Problematic positionality statements

July 13, 2023 • 12:45 pm

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 medicinebiologyglobal 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.”

27 thoughts on “Problematic positionality statements

  1. I think positionality statements are the not-so-secret handshake that says, Ignore the nonsense in my paper, I in the club. But seriously, if required, they would have the effect of causing a person to admit aspects of their life that they might not want known. They might be straight, or worse, a Catholic.

  2. Speaking of land acknowledgments, an Inside Higher Ed news item tells us that this fad has approached its logical conclusion. To wit:
    “”A group of 11 Native American tribes is calling on the University of Minnesota to pay reparations for past harms, The Washington Post reported. Researchers at the TRUTH Project, a Native American–led research group, say Native Americans sold almost 94,440 acres of land to create space for what became the University of Minnesota more than 150 years ago.
    … Similar demands for restitution from colleges and universities have been made by Native American activists across the country, following a 2020 article in High Country News titled “Land Grab Universities.” The article described how approximately 10.7 million acres of land were taken from 250 tribes after the signing of the Morrill Act in 1862, which enabled states to establish land-grant universities.”

  3. All of these statement just give me the feeling of dealing with someone who is shouting, “Look at me! Look at me! I’m special! Everyone should look at me!” like a kid in elementary school trying to get attentions from peers and teachers by any means necessary, but not particularly worried about doing his/her/their/its work well.

  4. The long arms of Critical Theory and post-modernism, in which science and scholarship are seen as a “social constructs” and scientists as inherently biased upholders of dominance “hierarchies,” have reached into most aspects of humanities and social science pedagogy in the US, and are now extending a tentacle into biology as well. To the Critical Theorist, all you need to know about the research is the researcher.
    The initial iterations of this kind of compelled speech-positionality and DIE statements-are probably fated to become easily gamed “pledges of allegiance”, many of them written by AI programs. Of course, none of this compelled speech does anything to promote real diversity or objectivity (excuse my French).
    I hope this is just a moment we’re going through, just “something in the water” that will run its course. The alternative could be increasingly Orwellian.

  5. Any description of an author—even the person’s name or photograph—can cause the reader to make a judgment regarding the quality of the article on factors other than the substance of the article itself. This does not benefit science. It can also cut both ways. One person’s virtue is another’s vice, so disclosing one’s race, sexual orientation, economic status, or political affinity can just as well create a negative impression as a positive one. It’s best for scientific publications just to provide the author’s name and university (or institute) affiliation…. at most.

    1. I wonder if the people advocating these statements would be in favour of returning to the old days when women (for example) had trouble working for symphony orchestras until they introduced anonymized auditions?

    1. In all seriousness – that is the point. To promote dissatisfaction, in any way possible – even if accidental. Quoting James “Conspiracy Theorist” Lindsay :

      “It is impossible to overstate the central relevance of problematizing to the Theory and praxis of Critical Social Justice.”

  6. Ben & Jerry’s recently ran afoul of performative land acknowledgement crap when over the July 4th holiday they called for native lands to be returned the to the tribes. It was then that Don Stevens, chief of The Coosuk Abenaki Nation in Vermont took them up on their offer. B&J’s corporate headquarters are on “stolen” land, you understand. So we should expect B&J to hand over the keys to the buildings any day now.


    The schadenfreude feels good with this one.

  7. Not that I know from experience, but “support groups” are supposed to have similar introductions. Sort of sets the background.

    I suppose at some point, certain of these could also turn out like confessions. I think we know what those would read like.

    Where have we seen that before? Gee…

  8. If I had a career in academia, I’d say I was a trans man. It’s not like they can question it without risking being labeled transphobic.

  9. Modesty prevents me from suggesting that I am the inventor of positionality statements.
    However, over 20 years ago I did invent something like a positionality statement, not for a research paper, but for my page in the website of my old department. It read:
    “Jon Gallant, a native of the planet Uranus, received his undergraduate degree at Haverford College during the late Pleistocene Epoch, and his Ph.D. (in Genetics and Biochemistry) somewhat later from Johns Hopkins University. He has been here at the University of Washington since the glaciers receded.”

  10. I’ve never seen one of these things “in the wild”, probably just in the “wrong” field. I’m idly wondering if the many women that I know who work on prostate cancer and BPH are going to have to start justifying their involvement, ditto the men who work on breast and gynecologic tumors.

  11. Closely aligned with standpoint theory.

    Encyclopedia Britannica explains:

    standpoint theory: The theory emerged from the Marxist argument that people from an oppressed class have special access to knowledge that is not available to those from a privileged class. In the 1970s feminist writers inspired by that Marxist insight began to examine how inequalities between men and women influence knowledge production. Their work is related to epistemology, the branch of philosophy that examines the nature and origins of knowledge, and stresses that knowledge is always socially situated.

  12. JWM hopes that positionality statements “will result in higher quality, more socially just research.”

    There’s nothing like research in pursuit of an ideological goal to inspire reader confidence in the quality of the research and the researcher’s open mindedness.

    Dave Lenny (Grumpy Old Man)

  13. Here’s one of my “favorite” positionality statements—made by a white Swedish guy in his book on “whiteness”:

    “When I write that it’s impossible to stand to the side of whiteness and structural racism, I include myself among those caught inside a structure not of my own making. I am a white, cisgender, heterosexual, able-bodied, neurotypical, and fairly young man with stable employment in the professional class. I am, in short, privileged by many of the structures that shape life in my native Sweden, where I live and work at a state-funded university. And I’m privileged in the United States from the moment I deplane,
    whether I’ve come for a brief visit—which I did annually before the pandemic, not least to see my wife’s family—or to stay for years, as I did for three years in New York City for a research project funded by the Swedish Research Council.

