Politics aside, I feel the polarized nature of the country right now. My vantage point is one of visitor in a strange land even though I’ve resided in the United States for more than twenty years. Despite my long run, I cannot claim to be an American as I am still a transplant from Canada. Perhaps it is my position as a woman over 40, a mother, a Canadian, or a single parent that gives me my unique vantage point, but following the current election the tension feels almost palpable to me. That said, I am not taking a political stance, but instead I think it’s important to note that our thoughts and feelings about politics or religion or anything else is rooted in the position that we hold in society and the roles that we play.
What is positionality?
Let’s get academic for a minute because positionality is a concept in the social sciences and most specifically, the discipline of anthropology. By “positionality” we mean a concept articulated by Linda Alcoff (1988) and others, namely that gender, race, class, and other aspects of our identities are markers of relational positions rather than essential qualities. Knowledge is valid when it includes an acknowledgment of the knower’s specific position in any context, because changing contextual and relational factors are crucial for defining identities and our knowledge in any given situation (Maher & Tetreault, 1993).
Sometimes we forget that we even have a cultural position because we get so involved with the way that we see the world that it doesn’t occur to us that someone else might see the world differently. Our level of tolerance of other religions or cultures is often directly or indirectly influenced by our position and how the position relates to others.
In cultural accounts of experience, positionality refers to both the fact of and the specific conditions of a given social situation. So, where one might talk about the “position” of an individual in a social structure, “positionality” draws attention to the conditions under which such a position arises, the factors that stabilize that position, and the particular implications of that position with reference to the forces that maintain it. Learn more in: Urbane-in the City: Examining and Refining the Assumptions Behind Urban Informatics
Let’s look at a practical example. I mentioned that I feel the palpable nature of a polarized nation right now, but the reason that is so tangible to me is because I’m a Canadian here on a Green Card, that immediately will affect how I feel about discussion of immigration reform; I’m a single mother with a background in education so that affects how I feel about education reform. I’m also unable to participate in the voting process, so that affects how I feel about the democratic process. How can I have an opinion when I am not an actual citizen? The point is that recognizing my position allows me to take a breath before I offer opinions. When people’s opinions differ from mine, I work hard to try and understand their position. People are motivated by hope, but they are also motivated by fear. If we can’t understand our own unique positionality, it will be very difficult to understand the positionality of others.
Once we own the social influences that create our positionality we will be better equipped to empathize with positions different from our own. If real change is going to happen we need to start really talking and start really listening to one another instead of just ranting and raving. Ranting may provide great material for Saturday Night Live (SNL), but it does little to really improve the lives of the American population. Perhaps it is my positionality that makes me hopeful that we can move forward despite our differences, but I think that ranting and raving is easy to ignore, it is only with understanding that real change can occur. In my ideal world understanding comes from taking the time to own our positionality and recognize the underlying hope, fear, and social constructions that feed our positionality. We then need to set out to understand the hope, fear, and social constructions that feed the positionality of those that disagree with us. Despite your political or religious affiliation, I think it’s important to recognize the role that gender, culture, race, and religion play in forming one’s positionality. When we own our position, we can start to break down the barriers that divide us.
Maher, F., & Tetreault, M. (1993). Frames of Positionality: Constructing Meaningful Dialogues about Gender and Race. Anthropological Quarterly, 66(3), 118-126. doi:10.2307/3317515