Debunking Common Myths Around Positionality

Authors: Grace Cruse (she/they), Samantha J. Reznik, PhD (she/her), Margaret Duvall (any pronouns), Oladunni Oluwoye, PhD (she/her), Eleanor Longden, PhD (she/her), Mx. Yaffa, AS (they/she)


This article is a part of The Positionality Project, set to launch this fall. The South Southwest MHTTC is committed to fostering open conversations about the integration of positionality in mental health. Stay tuned for further updates on The Positionality Project.


What is Positionality?

Positionality refers to the social positions we hold in our society that influence how we interact with the world. Social positions, such as race, ethnicity, class, gender, socioeconomic status, political affiliation, educational attainment, (dis)ability, nationality, and sexual orientation, hold meaning in our society because of cultural and historical contexts that have attached certain advantages and disadvantages to these characteristics. Positions, however, are different from identity. Positions are socially-constructed by the world around us and may not always reflect our true identities. For example, even if we are disabled, the world may perceive us as able-bodied. 

Positionality influences our perception of the world, how we engage with others, and how others interact with us, regardless of whether or not we identify our positions. Understanding positionality requires a critical reflection of our positions and how or why these characteristics afford us certain privileges, power, or disadvantages. Reflection on positionality is meant to be an iterative, constant process. Our positions change over time, so we must continuously reflect on our positions and how they interact with our environment. Beyond the practice of continual reflection and re-examination of our positions, biases, and limitations, what we learn about ourselves and its relation to our work must be translated into action. Positionality without action is simply reflection. 

Choosing to work towards uplifting all perspectives, diversifying our work, and advocating for equity is true positionality. Embracing differences allows us to strengthen the integrity of our work through more robust study and improved idea creation, collaboration, and production, as well as promote equity in research, mental health services, and our culture. One of the ultimate goals of this work is to transform systems so that barriers preventing individuals from thriving are removed. Positionality is one of the first steps towards justice.


Debunking Common Myths Around Positionality

MYTH: Positionality is most important for people from minoritized groups.

FACT: We are all influenced by our positionality, whether or not we have reflected on it. Our social positions that carry privilege or power may influence how others view or treat us in mental health settings. Reflecting on such positions may help us to work with others across lines of difference. We also want to understand how social positions that have led to experiences of marginalization or discrimination may influence our perceptions in a mental health setting. 


MYTH: One person’s positionality is either privileged or not privileged.

FACT: We all have multiple social positions, some of which may carry different levels of privilege or lack thereof. For example, in the United States, someone may be privileged by being White and, cisgender, but also have experienced marginalization due to low socioeconomic and disability status. Intersectionality helps us to consider how multiple social positions may influence experiences. 


MYTH: Positionality is a completely subjective and personal process.

FACT: Positionality refers to our experience in relation to socially constructed categories of class, race, gender, education, sexuality, religion, and other factors. Our individual experiences of the world are unique; it can be very vulnerable or even painful to share aspects of our personal histories with colleagues and strangers. However, these experiences can be meaningful to our shared work; applying positionality will be most effective if we attempt to see our experience in relation to socially- constructed categories. 


MYTH: Positionality is only about naming our social positions.

FACT: We must examine how these socially- constructed categories influence us and our work. Although naming social positions may be a first step, positionality challenges us to explore how our social positions have influenced our ideas, how we interact with others, and how others interact with us in clinical, research, and advocacy settings. 


MYTH: The work of positionality eventually ends.

FACT: Positionality is an ongoing, constant process.  As mental health providers, researchers, and advocates, we must continually reflect on how our positionality shapes different forms of our work over time. Our positionality may change over time and in different mental health contexts. 


The Authors

Grace Cruse, BA | Texas Institute for Excellence in Mental Health

Samantha J. Reznik, PhD (she/her) | Texas Institute for Excellence in Mental Health

Margaret Duvall, MA (any pronouns) | University of California, Davis English Department PhD Candidate

Oladunni Oluwoye, PhD (she/her) | Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine at Washington State University

Eleanor Longden, PhD (she/her) | Greater Manchester Mental Health NHS Foundation Trust

Mx. Yaffa, AS (they/she) | Muslim Alliance for Sexual and Gender Diversity and Meraj Consulting

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