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‘Positionality statements’ smuggle identity politics into academia

Positionality statements have begun to appear in medicine. Credit: Getty

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.

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Jane Watson
Jane Watson
1 year ago

Well said Jukka, it’s all quite nauseating. As you suggest, so-called ‘reflexive’ statements are meaningless. Anyone who knows anything about psychology will tell you that psychopaths often have the best lines.

Selwyn Jones
Selwyn Jones
1 year ago
Reply to  Jane Watson

Indeed, “reflexive” statements are certainly meaningless, if we take them at face value. But they are not seriously intended as remedies for bias; they are ritualised forms of self-abasement, indicating craven obedience to the Marxist powers that be. As such, rather than representing an attempt to root bias out, they seek to entrench it – in hard left form.

Selwyn Jones
Selwyn Jones
1 year ago
Reply to  Jane Watson

Indeed, “reflexive” statements are certainly meaningless, if we take them at face value. But they are not seriously intended as remedies for bias; they are ritualised forms of self-abasement, indicating craven obedience to the Marxist powers that be. As such, rather than representing an attempt to root bias out, they seek to entrench it – in hard left form.

Jane Watson
Jane Watson
1 year ago

Well said Jukka, it’s all quite nauseating. As you suggest, so-called ‘reflexive’ statements are meaningless. Anyone who knows anything about psychology will tell you that psychopaths often have the best lines.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
1 year ago

Ugh. I just puked in my mouth a little. The research is either well done or not. This is just another example of education and research compromising truth for in favour of progressive values.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
1 year ago

Ugh. I just puked in my mouth a little. The research is either well done or not. This is just another example of education and research compromising truth for in favour of progressive values.

Brian Villanueva
Brian Villanueva
1 year ago

I see a Sokal-like opportunity here. Submit the same paper with 2 positionality statements: one from an old straight white male and the other from a black trans-woman lesbian.

Warren Trees
Warren Trees
1 year ago

In fact, we should all sign our posts with obviously exaggerated positionality statements from now on.
The poster is a middle class, African American currently identifying as Asian, transgendered female, committed to conservative principles of affirmative action, pierced, tattooed, non-binary, alcohol-free, peanut allergic, nervous, fish loving, urban dwelling, charitable, Presbyterian identifying as Muslim, short-statured, left-handed, and wrote this response fully aware of the politics, dangers and limitations of people with TDS writing about the uselessness of positionality statements.

Terry M
Terry M
1 year ago
Reply to  Warren Trees

Fully abled. Rejected.

Terry M
Terry M
1 year ago
Reply to  Warren Trees

Fully abled. Rejected.

Peter B
Peter B
1 year ago

I think you may be missing the point about the seriousness of this. It isn’t a game. It’s about publically compromising people so they are no longer truly free to express their own opinions.

Brian Villanueva
Brian Villanueva
1 year ago
Reply to  Peter B

Sorry, peter, I don’t mean to make light of it at all. But sometimes, when the choices are to laugh or cry, the former is the better option. I spend enough time lamenting the decline of Western civilization.

Brian Villanueva
Brian Villanueva
1 year ago
Reply to  Peter B

Sorry, peter, I don’t mean to make light of it at all. But sometimes, when the choices are to laugh or cry, the former is the better option. I spend enough time lamenting the decline of Western civilization.

Warren Trees
Warren Trees
1 year ago

In fact, we should all sign our posts with obviously exaggerated positionality statements from now on.
The poster is a middle class, African American currently identifying as Asian, transgendered female, committed to conservative principles of affirmative action, pierced, tattooed, non-binary, alcohol-free, peanut allergic, nervous, fish loving, urban dwelling, charitable, Presbyterian identifying as Muslim, short-statured, left-handed, and wrote this response fully aware of the politics, dangers and limitations of people with TDS writing about the uselessness of positionality statements.

Peter B
Peter B
1 year ago

I think you may be missing the point about the seriousness of this. It isn’t a game. It’s about publically compromising people so they are no longer truly free to express their own opinions.

Brian Villanueva
Brian Villanueva
1 year ago

I see a Sokal-like opportunity here. Submit the same paper with 2 positionality statements: one from an old straight white male and the other from a black trans-woman lesbian.

