Image of a maple tree canopy. Behind is a blue sky, the sun shining through the shadowed leaves.

The maple tree that used to stand outside my parents’ place. Photo by author.

I recently re-read Pamela Sugiman’s wonderful article, “A Million Hearts from Here,” in preparation for a discussion group on WW2. If you haven’t read this piece yet, I highly recommend it. I often find myself rereading texts, whether they are academic articles or novels, and each time I do, I always find something new to think about. This time, I was particularly struck by Sugiman’s personal connection to her research.  As the daughter and granddaughter of Japanese-Canadian internees, she is closely connected to her own research on this subject. And now, as a mother, she is an active “maker of memory” for her daughter.[1] As Sugiman was working on this project, her daughter also wrote a short story about a little girl who was interned. She selected the title, “A Million Hearts from Here,” explaining

“I called it “A Million Hearts from Here” because it is about a million people, well, a lot of people, that were interned. And they all had a heart somewhere. And “from here”? They were a long way away [from home]. And how would you feel if you were away, for about four years?”

Sugiman goes on to explain how her own research was in turn influenced by her grandmother, an internee, who, though she has passed, lives on in the memory of Sugiman’s daughter.

While Sugiman uses this story to set up her argument about “the ways in which our memories of historical injustices travel across generations and are strongly shaped by our most intimate relationships,”[2] to my mind it also speaks to an unspoken truth about much historical research: its personal connection to our own lives. So, in today’s blog post, I am going to share my own personal connection to my research, talk about subjectivity/objectivity and, and the importance of positionality.

 

What is Positionality?

As is the case with much theory, the term “positionality” is difficult to describe. In fact, my computer can’t seem to decide whether or not it is even a real word. But I did find one definition that I think captures its essence:

By positionality we mean […] that gender, race, class and other aspects of our identities are markers of relational positions rather than essential qualities. Knowledge is valid when it includes an acknowledgment of the knower’s specific position in any context, because changing contextual and relational factors are crucial for defining identities and our knowledge in any given situation.[3]

In other words, “positionality,” also known as self-location, refers to an awareness that our life experiences and circumstances impact how we see and understand the world around us, and further, that this understanding is situational. Positionality always requires a fair degree of self-reflexivity and honesty, as well as acknowledgement that we are embedded within systems of power. When scholars include a discussion of their relationship to their research, such discussions are often referred to as “positionality statements.”

  

A History of Positionality

Now, I should begin by saying that I am not an expert in historical philosophy. Reading Foucault makes my eyeballs bleed. Thankfully, I have a number of friends and colleagues who are much more intelligent and informed than I am. I am indebted particularly to Krystl Raven, Sarah York-Bertram, Shannon Stettner, Danielle Lorenz, and Cheryl Troupe.

As Sarah York-Bertram explained to me, the history of positionality can be traced back to Sojourner Truth’s, a Black formerly-enslaved woman, speech, “Ain’t I a Woman,” which she delivered at the Women’s Rights Convention in 1851. Everyone should read this speech, but in essence, she calls upon her own experiences as a Black woman to argue that Black women’s experiences differed significantly from those of white women, but that they were as deserving of equal rights. These ideas were further developed in the Black feminist critique of Second Wave Feminism, particularly by the Combahee River Collective,  a Black lesbian collective, who stated that their political activism was grounded in the personal everyday experiences of sexism, racism, classism, and homophobia.[4] This, in turn, influenced Kimberle Crenshaw and her theorizing of intersectionality as a framework.[5]

The theory of positionality was also informed by Marxist and Hegelian traditions about self and class-consciousness, developed into feminist standpoint theory by scholars such as Dorothy Smith, Patricia Hill Collins, Nancy Hardstock, Alison Jaggar, Hilary Rose, and Sandra Harding in the 1970s and 1980s.[6] These scholars argued that an understanding of social contexts, or situated knowledge, was essential for feminist analysis, and that self-reflexivity as a research method was integral to the creation of the disciplines of Women’s and Feminist Studies. This was further developed by Donna Haraway’s Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective, which critiqued the masculine notion of objectivity.

