Positionality: How knowing about the interconnections I have with others makes life more understandable

Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers sang, “Islands in the stream that is what we are …,” a song of two people who assume their one-night relationship has no impact on anyone or anything beyond the two of them. A better philosophy might be John Donne’s “No one is an island,” that recognises the complexity of human relationships. How does knowing about our interconnections with other humans help us understand life in a deeper way?

It used to be common knowledge that if you wanted to study something or someone else you needed to maintain distance between you and the subject. This distance was designed to reduce any bias that you have that may influence your observations, analysis, or conclusions. Extreme versions of this practice led to studies the included hidden cameras, uninformed subjects, and other unethical research practices. All based on the assumption that we can extract people from their contexts and put them into a petri dish for study.

Nowadays, thankfully, that common knowledge is changing to recognise that biases exist, really can’t be eliminated, nor should they be. There is a newer recognition that any study includes the interaction between the researcher and their research counterparts, who have just as much a role to play in the shaping of knowledge as the researcher. I can’t say much for the so-called hard sciences since my expertise lies in social science, but bias is still an integral part of the hard sciences, too. For example, who makes the choice as to what is being studied? Who decides where to point the hidden cameras? Who decides what questions to ask? Who decides what factors are important? Who decides to develop nuclear weapons rather than nuclear power? All of these decisions are made because of some kind of researcher bias or another.

This is much more complicated when we enter the realm of social science that seeks to understand how humans interact with one another. For example, in my study of how Filipino men in my community conceptualise and create their understandings their own masculinity and their being maka-Diyos it was necessary for me to identify my own positionality to the men and the subjects.

I should point out that maka-Diyos is a Filipino term that doesn’t exist in English. It encompasses godliness and religiosity but goes much deeper than that. It is related to loving our family, our neighbour, and our God.

What does positionality entail?

At face value, I am an outsider to my community. I was born 11,700 km away in a different context and culture. I don’t look the same as those around me, my mother tongue is not Tagalog, I prefer running shoes to flip-flops, and I don’t handle the heat all that well. When kids see my blue eyes, they stare. I am taller than most people that I meet. Almost everything that people notice about me sets me apart as different.

But on another level maybe I am not as far out there as one might think. My obvious identity as an outsider aside, Filipinos are very accommodating, and a couple of things cause me to question my outsider status. I am a pastor, a role that is still seen in a positive way by much of Philippine society, my wife and I have also been welcomed into close relationships with people in our community, we try to communicate in Tagalog as much as possible. All this is possible because Filipinos have a complex understanding of interpersonal relationships. Rather than simply identifying someone as either insider or outsider, Filipinos have a range of relational milestones that show how someone transitions from being an outsider to being an insider. But that is a discussion for another post.

At this time we need to recognise that positionality recognises and includes the role of the researcher into the life of the community of the researched. Both parties contribute to shaping knowledge is a way that benefits others.

Positionality for non-Researchers.

You may ask, “How does this relate to me since I am not a researcher?”

Life is collaborative. I once heard that even the most introverted people influence 10,000 people over their lifetimes. Family relationships give us a glimpse as to how this works. A married couple represents at least two relationships but once they start having children the number of relationships increases exponentially. Not to mention that the two individuals who form the initial two relationships bring with them their own set of complex relationships. That means that each of us is constantly creating a life in collaboration with an increasing number of people. That also means that it’s impossible to extract and individual from this complex dance and expect the dance to remain the same. In order to make sense of this world and find some way of becoming successful in it, we need to recognise our own positionality in it.

What this all means is that our current divided society can be rectified through understanding positionality. Once we see how each of us is connected, and how we really have no choice but to interact with one another, we come to understanding, we see things from other’s points of view, we realise they, too, have legitimate perspectives. We are no longer individuals — nor individual families — but are rather a part of a larger community that is all journeying together towards a better future.

How are you positioned? How does who you are position you to have a better connection with your community? Why not let us know by commenting below?

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Remember sharing is what friends do.

Image is by Ahmad Odeh on Unsplash.

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