ill-suited to their current role, positionality statements do make more sense in some narrow contexts. According to Jukka Savolainen, a Professor of Sociology at Wayne State University, positionality statements probably originated in ethnographic research. When we spoke, he told me that “it makes sense to be concerned about the characteristics of individual scholars doing field work when they are the only instrument of data collection and interpretation.” That is, when a researcher is working alone in a foreign culture, it may be worth illuminating possible sources of inadvertent bias.
But that’s only one narrow area of academia, whereas these kinds of statements are ubiquitous. And here are two more, statements highlighting their big problem: they’re often irrelevant to judging the content of a paper:
But lately, Savolainen told me, they have begun to appear in medicine, biology, global health, and archeology [sic]. “From what I can tell, this movement is just a scholarly equivalent of DEI statements and land acknowledgments,” he said.
In this spirit, education specialists Ben Van Dusen and Jayson Nissen included the following details about themselves in their study on equity in physics education.
Dusen writes that he identifies as “a White, cisgender, heterosexual, continuing-generation (CG) man with a color vision deficiency … [who attempts] to use my position and privilege to dismantle oppressive power structures.”
Nissen, who is a “White, cisgendered, heterosexual, nondisabled man,” acknowledges that because “I am not a woman or a person of color and I now live in a higher income household, I brought a limited perspective to this work on racism, sexism, and classism.”
I’ll quote directly Satel’s (and Savolainen’s) problems with these statements, problems that go beyond their cringe-making nature:
In a recent issue of Perspectives on Psychological Science, Savolainen and his colleagues explain why these statements are of dubious value.
First, returning to Merton’s principle of universalism, positionality statements violate the norm of appraising new knowledge according to quality, independent of the person who produced that knowledge. The anonymity of the work is important—symbolically and pragmatically—because it trains readers’ attention to the substance of the project and the methods used to determine claims about how the world works. The identity and proclivities of those who conduct the project has little bearing on that.
Second, positionality statements are themselves biased. Authors choose what to disclose about themselves, and that judgment—like the research itself—is subject to blind spots and subconscious biases. As Savolainen and his team put it, “academic scholars cannot have it both ways. They cannot, on the one hand, claim to be burdened by their biography when conducting the research, yet, on the other hand, be emancipated from it while constructing a positionality statement.”
This, I think, is an especially serious problem. Such statements are often meant to say, “Here’s who I am, and this validates the work I’m presenting.” For if they thought their persona made their work biased, they would say so explicitly and explain why.
The problems don’t end there. Revelations about the authors may distort the editorial process itself. Imagine, for example, that the author of a paper about rape trauma states that she was a rape victim herself. Knowing this, a reviewer might tone down or altogether omit warranted criticism out of concern for offending an author whose personal experience and research interest seem so intimately tied. Another parallel concern is that authors could tailor their positionality statements to serve their own needs, curating details about themselves in order to enhance the odds that their paper will be accepted and published. (Moreover, if a researcher’s personal details are especially unique, it could disrupt the “blindness” of the review process.)
That last sentence is related to my comment above: the statements are meant to validate the paper, to make the research seem more solid.
Surprisingly, one journal requires positionality statements, and it’s not surprising given the journal. Clearly, “standpoint theory” is rife there.
Currently, only one journal I could find—the Journal of Women and Minorities in Science and Engineering—requires positionality statements. Others, like the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, “encourage” but don’t require them. Even so, instructions on how to craft such statements are all over the internet, suggesting that their inclusion may be becoming the de facto norm.
Below: two bits that journal’s requirements statement. It’s for social justice, Jake, and it prevents harm.
At the end, Satel prefers to suggest ways to make the data better, urging researchers to pre-register their hypotheses and engage in normal scientific practices like blind peer review and rebuttals in the literature. As she says, “It is the research that should come under scrutiny, not the researcher.”