The theory of positionality also has its roots in Indigenous methodologies and ways of knowing, particularly with respect to the importance of kinship and interconnectedness, as well as the inseparability of the past, present, and future. Cam Willett explains,

For many Indigenous people, [the act of self-location] is intuitive, launched immediately through the protocol of introductions. It shows respect to the ancestors and allows community to locate us. Situating self implies clarifying one’s perspective on the world. This is about being congruent with a knowledge system that tells us that we can only interpret the world from the place of our experience. [7]

In sum, positionality statements serve a number of different purposes, whether your goal is to build reciprocity, understand and counteract hierarchies of power, illustrate the importance of multiple perspectives, or behave in a manner congruent with your worldview and belief systems.[8]

  

Positionality in History

While positionality statements have become increasingly important in areas such as feminist studies, critical race theory, and Indigenous studies, they have not been as enthusiastically embraced by the historical profession in North America.[9] Some people believe that it violates the principles of history, and that historians have an obligation to be as neutral and objective as possible. As Karen Dubinsky notes, “[historians] admit our full range of humanness only in the first few pages of our books, the acknowledgement pages.”[10] While acknowledgements provide a wealth of information, as Adam Mongtomery and Mary Ellen Kelm recently noted on Twitter, and showcase the personal histories of our research, these few pages are still considered tangential and are absent entirely in most scholarly articles. However, few among us would dispute the fact that our research is inextricably tied to our personal experiences. This is aptly demonstrated by our very own Historians’ Histories series. We all have these stories about when we first learned about history, about conversations that changed our ways of thinking, and of wonderful discoveries in the archives. But rather than limit these stories to conversations over drinks or acknowledgements, I believe that they should be an integral part of our work as researchers and as teachers.

  

My Journey to Positionality

As a child of the 1990s, and someone who attended a math-and-science-oriented high school, the importance of objectivity had been drilled into my head from a young age. I learned about the observer effect, and the importance of the double-blind study as a means of minimizing  the researcher’s impact on their data.

This changed when I entered university, and learned about postmodernism, that our encounters with the world are limited by our own perspectives and that no one perspective is more important than any other. Around the same time, I also remember being introduced to the theory of the “non-duality of duality and non-duality,” as taught by my East Asian religions teacher, whose name I can’t remember. In essence, the first stage of enlightenment is duality: seeing the world as either good/bad or white/black. The second stage is non-duality: recognizing that these are artificial categories we impose on the world. The third stage is the non-duality of duality and non-duality: recognizing that non-duality itself creates a duality, between real and not real, and that we must accept that human beings can only understand the world in limited terms.

A lightbulb seemed to go off in my mind when I heard this, since it seemed to capture how I believed the world worked. This was further confirmed in graduate school, where I learned that it was impossible for researchers to ever be truly objective, and that a myriad of factors, like gender, class, race, age, etc… shape how we understand and experience the world. Rather, it was important that we understand our limitations, but still try to overcome them. But I still found myself wondering how this might work in practice.

All of this came together during one weekly meeting at the UVic Centre for the Studies of Religion and Society. I was in my second year of graduate school at the time. I distinctly remember Lianne Charlie, an Indigenous scholar and artist, whom you may remember from this blog post, talking about how her personal experiences have shaped her research. Her words resonated with me, and seemed to capture a truth that had proved elusive to me until then: it is impossible to truly understand my research without understanding where I am coming from.

 

I Learn, Therefore I Am

My identity as a fourth-generation Canadian Jewish woman is central to my work as a scholar, researcher, and a teacher. As many of you are already aware (and, as my husband jokes, so does anyone who talks to me for 30 seconds), I’m from Montreal. But that’s only partially correct. You see, I’m from a municipality on the Island of Montreal, rather than the City of Montreal proper. I spent the first twenty-two years of my life living in a split-level house deep within the boundaries of the City of Côte Saint-Luc.[11] Though it originated as a French-Canadian farming village, by the time I was growing up in the 1980s and 1990s, it had become so ubiquitously Jewish that it was commonly known as “Côte-Saint-Jew.” Approximately 83% of the population was Jewish (apparently the highest concentration of Jews outside of Israel). Most of my neighbours were of Eastern-European descent, belonged to either Orthodox or Conservative congregations, and were overwhelmingly English-speaking.

