Just Dropped in to See What Position Your Position Was in

Katja Thieme
7 min readFeb 22, 2023

Positionality statements have been a hot topic on academic Twitter. Some bold positions have been taken during these discussions. Do you have a position on positionality statements? Through what positionality is your position formed? Or, let's drop in to see what position your position is in.

A short tweet thread brought the recent conversation into motion. Jukka Savolainen tweeted in the following assertive tone about a paper he co-authored with Patrick Casey, Justin McBrayer, and Patricia Nayna Schwerdtle:

Positionality statements do not belong in the research literature. This is what my coauthors and I argue in the article published in Perspectives on Psychological Science. Our objections to this growing practice are three-fold.
Objection #1: Producing a credible positionality statement is ultimately an impossible task.
Objection #2: Positionality statements are misguided.
Objection #3: Positionality statements undermine the scientific ethos.

Disagreements with these claims came from all corners and were swiftly issued and strongly phrased. Here are but a few samples. Robert D. Weide declared: "Feigning objectivity is in fact a reactionary political project." Wendy Castillo noted: "We are inherently biased by our life experiences. The least we can do is acknowledge them." Abeba Birhane critiqued: "This is not only a bad scientific advise which adheres to the illusion of the view from nowhere, it also serves privileged white men and the status quo." Senza Arsendy exclaimed: "When I read a book, I always enjoy reading the author’s positionality statements." Avery Smith cautioned: "As a newly minted Dr of the social sciences, any claim of the ‘universalism’ of science is a thinly veiled attempt to uphold the dominance of white epistemologies." Kim Mitchell observed: "The objectivist epistemology rears its ugly head." Jason Malone remarked: "From my perspective as a historian (see what I did there), any research is informed by the researcher’s particular worldview." And Zoë Ayres quipped: "Can’t believe we are at the 'research should be objective' part of this year’s bingo card already, with the authors suggesting that not acknowledging bias/positionality is somehow not a position itself, and is somehow objective."

Many more commenters and quote-tweeters wrote in a similarly critical spirit. One of my personal favourites was Victor Ray's somewhat ironic statement that "This anti-positionality statement is also a positionality statement." There was some criticism that such a comment conflates position with positionality — a point which intrigued me as I have published on the distinction between the two. While this point about conflation may apply to some of the criticism of Savolainen's three objections — which I quoted above and which indeed form a position— it is not true of his last tweet in the thread. In it, Savolainen thanks Heterodox Academy for bringing all four co-authors together as members of a writers' group. We can take this association with Heterodox Academy as a declaration of positionality, whether it was intended that way or not. The same goes for "Bylines @Slate @USATODAY @UnHerd @CityJournal @nypost @thehill @Verkkouutiset" in Savolainen's Twitter bio. But let's turn to the actual article and to the objections it brings to the use of positionality statements. Or, more precisely, let's turn to what strikes me as quite strange about these objections.

Objection #1: Positionality statements are impossible.

The authors' first objection to the use of positionality statements hinges on the hope that these statements increase transparency: the clearer it is to readers what the experiential and cultural perspectives of the researchers are, the more obvious it will be how those perspectives shape the research. Our article authors find that futile. They are highly suspicious of other authors' motives. Given that researchers have the freedom to decide what parts of their experience or what aspects of their identity to mention, our authors speculate that these other writers might use positionality statements in order to conceal rather than disclose "nonfinancial interests" and thereby threaten "the integrity of scientific research." I find it rather odd to treat expressions of positionality as conflict of interest statements (which they are not) and then fault them for being imperfect at that. "Should the research community trust the authors themselves to decide which aspects of their lives need to be disclosed?", the authors ask, and then answer: "no." We might just as well ask if we should trust any authors, including the authors of this anti-positionality paper, to choose to disclose anything, anything at all: who they are citing, what questions they are asking, what data they consider, what conceptual framework they favour, what terms of evaluation they prefer.