    In the structural sense of the word, I am also racist; it’s not my choice, but it’s how I was raised. Not by my mother. Not by my brothers. Not intentionally. I grew up in a society permeated with racism in the things I watched and listened to, in the things I read, in my schooling—first in the mostly white village where I grew up, then at a mostly white high school in a then mostly white city, and thereafter at a mostly white department of religious studies at Lund University, all in southern Sweden—and so on. I could go through my undergraduate courses in religious studies and begin doctoral work in Jewish studies without ever encountering critical discussions of whiteness.

    My life until that point had been one of white segregation, with few exceptions, or nearly a textbook example of socialization into a white habitus. Because I have learned to view the world and move within it according to certain frameworks, it’s unsurprising that I have said and done racist things, and that I will continue to do so. For much of my life, while I styled myself as nonracist and opposed explicit interpersonal racism, I remained unaware of how deeply favored I was in my every endeavor through no work of my own. For much of my life, I’ve let a racist structure stand unaddressed and unopposed.

    I am working at being more aware of the harms I do, and to make them fewer and further between. I am working to address and oppose the racism that is everywhere around me. I can never be not racist, but I’m trying nevertheless to be antiracist. I’m trying with my teaching, what I choose to support and consume, where I spend or donate my money, who I vote for and support, and with works like this book, through my writing. I don’t write this because I feel like I deserve a medal or want to style myself as “one of the good ones.” I don’t and I’m not. I wouldn’t have been able to make these changes if someone else hadn’t pointed me in the direction of a critique of whiteness. My hope is that Whiteness can help others to undertake the same work and follow it, wherever it may lead.”

    (Lund, Martin. /Whiteness./ Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2022. pp. 15-6)

  14. The whole idea is very Christian, requiring a confession of having original sin and our unworthiness as a result.

    1. I’m reminded far more strongly of the public “self-examination” and “self-criticism” that teachers and professors had to undergo in China during the Cultural Revolution.

  15. The aim of the statements seems to be exclusively one of two things: either a virtue-signalling humblebrag, or a claim to victimhood that is meant to give the author an authority that may or may not be deserved by the quality of the research.

    Unless I were looking for amusement, I would deliberately avoid reading such statements so as not to taint my evaluation of the work they actually produce.

  16. “Sarah C. Jones is a disabled (ADHD) cis white queer woman” This makes me want to scream! ADHD is NOT a f**cking disability. Yes, it can make studying and working more difficult. Undetected and untreated it can negatively affect one’s mental health and personal life. However, while ADHD cannot be ‘cured’ the symptoms are very treatable. In fact, the efficacy of pharmaceutical treatment for ADHD symptoms is better and more reliable than that of any other treatment in the whole of psychiatry. Stimulants significantly improve ADHD symptoms in 70% – 80% of patients, additionally there are several non-stimulant meds which are also very effective. Compare these response rates to other psychiatric treatments and you’ll see how truly remarkable they are.

    I’m diagnosed with both ADHD and autism and things haven’t been easy, I’ve had serious mental health problems for most of my adult life. I don’t see myself as disabled though, not in the slightest, because although these conditions make life more challenging, they don’t prevent me from doing anything. It drives me mad when people claim disability from ADHD, as it trivialises what is a very serious issue, leading to others dismissing it as just another fad that people lay claim to for sympathy or favour.

    I found out about my ADHD seven years ago and began treatment immediately. Since then the change in my life has been remarkable – I’ve experienced a huge increase in my ability to work, my anxiety and depression have reduced enormously, and I don’t constantly feel overwhelmed by life. While I accept everyone is different, claiming ADHD as a disability is a total joke and a cop-out. In this instance, it’s appears to be a shameless and cynical tactic of the author, who is trying to claim a place on the gilded totem pole of oppression. Please just stop this disability nonsense Sarah, get treatment (if you haven’t already) and take responsibility for your achievements and failures.

    Positionality statement:
    Jeff, was assigned male at birth and his pronouns are he/his. He is a white, cisgender heterosexual male who identifies as a white, cisgender heterosexual male. He grew up in a white working class family where money was tight, but common sense was far too present for him to be writing a ‘positionality statement’.

  17. I wonder? are these statements made to deflect, sofen criticism made, if by some machinations of fate you end up with your label on a building or perhaps an award. Or even better, replace an exsisting by virtue. Cited with consideration only to the proper credentials would be a sad state for science to find itself.
    Forget the facts, these are my self evaluated personal facts. How great am I!
    Galton, Audubon, Mayr, Fisher, if only they had known a bit of self-flaggellation would have gone a long way to making we the feeble, feel oh so safe and comfortable.

  18. >“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.”

    Coerced, public self-criticism. That went so well for intellectuals in the Soviet Union. Maybe we can follow up with a struggle session.


    1. One of the most basic principles of scientific skepticism is that our biases tend to affect our conclusions — and need the correction of a process which recognizes this. At first glance, the Positionality Statements seem to fit in with this rigorous attempt to seek objective truth. Our perspective is always shaped in some way by who we are. Here it is. Okay.

      But our perspective is especially distorted when we’re emotionally involved or invested in coming up with a particular outcome. The Positionality Statements seem to ignore this in favor of promoting the idea that no, this makes us reliable Primary Sources. A poor person knows who or what to blame for their condition. A black person knows the causes & cures for racism. A person with anorexia knows why they do what they do and what should be done to fairly accomodate them. Listen to us: we understand not only how we feel, but the entire situation. It’s the reliability of personal testimony helping give credibility to a scientific study.

      No. We can be too close. I once suggested that perhaps trans people ought to step back from an objective analysis of their condition because they were too focused on what they felt and wanted to be able to fairly weigh or test alternatives — and a horrified shock went through the room. But that’s standard in science.

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