Dissertation Research

What is positionality in practitioner research?

…a conscious, ethical neutrality must be adopted and embraced so the work remains objective and contributory to the other related research —Braude, 1964

  Positionality first emerged from the chorological work of the geographical sciences (Sack, 1974), and Hirsch’s (1976) seminal  reference in economics related to competition and choice, and as later used within environmental planning by Pratt (1992) and others. Additional layers of connotation were attributed to the term related to ascendency, hegemony, subjugation, and status as used by Merriam et al. (2001) in relation to where one stands in relation to “the other” and in regard to the politics of knowledge construction (England, 1994; Rose, 1997). McDowell (1992) noted that researchers must especially take account of their own position in relation to the research participants and research setting. In particular, the reconstructing of insider/outsider status in terms of one’s positionality in respect of education, class, race, gender, culture and other factors, offer us better tools for understanding the dynamics of researching within and across one’s culture (England, 1994; Merriam et al., 2001; Rose, 1997).
  Since bias remains a naturally occurring human characteristic, positionality is often used in the context of the inductive approach to social science inquiry as an exploration of the investigator’s reflection on one’s own placement within the many contexts, layers, power structures, identities, and subjectivities of the viewpoint (England, 1994). Positionality allows for a narrative placement for researcher objectivity and subjectivity whereby the researcher is situated within the many aspects of perspective and positionality (Lave & Wenger, 1991). This often serves to inform a research study rather than to invalidate it as biased or contaminated by personal perspectives and social or political viewpoints.
  For several decades, social science researchers, especially those from qualitative paradigmatic viewpoints, and those from anthropology and human geography, have called for an understanding of the nature of and appreciation for the subjectivity of the principal investigator as vital and needed processes for self-reflection and a determination of self within social constructs under investigation (Behar, 1994; Kirschner, 1987; Rose, 1997). Positionality can be considered within the multi-faceted, complex, and necessary structures surrounding an inquiry before it could or should be engaged (England, 1994; Merriam et al., 2001; Rose, 1997). It can offer a transparency necessary to the perspectives brought to the inquiry or the perspectives that serve to frame it. Conveyance of positionality purports the power structures and social identities of an investigator to fully self-identity their place and position within the scholarship of the field or discipline, and especially to define a clear viewpoint in drawing conclusions and implications from the results of any inquiry.
  Positionality is often considered in tandem with situated knowledge (Smith, 1999).
  For further reading on positionality, see chapter IV in Practitioner Research in Doctoral Education (Kendall/Hunt, 2012).

Behar, R. (1994, June 29). Dare we say 'I'? The Chronicle of Higher Education, pp. 40, 43.

England, K. V. L. (1994). Getting personal: Reflexivity, positionality, and feminist research. The Professional  Geographer, 46(1), 80-89.

Hirsch, F. (1976). Social limits to growth. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Kirsch, G. (1994). The politics of I-dropping. College Composition and Communication, 45(3), 381-383.

Kirschner, S. R. (1987). "Then what have I to do with thee?": On identity, fieldwork, and ethnographic knowledge. Cultural Anthropology, 2(2), 211-234.

Lave, J., & Wenger, E. (1991) Situated learning. Legitimate peripheral participation, Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press.

Merriam, S. B., Johnson-Bailey, J., Lee, M., Kee, Y., Ntseane, Y., & Muhamad, M. (2001). Power and positionality: Negotiating insider/outsider status within and across cultures. International Journal of Lifelong  Education, 20(5), 405-416.

Rose, G. (1997). Situating knowledges: Positionality, reflexivities and other tactics. Progress in human geography, 21(3), 305-320. 

Sack, R. D. (1974). Chorology and spatial analysis. Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 64(3): 439-452.

Smith, M. K. (1999) 'The social/situational orientation to learning', The encyclopedia of informal education, www.infed.org/biblio/learning-social.htm