||The notion that \'where we are located in the social structure as a whole and which institutions we are in â€¦ have effects on how we understand the world\' (Hartsock, 1987, p. 188). The debate about positionality has been advanced most rigorously within feminist theory, rejecting the hegemony of \'abstract masculinism\' and challenging its epistemological claims to universality (see feminist geographies). In her work on Feminism and methodology (1987), Sandra Harding reverses the charge that feminist research is flawed by an inherent relativism. Rather than accepting the criticism that feminist research is invalidated because it is politically \'biased\', she argues that declaring the position from which one writes may lead to more sound analyses, rooted in the authority of experience, than apparently disinterested research which fails to acknowledge its partiality. Drawing on Hartsock\'s (1983) work, Harding distinguishes between a standpoint and a perspective. Unlike a \'perspective\' which anyone can claim, a feminist standpoint has to be struggled for, to be earned. It is \'not something anyone can have by claiming it, but an achievement\' (1987, p. 185). Similar arguments have been made by those who claim that the \'margins\' may offer a privileged position from which to view the \'centre\' (hooks, 1990) and by the insistence that all forms of knowledge are situated (Haraway, 1988). The idea that one\'s positionality can be easily identified and readily acknowledged, described by Rose (1997) as \'transparent reflexivity\', has also been criticized, requiring a thorough examination of the ambiguities and uncertainties of research practice.
While it has been developed most strongly in feminist theory, the debate about positionality applies more widely to questions of representation, where it is increasingly accepted that all ways of seeing are partial (in the dual sense of incomplete and rarely, if ever, disinterested). The argument about positionality has been successful in forcing dominant groups to acknowledge their particular angle of vision, to accept, in Stuart Hall\'s words, that we are all ethnically located, rather than seeing \'ethnicity\' as something that only applies to minority groups: \'We all speak from a particular place, out of a particular history, a particular experience, a particular culture, without being contained by that position\' (1992, p. 258). A politics of position is therefore particularly appropriate as a challenge to all forms of ethnocentrism (cf. identity politics).
A politics of position demands that attention be paid to the structures of power that privilege certain (typically white, male, middleclass) voices, sanctioning some points of view while silencing others (typically black, female, working-class). Some authors have reached pessimistic conclusions about the prospects for retrieving oppressed and subordinated voices, arguing that there is currently \'no space from which the sexed subaltern subject can speak\' (Spivak, 1988, p. 307; see subaltern studies) without their voices being distorted and misappropriated by those with greater powers of representation. Others are more optimistic, including Hartsock herself, who argues that \'We need to develop our understanding of difference by creating a situation in which hitherto marginalized groups can name themselves, speak for themselves, and participate in defining the terms of interaction\' (1987, p. 189).
The debate about positionality raises complex issues about speaking positions, about silencing and giving voice, especially for social scientists who have a vested interest in representing those who may be culturally different from ourselves. For, as Bourdieu has argued in his study of academic politics, \'it is not, as is usually thought, political stances which determine people\'s stances on things academic; but their positions in the academic field which inform the stances they adopt on political issues in general\' (Bourdieu, 1988, pp. xvii-xviii). As Hartsock\'s argument about earning rather than claiming a standpoint suggests, positionality involves more than merely stating one\'s position (\'writing as a white, middleclass man â€¦\' etc.). It requires us to examine how we are ourselves positioned in relation to various contexts of power and how such power can be channelled in politically progressive ways. Rather than simply adding new voices to pre-existing debates without altering their underlying terms, a politics of position has the potential to transform the nature of those debates. Through such fundamental questioning, the crisis of representation can move forward from arguments about \'good\' versus \'bad\' images to challenge the very grounds on which such judgements are made and the social relations that lead to the empowerment of some representations while disempowering others. (See also situated knowledge.)Â (PAJ)
References Bourdieu, P. 1988: Homo academicus. Cambridge: Polity Press.Â Hall, S. 1992: New ethnicities. In J. Donald and A. Rattansi, eds, \'Race\', culture and difference. London: Sage, 252-9.Â Haraway, D. 1988: Situated knowledges: the science question in feminism and the privilege of partial perspective. Feminist Studies 14: 575-99.Â Harding, S., ed., 1987: Feminism and methodology. Milton Keynes: Open University Press.Â Hartsock, N. 1983: The feminist standpoint. Reprinted in Harding, S., ed., 1987: Feminism and methodology. Milton Keynes: Open University Press, 157-80.Â Hartsock, N. 1987: Rethinking modernism: minority versus majority theories. Cultural Critique 7: 187-206.Â hooks, b. 1990: Yearning: race, gender, and cultural politics. Toronto: Between the Lines.Â Rose,G.1997: Situated knowledges: positionality, reflexivities and other tactics. Progress in Human Geography 21: 305-20.Â Spivak, G.C. 1988: Can the subaltern speak? In C. Nelson and L. Grossberg, eds, Marxism and the interpretation of culture. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 271-313.
Suggested Reading Harding (1987).Â Rose (1997).