Erik Hildinger
Erik Hildinger
1 year ago

Perhaps peer-reviewers should write “positionality” statements so that scientists submitting their work to a particular journal can produce statements that agree with them, thereby subverting the process.
Subversion may be morally justified here, where the purpose of these statements is to test the orthodoxy of the submitters, or to help journals decide whose work to publish on the basis of the race, sex or political and social opinions of the submitters.
Another subversive technique which I recommend is to have ChatGPT write the statement for you. It requires no effort on your part, it will express only acceptable received opinions, and you avoid the humiliation of submitting yourself to the process of concocting such a statement yourself. In fact, you might enjoy practicing the subversion.

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
1 year ago
Reply to  Erik Hildinger

This type of subversion is as old as humanity.
The most typical example might be a male seeking to gain the attention of a female by pretending to be interested in something the female is interested in (or vice versa). Or, students applying for a place at university listing interests which they may have a small but sufficient amount of knowledge about to make them look better candidates.
By the time someone is in a position to submit a paper for review, they should already be well-versed in this type of kidology.
Aretha Franklin sang about it: Who’s Zooming Who?
The real question is: how much does it matter? If one concocts a profile in order to pass through a barrier, if the end result is of benefit (i.e. the dissemination of ideas) does the process matter? I’m not making a judgement here, simply posing the question, because as pointed out, it’s something we all do instinctively as part of the process of getting on in life. Is there a qualitative difference between what i’ve described and what the author of this article describes? I don’t think there is. All that would remain is: how well an individual is able to do it.

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
1 year ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

It skews the science in favor of political correct ideology. This is how umbrella terms such as ‘patriarchy’ and ‘systemic racism’ have been injected into the mainstream. Positionality statements are used to judge the worthiness of a paper based on the author’s adherence to so-called progressive values. On the one hand it’s way to lie your way through one, but being forced to lie is a shaky foundation for scientific inquiry.

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
1 year ago
Reply to  Julian Farrows

Yes, i know.

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
1 year ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

Sorry, I took you too literally. Hard to tell with written words sometimes 😉

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
1 year ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

Sorry, I took you too literally. Hard to tell with written words sometimes 😉

Peter B
Peter B
1 year ago
Reply to  Julian Farrows

And that may be why it is done. Once you’ve compromised yourself and the authorities know it, you’re never really free to express your opinions again. This is how Communism worked in Eastern Europe and Russia. And how Putin’s regime still functions.

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
1 year ago
Reply to  Julian Farrows

Yes, i know.

Peter B
Peter B
1 year ago
Reply to  Julian Farrows

And that may be why it is done. Once you’ve compromised yourself and the authorities know it, you’re never really free to express your opinions again. This is how Communism worked in Eastern Europe and Russia. And how Putin’s regime still functions.

Erik Hildinger
Erik Hildinger
1 year ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

Understanding and appealing to your audience is basic to rhetorical success– you’re right about that. But in this situation I’m interested in the end rather than the means. I merely suggest a way to end a pernicious practice.

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
1 year ago
Reply to  Erik Hildinger

Yes, i know. I was merely being subversive with regard to subversion.

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
1 year ago
Reply to  Erik Hildinger

Yes, i know. I was merely being subversive with regard to subversion.

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
1 year ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

It skews the science in favor of political correct ideology. This is how umbrella terms such as ‘patriarchy’ and ‘systemic racism’ have been injected into the mainstream. Positionality statements are used to judge the worthiness of a paper based on the author’s adherence to so-called progressive values. On the one hand it’s way to lie your way through one, but being forced to lie is a shaky foundation for scientific inquiry.

Erik Hildinger
Erik Hildinger
1 year ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

Understanding and appealing to your audience is basic to rhetorical success– you’re right about that. But in this situation I’m interested in the end rather than the means. I merely suggest a way to end a pernicious practice.

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
1 year ago
Reply to  Erik Hildinger

This type of subversion is as old as humanity.
The most typical example might be a male seeking to gain the attention of a female by pretending to be interested in something the female is interested in (or vice versa). Or, students applying for a place at university listing interests which they may have a small but sufficient amount of knowledge about to make them look better candidates.
By the time someone is in a position to submit a paper for review, they should already be well-versed in this type of kidology.
Aretha Franklin sang about it: Who’s Zooming Who?
The real question is: how much does it matter? If one concocts a profile in order to pass through a barrier, if the end result is of benefit (i.e. the dissemination of ideas) does the process matter? I’m not making a judgement here, simply posing the question, because as pointed out, it’s something we all do instinctively as part of the process of getting on in life. Is there a qualitative difference between what i’ve described and what the author of this article describes? I don’t think there is. All that would remain is: how well an individual is able to do it.

Erik Hildinger
Erik Hildinger
1 year ago

Perhaps peer-reviewers should write “positionality” statements so that scientists submitting their work to a particular journal can produce statements that agree with them, thereby subverting the process.
Subversion may be morally justified here, where the purpose of these statements is to test the orthodoxy of the submitters, or to help journals decide whose work to publish on the basis of the race, sex or political and social opinions of the submitters.
Another subversive technique which I recommend is to have ChatGPT write the statement for you. It requires no effort on your part, it will express only acceptable received opinions, and you avoid the humiliation of submitting yourself to the process of concocting such a statement yourself. In fact, you might enjoy practicing the subversion.

Malcolm Knott
Malcolm Knott
1 year ago

Imagine a positional statement by Issac Newton. ‘I am a distinctly odd, irascible, quarrelsome individual with some very peculiar, not to say batty, religious views and my hobby is shoving needles in my eyes to see what happens.’

Malcolm Knott
Malcolm Knott
1 year ago

Imagine a positional statement by Issac Newton. ‘I am a distinctly odd, irascible, quarrelsome individual with some very peculiar, not to say batty, religious views and my hobby is shoving needles in my eyes to see what happens.’

Richard Craven
Richard Craven
1 year ago

Authors should go out of their way to lie in “positionality statements”. White male authors should claim to be female and black, sorry I mean Black, and vice versa. Posh authors should claim to be from the hood, and working class authors should claim to be dukes and duchesses.

Peter Kwasi-Modo
Peter Kwasi-Modo
1 year ago
Reply to  Richard Craven

Meghan Markel does a bit of that already.

Erik Hildinger
Erik Hildinger
1 year ago
Reply to  Richard Craven

Exactly. Self-identification is voluntary, at least in the U.S. If everyone lied about their race or ethnicity, the whole edifice would come down. After all, if race is a social construct, then it’s a fiction whether an institution or an individual uses the term. What’s the justification behind the position that only institutions can indulge in fiction?

Last edited 1 year ago by Erik Hildinger
Peter Kwasi-Modo
Peter Kwasi-Modo
1 year ago
Reply to  Richard Craven

Meghan Markel does a bit of that already.

Erik Hildinger
Erik Hildinger
1 year ago
Reply to  Richard Craven

Exactly. Self-identification is voluntary, at least in the U.S. If everyone lied about their race or ethnicity, the whole edifice would come down. After all, if race is a social construct, then it’s a fiction whether an institution or an individual uses the term. What’s the justification behind the position that only institutions can indulge in fiction?

Last edited 1 year ago by Erik Hildinger
Richard Craven
Richard Craven
1 year ago

Authors should go out of their way to lie in “positionality statements”. White male authors should claim to be female and black, sorry I mean Black, and vice versa. Posh authors should claim to be from the hood, and working class authors should claim to be dukes and duchesses.

Peter Kwasi-Modo
Peter Kwasi-Modo
1 year ago

Thanks to Prof. Savoilainen for this piece. Academic publishing is yet another institution in civic society that is surrendering to the wokerati. But I suspect that this is not just bowing to external pressures to conform. A vast number of academic posts seem to have been created for “activist” researchers and persuading journals to introduce positionality statements is an example them flexing their muscles.
When I see a paper with results that support the woke case, my initial reaction is to suspect that the author would never have submitted the paper, had the results not turned out that way. Qualitative research and questionnaire-based research is ideally suited to re-jigging until the “correct” answers are obtained.
My personal positionality statement: “Grumpy old git with zero ticks in boxes.”

Peter Kwasi-Modo
Peter Kwasi-Modo
1 year ago

Thanks to Prof. Savoilainen for this piece. Academic publishing is yet another institution in civic society that is surrendering to the wokerati. But I suspect that this is not just bowing to external pressures to conform. A vast number of academic posts seem to have been created for “activist” researchers and persuading journals to introduce positionality statements is an example them flexing their muscles.
When I see a paper with results that support the woke case, my initial reaction is to suspect that the author would never have submitted the paper, had the results not turned out that way. Qualitative research and questionnaire-based research is ideally suited to re-jigging until the “correct” answers are obtained.
My personal positionality statement: “Grumpy old git with zero ticks in boxes.”

Bob Downing
Bob Downing
1 year ago

As far as I recall, wasn’t honest, impartial peer review simply abolished on the basis that all science was now “post-modern” and had advanced beyond the need for strict procedures?

Bob Downing
Bob Downing
1 year ago

As far as I recall, wasn’t honest, impartial peer review simply abolished on the basis that all science was now “post-modern” and had advanced beyond the need for strict procedures?

Graeme Kemp
Graeme Kemp
1 year ago

The statements sound more like forced confessions than “positionality” statements (that’s my position. anyway).

Graeme Kemp
Graeme Kemp
1 year ago

The statements sound more like forced confessions than “positionality” statements (that’s my position. anyway).

Frank McCusker
Frank McCusker
1 year ago

Dear God. “Positionality statements” – even the name is illiterate.

Frank McCusker
Frank McCusker
1 year ago

Dear God. “Positionality statements” – even the name is illiterate.

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
1 year ago

I’m a teapot short and stout here’s my handle here’s my spout….

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
1 year ago

I’m a teapot short and stout here’s my handle here’s my spout….

Dougie Undersub
Dougie Undersub
1 year ago

I’m sympathetic to the author’s case but … but … social science isn’t really a science, is it? The essence of the scientific method is replicability and social science “experiments” are never replicable because a sample of human beings isn’t reproducible or representative in the way a sample of, say, sub-atomic particles is.
Plus, peer review has been broken for a long time.

Chris Wheatley
Chris Wheatley
1 year ago

I agree. Social Science is about finding some stats, drawing a few graphs, and applying statistics. The peer reviews today focus on the statistical methods. Meaningless drivel.

Chris Wheatley
Chris Wheatley
1 year ago

I agree. Social Science is about finding some stats, drawing a few graphs, and applying statistics. The peer reviews today focus on the statistical methods. Meaningless drivel.

Dougie Undersub
Dougie Undersub
1 year ago

I’m sympathetic to the author’s case but … but … social science isn’t really a science, is it? The essence of the scientific method is replicability and social science “experiments” are never replicable because a sample of human beings isn’t reproducible or representative in the way a sample of, say, sub-atomic particles is.
Plus, peer review has been broken for a long time.

Andrew F
Andrew F
1 year ago

There is nothing surprising here. Neo-Marxists now are just replicating tools used by their Stalinist predecessors.
Just remember show trials of the 30s or self-criticism statements in Mao China in the 60s.
We should defund useless subjects (like sociology) for a start.

Andrew F
Andrew F
1 year ago

There is nothing surprising here. Neo-Marxists now are just replicating tools used by their Stalinist predecessors.
Just remember show trials of the 30s or self-criticism statements in Mao China in the 60s.
We should defund useless subjects (like sociology) for a start.

Margaret TC
Margaret TC
1 year ago

I fear it may be too late: ‘objectivity’ and ‘impartiality’ together with freedom of speech have been dumped as instruments of (white male) oppression.

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
1 year ago
Reply to  Margaret TC

Yes, this is pretty much the view of Positivism at my college: shared reality is passé. We all live in our own little yellow submarine.

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
1 year ago
Reply to  Margaret TC

Yes, this is pretty much the view of Positivism at my college: shared reality is passé. We all live in our own little yellow submarine.

Margaret TC
Margaret TC
1 year ago

I fear it may be too late: ‘objectivity’ and ‘impartiality’ together with freedom of speech have been dumped as instruments of (white male) oppression.

Nicky Samengo-Turner
Nicky Samengo-Turner
1 year ago

only one race matters in the next week.. The Grand National.

Nicky Samengo-Turner
Nicky Samengo-Turner
1 year ago

only one race matters in the next week.. The Grand National.

Richard Craven
Richard Craven
1 year ago

..

Last edited 1 year ago by Richard Craven
Richard Craven
Richard Craven
1 year ago

..

Last edited 1 year ago by Richard Craven
JĂŒrg Gassmann
JĂŒrg Gassmann
1 year ago

Thank you!

JĂŒrg Gassmann
JĂŒrg Gassmann
1 year ago

Thank you!

Peter B
Peter B
1 year ago

It’s hard to resist the conclusion that “social science” isn’t science at all when subjectivity is so baked in.
An awful lot of public money is being wasted in these areas. Perhaps some is usefully spent. But if it’s only 5 or 10%, you start to wonder why we finance this stuff.