My family pretty much fit the bill to a T. My great-grandparents had come to Canada in the early 1900s from the area now known as Galicia, in Ukraine, as well as Russia, Poland, and Austria (as near as we can tell). My dad’s side, who were tailors and grocers, settled in Quebec City, while my mom’s side, philanthropists and businessmen, lived in Montreal (Westmount).[12] We all spoke English as a first language, and French to varying extents. My father can apparently still understand Yiddish, but for the rest of us, our knowledge is limited to curse words. 😉 My father was a banker, and my mother was a homemaker until I turned sixteen. I have a younger sister who is my opposite in every way. My parents were what are called “high holiday Jews,” in the sense that they only attended synagogue for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippour, but we always celebrated the major Jewish holidays at home. My parents were not necessarily very religious, but they were very traditional (though I am neither).

As Winona Wheeler explains, “Memory is a beautiful gift. For those who grew up hearing about the distant past, the memories we hold of those times are more than mere mental exercises.”[13] History has always been an inextricable part of my life. I heard about the history of the Jewish people during Passover seders. I listened to stories about my parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents. I memorized the words to In Flanders Fields as a child in school. I learned the long history of conflict between Anglophones and Francophones as part of my everyday interactions. I became adept at “Jewish geography,” where Jewish people try to figure out if they are related or if anyone in either of our families might know each other. All of these different histories together make up the person that I am now.

I come from the People of the Book, a community and culture that highly values formal education and learning. There was never a question about whether or not I was going to university, merely which one I would attend. I was raised with the understanding that asking questions was a good thing (unless this involved questioning my parents or religion). I was also raised with the understanding that it was my obligation, as Jewish woman, to educate future generations about our traditions and culture.

The complicated nature of Jewish identity itself also played a role in shaping my worldview. Jewish identity is not just a religion, a culture, or an ethnicity, but a mixture of all of the above that is constantly in flux. To be Jewish is to be always in-between, never fully part of or apart from the larger society, neither white or non-white, both oppressed and oppressor. Jews are never home. As someone who grew up in a Jewish enclave, within a French enclave, within a mostly English country, I am always an outsider. As a Canadian Jewish woman, I occupy a place on the margins.

Because the reality is that I am not a single individual, but simply part of a great web of relationships that stretch across time and space. My life, and my life’s work, is a journey of self-discovery. I seek to understand more about my own life, to know more about myself and my place in this project we call “Canada.” I am always learning and still very much a work-in-progress.

This is why I study social history, gender history, and the history of women. This is why I have chosen to dedicate my life to history, the sharing of knowledge, and the telling of stories. This is why I started Unwritten Histories. While I may not be teaching anyone how to cook a brisket (don’t even ask), I hope that I can make the way easier for those who are yet to come.

 

Conclusion

Understanding positionally and being open about our connections to our research can be hard, and frequently uncomfortable. But I think this underscores its importance. We must interrogate our privileges, our intensions, and our motivations as researchers. Research is not simply an intellectual exercise that satisfies one’s curiosity, but a deeply emotional, personal, and messy attempt to understand our selves and our world. This is not to suggest that research is meaningless or that we cannot truly study the past. Rather, I would argue that we cannot ever be truly objective without understanding our subjectivities. Objectivity is an ideal that we can never attain, but one that we should nevertheless strive for. Nor do I wish to suggest that positionality statements are a panacea for all that is wrong with academia. But rather, when it comes to making substantive changes in the world, the best place to start with is always yourself.

 


I hope you enjoyed this week’s blog post! If you did, please considering sharing it on the social media platform of your choice. I really enjoyed the opportunity to learn more from my fantastic colleagues. And I would love to hear from you? How did decide what to research? Let me know in the comments below! And don’t forget to check back on Sunday for a brand new Canadian history roundup. See you then!

 

Extra Credit

Chris Anderson and Jean M. O’Brien, eds., Sources and Methods in Indigenous Studies (London; New York: Routledge, 2017).

