Positionality, Epistemology, and Social Justice in the Classroom

Article excerpt

I had the opportunity to work at an American-owned maquiladora. This journey made me understand the imbalance of power between the first world and the third. More exactly, I had always been part of a marginalized group. I would fit in the platinum category if one compares my marginality to a credit card. That is, I am economically challenged, a woman, of color, who is queer. My parents and older siblings worked in the agricultural fields of Hollister, California, to put food on the table. Why would an economically challenged woman want to research the question, what is the role of maquiladoRAZAtion in the global political economy? There are a few reasons: (1) The World of Academia does not address issues about the worker from the voice of the worker. (2) Education should be a tool to combat oppression. (3) Education should work to empower all people, not only those who can "understand" academic jargon. (4) The only way to truly address issues of the third is to listen to the voice of the oppressed, and it is this voice that needs to hem the worlds of academia. -- Abelina Campos (1)

Introduction: Why Ask Students to Think About Positionality and Epistemology?

HOW DOES YOUR POSITIONALITY BIAS YOUR EPISTEMOLOGY? I HAVE BEEN POSING this question to students, weaving it as a theme throughout my courses. Of course, a resounding chorus of bafflement greets the initial question: How does who you are and where you stand in relation to others shape what you know about the world? A student's search for answers opens up new possibilities for understanding her connections to the world, as the opening quote suggests. As a reflective practitioner of the teaching profession, I constantly grapple with these questions, as well.

To work toward a just world--a world where all have equal access to opportunity--means, as a start, opening up heart and mind to the perspectives of others. We must be able to hear each other and to respect and learn from what we hear. We must understand how we are positioned in relation to others--as dominant/subordinate, marginal/center, empowered/powerless. In The Feminist Classroom, Maher and Tetreault (2001: 164) describe "the idea of positionality, in which people are defined not in terms of fixed identities, but by their location within shifting networks of relationships, which can be analyzed and changed." For those who teach for social justice, the "and changed" part is crucial: understanding positionality means understanding where you stand with respect to power, an essential skill for social change agents. From this understanding, we have a standpoint from which to challenge power and change ourselves.

Few things are more difficult than to see outside the bounds of our own perspective--to be able to identify assumptions that we take as universal truths, but that instead have been crafted by our own unique identity and experiences in the world. We live much of our lives in our own heads, in a reconfirming dialogue with ourselves. Even when we discuss crucial issues with others, much of the dialogue is not dialogue: it is monologue where we work to convince others to understand us or to adopt our view. Simply acknowledging that one's knowledge claims are not universal truths--that one's positionality can bias one's epistemology--is itself a leap for many people, one that can help to make us more open to the world's possibilities. In a recent book on teaching history, Sam Wineburg (2001:24) states, "the narcissist sees the world--both the past and the present--in his own image. Mature historical knowing teaches us to do the opposite: to go beyond our own image, to go beyond our brief life, and to go beyond the fleeting moment in human history into which we have been born. When we develop the skill of understanding how we know what we know, we acquire a key to lifelong learning." But one need not limit our excursions to days gone by: in our classrooms, the present swirls around us, and the voices of this present can lead beyond narcissism and into deeper understanding of the chaotic world that demands our attention and intervention. …