What is Positionality?

The positionality concept captures the dynamic ways an individual is defined by socially significant identity dimensions (Secules, McCall, Mejia, et al., 2021). It describes a person’s reflexive capacity to consider how the opportunities and limits of their identity, expertise, or personal situation are shaped by their environments and inform their perspectives and actions.

Positionality in action

Who are you? In the context of data science work, you may see yourself as mainly a data scientist or as an engineer, a data provider, an analyst, or domain expert, or a bit of all of the above.

But there is more to you that matters for your data science work. Your experience, training, how others see you, what qualities of your identity are brought out by this environment, and how those around you influence your understanding of the research questions.

An abstracted image of a hexagon that appears to be looking at its mirrored reflected in a squared-shaped plane. The hexagon has a gradient fill that ranges from yellow to green to teal. The mirror is a medium blue, and the reflected hexagon is muted yellow. There is also a partial circle reflection showing above the hexagon in muted teal, and a partial fan-shaped object reflection in muted purple below the hexagon.
About the Illustration: Our environments and experiences often reflect only what we are used to seeing, or expect to see. The subject (object) is fixated on a reflection of its own identity, but the other shapes suggest that other identities exist just out of sight.

Ways to reflect on positionality

  • Assumptions and bias
    • What assumptions do you bring to work based on your:
      • professional and personal experience
      • your experiences with culture, gender, class, and race
    • How might those assumptions influence the questions you ask and the answers you find?
  • Role and expertise
    • Why are you the appropriate person to approach and develop this research question?
    • What are the opportunities and limits of your expertise? 
    • What other kinds of expertise would you need? 
    • Who are the other persons involved in your project, and how are you connected to them?
    • What missing expertise do you think they bring to the project?
  • Stakeholders, providers, and beneficiaries
    • Whom do you need to rely on to make this project happen?
    • Who will benefit from your work?
    • Who are the relevant stakeholders that you/your team needs to partner with to understand the research question from another perspective?
    • How are stakeholders, providers, and beneficiaries interconnected?

Dive Deeper

The concept of positionality accounts for how knowledge and actions are inescapably informed by a person’s relative social circumstances, including but not limited to their experience of gender, race, class, culture, education, and status. An intersectional perspective (Crenshaw, 1991) foregrounds how the overlap and interaction of these various axes of difference influence the distribution of social privilege and disadvantage. Positionality challenges an implicit claim in scientific research that knowledge is the discovery of unquestionable and singular truths. Instead, knowledge is always “situated” within “webs of differential positioning” (Haraway, 1988, p. 590), resulting from the subjective and embodied experiences that every individual lives through.