Positionality statements in research articles as biaswashing
During a recent review process I have requested from authors that they should address from which standpoint they have approached their qualitative study. While I was referring in this comment the ontological and theoretical levels as formulated by Twining, Heller, Nussbaum & Tsai (2017) in the guidelines for the journal Computers & Education, the authors have understood my request as a call for a „positionality statement“ in which the authors disclose some of their biographical details (white, cis, middle-age) as potentially influencing their research. I was surprised why the authors were assuming that my judgement of their article could be improved by adding some author-related identity information since this is also to some extend in conflict with an anonymous review process. Confused by this experience I have searched further about this practice and I was happy to find a recent article by Savolainen, Casey, McBrayer & Schwerdtle (2023) in which authors perfectly formulate my unease with these kind of statements. The authors summarize their criticism about positionality statements as follows:
- Compared to a statement of conflict of interest, there are no clear guidelines with regard to the structure and dimensions which should be included in a positionality statement. This leaves the decision what to reflect on in such a statement fully to the authors of such statements leading again to a potential source of bias.
- Dismantling authors positionality leads to an unresolvable conflict to recognize the limits of reflexivity. What was the position from which the positionality statement has been drafted? Can we be sure that there is not positionality factor for positionality statements? This leads to some Escher-esque confusions (whose work will by the way enter the public domain on March 23 this year - yeah!).
- Bias can not be resolved by communication of individual characteristics of authors. The scientific process is based on conrol mechanisms and verification which make sure that knowledge can be reproduced and controlled by others without taking into account any personal characteristics. Furthermore, providing details about personal characteristics of authors can again lead more likely to more bias in for example review processes.
Leaving these very good remarks aside, I see the trend for such statements as a superficial approach to resolve biases and lack of fairness purely by statements and not by actions similar to “greenwashing” approaches.
Savolainen, J., Casey, P. J., McBrayer, J. P., & Schwerdtle, P. N. (2023). Positionality and Its Problems: Questioning the Value of Reflexivity Statements in Research. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 17456916221144988. https://doi.org/10.1177/1745691622114
Twining, P., Heller, R. S., Nussbaum, M., & Tsai, C. C. (2017). Some guidance on conducting and reporting qualitative studies. Computers & education, 106, A1-A9. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.compedu.2016.12.002