Focus on the Research, Not the Researcher
So-called “positionality statements” are a threat to scientific inquiry.
A foundational principle of truth-seeking is the norm of universalism: the concept that work must be judged on its own merits.
“Truth-claims, whatever their source, are to be subjected to pre-established impersonal criteria,” wrote the sociologist who established the norm, Robert K. Merton. The acceptance or rejection of claims, he wrote in a 1942 essay, “is not to depend on the personal or social attributes of their protagonist; his race, nationality, religion, class, and personal qualities are as such irrelevant.”
When this principle is applied to academic journals, it means that the studies—the hypotheses being tested, methods used, and interpretations presented—should speak for themselves.
But authors are now distorting that process with so-called “positionality statements.” These disclosures are included in the body of research papers and describe personal attributes of the authors, like their identities, experiences, and societal advantages.
Consider the positionality statement by the authors of “Low-income Black mothers parenting adolescents in the mass incarceration era: The long reach of criminalization,” which appeared in the American Sociological Review in in 2019:
“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.”
Why include these personal details? According to proponents of positionality statements, the disclosures shed light on the biases that investigators bring to the design, execution, and interpretation of their research.
Implicit in this rationale is that these statements will help neutralize bias, encourage ethical research, promote “equity and social justice” in the peer review process, and ensure that research “benefits from diversity in editing, writing, and participation.”
Like so many developments that seem ill-suited to their current role, positionality statements do make more sense in some narrow contexts. According to Jukka Savolainen, a Professor of Sociology at Wayne State University, positionality statements probably originated in ethnographic research. When we spoke, he told me that “it makes sense to be concerned about the characteristics of individual scholars doing field work when they are the only instrument of data collection and interpretation.” That is, when a researcher is working alone in a foreign culture, it may be worth illuminating possible sources of inadvertent bias.
But lately, Savolainen told me, they have begun to appear in medicine, biology, global health, and archeology. “From what I can tell, this movement is just a scholarly equivalent of DEI statements and land acknowledgments,” he said.
In this spirit, education specialists Ben Van Dusen and Jayson Nissen included the following details about themselves in their study on equity in physics education.
Dusen writes that he identifies as “a White, cisgender, heterosexual, continuing-generation (CG) man with a color vision deficiency … [who attempts] to use my position and privilege to dismantle oppressive power structures.”
Nissen, who is a “White, cisgendered, heterosexual, nondisabled man,” acknowledges that because “I am not a woman or a person of color and I now live in a higher income household, I brought a limited perspective to this work on racism, sexism, and classism.”
But there are a number of problems with the idea that disclosing one’s personal details will somehow enhance the credibility of their research claims. In a recent issue of Perspectives on Psychological Science, Savolainen and his colleagues explain why these statements are of dubious value.
First, returning to Merton’s principle of universalism, positionality statements violate the norm of appraising new knowledge according to quality, independent of the person who produced that knowledge. The anonymity of the work is important—symbolically and pragmatically—because it trains readers’ attention to the substance of the project and the methods used to determine claims about how the world works. The identity and proclivities of those who conduct the project has little bearing on that.
Second, positionality statements are themselves biased. Authors choose what to disclose about themselves, and that judgment—like the research itself—is subject to blind spots and subconscious biases. As Savolainen and his team put it, “academic scholars cannot have it both ways. They cannot, on the one hand, claim to be burdened by their biography when conducting the research, yet, on the other hand, be emancipated from it while constructing a positionality statement.”
The problems don’t end there. Revelations about the authors may distort the editorial process itself. Imagine, for example, that the author of a paper about rape trauma states that she was a rape victim herself. Knowing this, a reviewer might tone down or altogether omit warranted criticism out of concern for offending an author whose personal experience and research interest seem so intimately tied. Another parallel concern is that authors could tailor their positionality statements to serve their own needs, curating details about themselves in order to enhance the odds that their paper will be accepted and published. (Moreover, if a researcher’s personal details are especially unique, it could disrupt the “blindness” of the review process.)
Currently, only one journal I could find—the Journal of Women and Minorities in Science and Engineering—requires positionality statements. Others, like the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, “encourage” but don’t require them. Even so, instructions on how to craft such statements are all over the internet, suggesting that their inclusion may be becoming the de facto norm.
Rather than confess the blind spots and biases they think they have, scientists should make their data transparent; pre-register research hypotheses; engage in rigorous, blind peer review; and publish detailed letters to the editor. It is the research that should come under scrutiny, not the researcher.
The Mertonian imperative is essential to progress and innovation. A culture that fails to hold scientific validity apart from the values and personal attributes of its participants is a threat to liberal inquiry.
Sally Satel is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
And, to receive pieces like this in your inbox and support our work, subscribe below: