April 11, 2023 - 7:15am

As an undergraduate at the University of Helsinki, I published an essay in a student paper I admired. A few months later I became friends with the editor, who confessed that he had considered it only because I shared a name with an established writer. In other words, it was a case of mistaken identity.

About 10 years later, I wrote a critical commentary in response to a Harvard professor and the former President of the American Sociological Association. Because my manuscript went through a double-blind peer review, I have every reason to believe that it was the strength of my arguments — and nothing else — that persuaded a top journal in my field to publish a contribution by a foreign graduate student from a mid-tier university.

Blind peer review is an academic practice that requires scholarship to be evaluated on its merits, with no attention to the identity of its author. This standard approach reflects a foundational principle of the scientific value system: the norm of universalism, which states that “all truth-claims should be subjected to the same impersonal criteria regardless of personal or social attributes of their protagonist”. Unfortunately, however, the integrity of this scientific peer review process is now under threat by the proliferation of so-called “positionality statements” in academic literatures.

A positionality statement is an author’s description of their identity as it relates to the research topic. For example, an article published in a highly regarded social science journal features a positionality statement in which the two authors write:

Both authors are middle- to upper-middle class white women — one is a mother, the other is not. A commitment to antiracist, intersectional, and feminist principles guides our research efforts, and we conducted this work with an awareness of the politics, dangers, and limitations of affluent white academics writing about the lives of low-income black Americans.
- American Sociological Review

Similar to this example, most positionality statements disclose information about the sex, gender identity, race, and other socio-demographic characteristics of the scholars responsible for the study. The practice of producing positionality or “reflexivity” statements, as they are sometimes called, is old hat in humanities and many fields of social sciences, but lately they have begun to appear also in medicine, biology, and other hard sciences. Recently, a colleague shared an email from a journal editor in paediatrics which listed the authors’ failure to include a reflexivity statement as one grounds for rejecting the study.

As a social scientist, I understand the value of self-reflection and agree that scholars should be sensitive to the strengths and limitations stemming from their biographies. But, as my co-authors and I explained in a recent peer-reviewed journal article, sharing such reflections in the form of positionality statements is counterproductive at best.

First, if we take seriously the idea that our “positionality” clouds our research then surely those same clouds continue to hang over our positionality statements. We can attempt to be transparent about our blind spots but, by definition, we can never see them. For this reason, writing a credible positionality statement becomes an exercise in futility.

Second, by focusing on individual scholars, positionality statements are misguided about the collective nature of the process that creates scientific knowledge. There is simply nothing wrong with participating in research with all kinds of personal bias — as long as you play by the rules. A defining purpose of the scientific method is to ensure impartial treatment of knowledge claims. To the extent we are able to make progress, it happens as a result of open and honest competition of ideas, evaluated against empirical evidence. It matters not what you think and why you may think that way; the only thing that matters is whether the best available data agrees with your assumptions.

Third, positionality statements are a sneaky way to introduce identity politics within actual scholarship. In the course of our research, we read a number of statements published in various fields of academic literature. An honest appraisal of this material suggests that the real purpose of these frequently cringeworthy statements is to signal the authors’ adherence to “social justice” ideology and loyalties to selected identity groups.

Positionality statements are counterproductive to research integrity because they increase subjectivity and political bias in the literature. As such, they violate key values of the scientific ethos: impartiality and objectivity. I am urging my fellow scholars to resist this latest effort to smuggle identity politics into academic research.

Jukka Savolainen is a Professor of Sociology at Wayne State University and a Heterodox Academy Writing Fellow.

Jukka Savolainen is a Writing Fellow at Heterodox Academy and Professor of Sociology at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan.