The way we see and understand the world influences how we interact with others, make decisions, and interpret others’ actions. To be equitable and inclusive leaders, educators, or humans, we must understand how our identities bias our perceptions. In this post, we provide a free downloadable 26-page PDF with definitions and explanations of several social identities (race, gender, socioeconomic status, ability status, and sexuality) and a scaffolded exercise to help you examine your positionality. If you want to be a better leader, educator, researcher, policymaker, or otherwise, the reflexive exercise will help you increase awareness and extend greater empathy, compassion, and understanding to others.
We are all complex people with multiple identities. We may identify ourselves by our familial roles, professions, hobbies, or our aspirations. Social and political contexts inform parts of who we are. Some identities are externally visible, some aren’t as salient at times, and others are kept to ourselves.
Who you are, including all of your identities, lived experiences, life exposure, realities, truths, traumas, and thoughts, influence how you perceive everything in the world. All of these things become a lens through which everything is filtered, and we must recognize the power of the personal lens, also known as our positionality.
Positionality is the social and political context that creates your identity and how your identity influences and biases your perception of and outlook on the world. Positionality affects research, teaching, leading, policymaking, as well as common interactions.
There are a multitude of identities within the social and political context that inform our positionality.
Some of them include:
- Race *
- Ethnicity *
- Gender *
- Socioeconomic Status *
- Ability Status *
- Sexuality *
- Religious Beliefs
- Marital Status
- Political Ideology
It’s impossible to reflect on positionality without considering privilege.
Privilege is a special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group. It gives advantages, favors, and benefits to members of dominant groups at the expense of target groups. People in dominant groups are frequently unaware that they are members of the dominant group due to the privilege of seeing themselves as persons rather than stereotypes.
Privilege is characteristically invisible to people who have it. People in dominant groups may believe that they have earned the privileges they enjoy or that everyone could access these privileges if only they worked to achieve them. However, privileges are unearned, and they are granted to people in the dominant groups whether they want those privileges or not.
Privilege operates on personal, interpersonal, cultural, and institutional levels.
In the United States, people who have membership in one or more of these social identity groups have privilege:
- Middle or owning-class
- US Citizen
Social Identity Map
Identifying your social identities is just the first step. After that, you must reflect on how that identity impacts your life, and what that means to you.
Danielle Jacobson and Nida Mustafa created a process for explicitly identifying and reflecting on social identity. Their three-tiered approach allows us to conceptualize social identities and positionality. Starting with one of your social identities (Tier 1), such as race, gender, etc., you then consider the life impact of that identity (Tier 2).
- What opportunities or positions does it enable?
- What are the values attached to the identity?
- How might you interpret events or interactions through the lens of the identity?
Next, for each life impact, you’ll identify the resulting emotions or feelings (Tier 3). You may have more than two life impacts per social identity, and two emotions per life impact.
A completed Social Identity Map consists of multiple, cascading tiers. You can map each out in various ways, including a tree diagram, wheel diagram, or in a simple table as provided in the downloadable PDF.
Creating the social identity map isn’t quite the end of understanding your positionality. You must then reflect on and further explore the implications of your lens.
After exploring your positionality, reflect on the following:
- How does my social identity (including either privilege or oppression) affect how I see and understand the world (your lens)?
- In what ways are my interactions, decisions, and interpretations affected?
- How can I minimize how my biases affect my interactions, decisions, and interpretations?
While it is a best practice for researchers to write a positionality statement, there is a growing need for each of us to prepare a statement that we can share with others or review and remind ourselves when needed.
Jacobson D, Mustafa N. Social Identity Map: A Reflexivity Tool for Practicing Explicit Positionality in Critical Qualitative Research. International Journal of Qualitative Methods. January 2019.
Positionality practices and dimensions of impact on equity research: A collaborative inquiry and call to the community. J Eng Educ. 2021; 110: 19– 43. https://doi.org/10.1002/jee.20377, , , et al.
Download this resource as a printable PDF and digital worksheet.
Download this 26-page PDF with definitions and explanations of several social identities (race, gender, socioeconomic status, ability status, and sexuality) and a scaffolded exercise to help you examine your positionality.
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