Lesley Brown, and Susan Strega, Research As Resistance. (Toronto: Canadian Scholars’ Press and Women’s Press, 2005).

Bagele Chilisa, Indigenous Research Methodologies (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2012).

Kimberle Crenshaw, “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory, and Antiracism,” University of Chicago Legal Forum 140 (1989): 139-167.

Dwayne Donald and Mandy Krahn, “Abandoning Pathologization: Conceptualizing Indigenous Youth Identity as Flowing from Communitarian Understandings,” in Critical Youth Studies Reader, edited by Ibrahim Awad and Shirley R. Steinberg (New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 2004).

Margaret Kovach, Indigenous Methodologies: Characteristics, Conversations and Contexts (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2010).

Emma LaRocque, When the Other Is Me: Native Resistance Discourse, 1850-1990. (Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2014).

Michele Moffat, “Exploring Positionality in an Aboriginal Research Paradigm: A Unique Perspective,” International Journal of Technology and Inclusive Education 5, no. 1 (June 2016): 750-755.

Aileen Moreton-Robinson, Critical Indigenous Studies: Engagement in First World Locations (Tuscon: University of Arizona Press, 2016).

Linda Tuhiwai Smith, Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples. (London: Zed Books, 1999).

Winona Wheeler, “Reflections on the Responsibilities of Indigenous/Native Studies.” Canadian Journal of Native Studies 21, no. 1 (2001): 97-104.

Winona Wheeler, “Reflections on the Social Relations of Indigenous Oral History,” in Walking a Tightrope: Aboriginal People and Their Representations, edited by David T. McNab, 189-214. (Waterloo: Wilfred Laurier University Press, Aboriginal Studies Series, 2005).

Shawn Wilson, Research is Ceremony: Indigenous Research Methods (Halifax: Fernwood, 2008).

 


Notes

[1] Pamela Sugiman, “’A Million Hearts from Here’: Japanese-Canadian Mothers and Daughters and the Lessons of War,” Journal of American Ethnic History 26, no. 4 (Summer 2007): 50.

[2] Sugiman, “A Million Hearts from Here,” 52.

[3] Frances A. Maher and Mary Kay Tetreault, “Frames of Positionality: Constructing Meaningful Dialogue about Gender and Race,” Anthropological Quarterly 66, no. 2 (July 1993): 118.

[4] The Combahee River Collective, The Combahee River Collective Statement: Black Feminist Organizing in the Seventies and Eighties (Albany, New York: Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, 1986).

[5] Kimberle Crenshaw, “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory, and Antiracism,” University of Chicago Legal Forum 140 (1989): 139-167.

[6] “Feminist Standpoint Theory,” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy,” http://www.iep.utm.edu/fem-stan/.

[7] Margaret Kovach, Indigenous Methodologies: Characteristics, Conversations and Contexts (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2010), 110.

[8] Kovach, Indigenous Methodologies, 110-111. Too often white and non-Indigenous scholars have utilized methodologies developed by and for Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour (BIPOC) without any acknowledgement of their origins and continued use. However well-intentioned, doing so replicates structures of power, oppression, and colonialism. Knowledge is never free. It is also important to remember that Western ways of knowing and scholarship are embedded in imperialist projects and that knowledge was, and still is, often employed as a weapon against BIPOC (as you can see in this thread). As in all things, Cheryl Troupe reminds us that relationships and reciprocity are important components to ethical research.

[9] Karen Dubinsky, Babies Without Borders: Adoption and Migration Across the Americas (New York: New York University Press, 2010), 3-4. See also Michael O’Brien, “Of Cats, Historians and Gardeners,” Journal of American History 89, no. 1 (2002): 48-53.

[10] Dubinsky, Babies Without Borders. 4.

[11] https://www.cotesaintluc.org/sourceofthenamecotesaintluc

[12] I’m oversimplifying it here, otherwise we’d be here all week.

[13] Winona Wheeler, “Reflections on the Social Relations of Indigenous Oral History,” in Walking a Tightrope: Aboriginal People and Their Representations, edited by David T. McNab, (Waterloo: Wilfred Laurier University Press, Aboriginal Studies Series, 2005), 191

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