As a pragmatic language analyst, I see expressions of positionality as one language tool among many. They are part of the tapestry of language features that may be woven into research genres. These language features include obviously accepted elements such as forms of citation, reporting expressions, nominal phrases, and definitions as well as more contentiously discussed ones like first-person pronouns, terms of evaluation, self-location and positionality. See here and here for how I teach some of these features. Authors may use any or all of these, their use differs between genres and disciplines, and these language elements are perpetually adapted, re-placed, revised, remixed, and modified.

Objection #2: Positionality statements bark up the wrong tree.

Our anti-positionality authors favourably highlight intellectual competition among researchers and laud efforts to diminish the effect of personal factors in academic adjudication. They speak enthusiastically of practices such as blind peer review, requirements for reproducibility, habits of data sharing, research preregistration, and adversarial collaborations. They present these practices as being aimed at diminishing the effects that researcher identity, experience, resources, and status have on the production of research. Our authors offer the well-worn narrative that it is intellectual competition among different research perspectives which produces "progress…toward a more perfect knowledge." Statements of positionality assert undue influence, they warn, and energy should go instead toward "the integrity of the process whereby contributions are evaluated, published, cited, and taught." The "time and effort scholars invest in reflecting on their social position" is better spent on asking "the input of others — their peers and, especially, their intellectual adversaries."

Let me note that, given the overwhelmingly critical response this article received on academic Twitter (see above), there are some important areas for input from adversarial others that this group of authors did not appear to seek out before publication. It is questionable whether this article will make any step, however teeny or tiny, toward more perfect knowledge. But also, integrating expressions of positionality in one's manuscript does not take as much time and effort as these authors make it out to be. Nor do those who include positionality statements engage in this practice with the idea that it will free them from being "prisoners of their biography." What a very strange assumption.

Objection #3: Positionality statements are harmful.

Here the authors claim that positionality statements violate the sacred value of universality. Academic readers must not know biographical information about the authors! If editors knew about, say, an author's long-time experience in the cultural environment which they study, they might be more favourably inclined toward what that manuscript argues! A manuscript that discusses sexual violence "might be treated differently depending on the reviewer's information about the author's gender, sexual orientation, and history of trauma." Why are our authors so worried about researchers revealing their experiential expertise? Why not extend this suspicious concern and say a manuscript might be treated differently if the author disclosed the nature of the evidence they were able to collect, the scholarly sources they chose to cite, and the analytical frameworks they adopted? Or, in other words, reviewers will read what has been written, how it has been put together, what expressions are used. And they will base their thoughts on that. Such is the nature of critical reading. Our authors are overly worried that positionality statements might entice other authors to present their work in a way that will "improve their chances of success." Such a very wicked temptation! Researchers who want to get published could "exaggerate or even fabricate claims" about themselves! I submit that authors could also cite work they didn't read, make up references that don't exist, and create tables with data that was never collected. They can also commit many other kinds of fraud which, it goes without saying, they absolutely should not commit. Should we stay away from the use of citations, references, and data tables for that reason? Obviously not.

You might have guessed that I do not think highly of these authors' objections. They are hardly objections at all and more an elaborated series of suspicious concerns. If the authors of this article do not wish to include positionality statements in their manuscripts, they should not be forced to do so. Clearly they don't want to and I'm not interested in demanding that they disclose any more aspects of themselves than they have already revealed to us. I'm not in favour of formally requiring that articles include expressions of positionality. Perfunctory self-reflection is rarely insightful. Though it also does not bother me that a small number of journals currently requires declarations of positionality of its authors. Most of all, I enjoy it when authors say something purposeful about themselves. Researchers are interesting people; they can have fascinating histories; personal narrative can be highly meaningful to both authors and readers. If I'm intrigued by someone's scholary thoughts then I usually like to know more about them and how they developed those thoughts. Publish and let publish. Don't try to be the anti-positionality police.