The UCL Centre for Gender and Global Health


A Case for Positionality

A Case for Positionality

Today the world is experiencing a period of chaos. In the wake of Covid-19, it is difficult for anyone to really comprehend everything that we are each experiencing and yet, the current pandemic has created the opportunity to shine light upon already existing inequalities within our societies: the black lives matter movement is experiencing a global resurgence; the extent of poverty is becoming ever more prevalent and dire; and businesses and organisations all over the world are beginning to notice the additional work women must balance at home along with their employment. It’s becoming ever more important for individuals to assess their role in society and the ways in which they can impact change or simply alleviate the additional stress that a global pandemic has caused. But what does this take?

Within the current Black Lives Matter movement, black individuals, and POC more generally, have catalysed and propelled their message to a global stage, encouraging many non-POC individuals to understand the role they play in both perpetuating race inequalities and the role they can play in supporting such a movement. But what does an appropriate and effective allyship look like? Should one remain silent to leave space for the voices of people of colour? Should one speak out about the injustices within their communities/countries? And how does one educate themselves appropriately to play a role without drowning out others that may be more educated or have direct experiences of injustice?

A similar predicament presents itself with the ongoing, and ever-present, circumstance surrounding gender inequality. How can men play a role in the advancement of equality between the sexes? How can women in a privileged position speak out about the injustices faced by women in impoverished areas of the world? How can white women support women of colour who face a completely different world than they do? How can boys and young men be empowered to understand that the world they experience is safer, full of different opportunities and, overall, different than the one their sisters, girlfriends or female friends live within? 

Ultimately, how can an individual from any background really understand the experiences of a group of people they have minimal relation to? I don’t claim to have the answer to any of these questions. I am a white, middle-class, American man living in London (yes, I would completely understand if you stopped reading now). I understand that I likely will not experience racism, sexism, or form of discrimination that will attack my sense of self or my identity as a human being. However, as a PhD student, I currently am researching approaches towards addressing traditional perceptions of masculinity and inequitable gender norms and feel that some advice I hope to have some credence in providing is the need for positionality.

Positionality can be understood as the social, economic and political context in which one creates their identity as influenced by gender, race, class, sexuality, and ability. This identity, in turn, influences and biases one’s outlook on and understanding of the world around them. In order to best understand the impact one can make on a variety of social issues in our world, it is important to reflect on how one has developed their identity. Reflect on the privileges you have, or do not have, the opportunities you have that others may not be capable of utilising, and how you may view the world differently based on your background, appearance, social class or physical ability. From this perspective, not only will you understand yourself more completely, but you can begin to understand others. You will be able to recognise the experiences of others and have deeper respect for their priorities, unique perspectives, and opinions that may vary from yours.

At the same time, though, positionality is not a mechanism for guilt or shame. It does not require you to feel guilt from the benefits you are provided through your positionality. It is natural to feel uncomfortable when understanding and accepting one’s privilege, but shame or remorse will not benefit you or anyone else with whom you share your ideas and opinions. Just understand and accept your positionality so you have a starting point from which to begin to better understand the world around you and see what potential your actions and words may have to create or hinder positive change.

Once you are able to fully understand all that influences your identity and unique perspective, educate yourself. Learn about the world around you and seek to understand as much as possible with regards to the social issues and injustices around the world. Learn from individuals who have direct experience about local, state level or global injustices and listen to the changes they would like to see. In essence: imagine yourself in someone else’s shoes. Most of us have been hearing this message from a young age but the lesson holds true. Do not be so quick to judge another for their actions and rather empathise with their perspective, opinion or point of view. When we are able to do this, we can begin to start the work of breaking down barriers that separate us from others and place certain groups in a marginalised position. Our world is finding opportunity now to reflect on and address the inequalities that exist among us, and this work must continue.


David Swanson is a PhD student with the Institute for Global Health (IGH) under the supervision of Dr. Jennie Gamlin and Professor David Osrin. His PhD research is focused on understanding the societal perceptions of masculinity among boys and young men in low-income settings to inform reproductive health outcomes for women. He will primarily be looking into the theoretical approaches taken towards addressing masculinity among this population and the long-term effectiveness of programs that work with boys and young men in such a manner. Prior to starting his PhD, David worked within cancer research and various international health and development organisations as well as receiving his MSc in Global Health and Development through IGH.

About the author