Reader Positionality


Grad school has started so lucky (or unlucky) for you my head is already starting to be stuffed once again with the obscure language of the ivory tower.

What jumped out to me from my readings this week was the concept of positionality, how one relates to a topic or study based on their own social context. Understanding one’s positionality is essential to understanding why or how we reach certain conclusions. Cultivating this understanding is important for critical and reflexive thinking. In the case of reading, why I like or dislike certain texts and the messages they carry is largely due to my positionality.

That’s fair enough, but the next question I have is whether a person’s positionality can invalidate their opinion. Here’s an example: last year I picked up Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility. Written towards people of Caucasian descent, DiAngelo posits that racism is a white problem that must be addressed by a white community. Does her positionality as a white person validate or invalidate her conclusion? And if White Fragility were written by a person of colour, would that make their conclusion or less valid?

Alternatively one could argue that DiAngelo’s cultural background should have no impact; I mean, if the lady speaks truth, truth should be truth, right? But here we’d need to situate our philosophical selves; I mean, to consider our own philosophical leanings. Whereas modernism questioned previously accepted authority but still held onto the idea of some sort of objective right or wrong, postmodernism questions the concept of absolute right or wrong, suggesting that all answers are practically impossible to determine. In another book I’m reading, N.T. Wright points out that neither stance is great when approaching scripture, so we must examine our understanding of truth and objectivity even as we study the Bible and apply its authority to our lives.

(Going back to DiAngelo for a moment, I’d venture to say that if a postmodernist reader would say that DiAngelo speaks truth according to her context, but that a modernist would have a harder time accepting what she says as objectively right or wrong. I also chose this text not because I’m a fan of the work, but because it’s an easy example of how positionality can come into an argument).

At any rate, the first week’s readings have given me reason to examine my reader positionality, and I’ve come to realize that I am incredibly influenced by postmodernism but that I have modernist tendencies as well. As interesting as my musings on other texts may be (some dry humour for you there, identified for you because apparently people find it very hard to know when I’m poking fun at myself), why this matter has been standing on my head is because my positionality does quite influence how I read and understand Scripture. Understanding how positionality influences one’s reading makes the revelation of Scripture that much more of a miracle; that Scripture speaks to so many different people around the globe is pretty incredible.

What influences your reading and reaction to texts in general?

Featured photo by Capturing the human heart. on Unsplash


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