Friday, May 15, 2009

You Wanna See My Positionality?

An interesting little exercise in my Ethnographic Research class on Tuesday. This week's student seminar was on reflexivity, summed up as the careful and deliberate examination of the relationship between a work of ethnography, its producer, and the process by which it is produced. In any other science, you might just call this 'being transparent about one's methods'.

My classmate who was giving the seminar asked us to write down ten things about ourselves -- personal, political, demographic, academic or philosophical, that give an idea of who we are and where we come from, and that could influence how we carry out our research.

I found it surprisingly easy to scribble things down, and had filled up an A4 page within four or five minutes. A couple of my classmates who read out their jottings focused on things that would directly affect the particular research project they had planned. But it seems I interpreted it as a chance to come clean about my what drives me in general. I wrote it down quickly, in what was pretty close to a stream of consciousness. Apart from a couple of grammatical tidy-ups, the below is almost exactly what I jotted down on the sheet of paper.

1. I'm very analytic but also like to see connections or analogies between things and put them into a system.

2. I'm generally shy and introverted, but sometimes switch over to another side of my personality and become domineering. I have to have my say, and can be a poor listener.

3. I tend to become very obsessed with particular topics, and have to know all the details about them.

4. I have a background in philosophy (itself driven by the personality traits above). I've since moved on to a more empirical interest in human affairs, but the philosophy always finds a way back in.

5. I love stories -- anything is better when told as a narrative, especially written, but also filmed. My driving ambition is to be a good writer myself.

6. I'm male, European, hetrosexual and middle class, but have always felt detached from the supposed position of power that puts me in (being clumsy, nervous and geekish always seemed to easily override any inherent social advantage). It's only as I've got older that I've noticed the subtle ways in which my path is smoothed.

7. I was brought up as a Catholic, but with a Kantian / humanist morality that emphasized principles, responsibility, and treating people as ends in themselves.

8. I'm very interested in Latin America for reasons I can't fully explain. Although I have quite a bit of experience there, my connections are overwhelmingly with the mestizo middle class, which could lead me to overestimate my insight.

9. I love the outdoors, but am also very attached to certain comforts, notably hot showers, coffee, and a good night's sleep.

10. Politically, I'm a social democrat by default, with flirtatious leanings toward left-libertarianism. I'm prevented from crossing over fully by a suspicion that oppressive systems don't come close to explaining the sum total of human nastiness. In that sense, I'm also probably hiding a streak of 'small c' conservatism.

OK, so there you go. Readers, how about a similar contribution? You don't have to do ten; five or even three would be a good start...


Cecilia said...

Fascinating...I too would have interpreted that as far more personal/confessional exercise. So, here are a few from me:

I'm white, middle class, educated, financially stable and feel completely comfortable in professional/business setting. I know I'm privileged and don't feel guilty about it but do very much believe that the more you have in life the more you have to give.

I have a firm belief that we are all individually the masters of our own destinies and that the greatest limitations we face are those that come from within. Admittedly though, I'm also almost embarrassingly supersititious and I am convinced that fate and supernatural forces play a significant role in my life.

Sociable and love to make connections with new people yet also need to keep a certain amount of space around me.

I like to think I am compassionate and find myself able to identify with and sympathize with those who stray from the straight and narrow. Yet at the same time I do not suffer fools gladly and am hard on people who I perceive as chosing to be helpless, or who I think lack personal responsibilty and then expect others to shoulder the consequences.

I think that about 85% of anything in life comes from planning and preparation.

I am a constant maelstrom of emotions. I don't perceive this as a weakness and I long ago lost any self consciousness about others being able to see how I feel.

I love the stories of peoples lives. Whether it be work gossip,an historical legal case, or a business deal, there is always a story. I always want to know who the characters are and why we should care about them. Everything revolves around a few basic human dramas.

Cecilia said...

Add to that...I have a better command of language than it would appear above. It's difficult to pick up typos in the small confines of the comments box.

Simon Bidwell said...

Great, Cecilia! I think we both start to drift across the border between 'acknowledging one's positionality' and 'setting out one's personal manifesto'. But your points remind me of another one for me:

Crave personal space, and become slightly agitated when not available. Am happiest when able to pass one quarter to one third of a day by myself (generally reading, writing, or walking).

harvestbird said...

Thanks for this! See my reply here.

terence said...

that's definitely more interesting than the average internet meme.

4. I wish more people would think about the connection between development practice and theory, and political philosophy. After all, normative discussions about the first two are meaningless (or at best run the risk of being full of hidden contradictions) without the third. That being said, I still haven't devoted enough time to philosophy myself.
5. Me too!
6. Same here.
7. I was raised by agnostics.
10. I'm a civil servant and so have no politics whatsoever. Honest.

and a bonus which is probably not that much to do with positionality: put me in a purely social situation (unless it is with close friends or family) and I'll be nervous, anxious and awkward. Put me in a similar situation where I have recourse to the realm of ideas and most of that vanishes.

Happy travels.

harvestbird said...

Point 7 is indeed an interesting one. I was raised Anglican by parents who had converted (or reverted) back from Presbyterianism/Methodism. I often think that my upbringing sowed very effectively the seeds of my atheism as an adult, not by restricting critical thinking but by actively encouraging it. The assumption was that such thinking would strengthen one's position in the fold: it wasn't the fault of Anglicanism that I reasoned my way out of it!

Simon Bidwell said...


Philosophy may be better approached as an amateur pursuit. Unless you're lucky, they way it's taught in much of the English-speaking world can be enough to put you right off.

Point 10: me too. But the code of conduct says you can still have political beliefs in private...after all, bureaucrats are human too. Oh no, that's right...

Harvest Bird:

yes, that's pretty much what happened for me, too. I sometimes say I'm still'culturally Catholic', i.e. driven by those core values of arguing, alcohol and guilt.