Subject Positions and Positioning


According to Davies and Harre (1990) positioning is

the discursive process whereby selves are located in conversations as observably and subjectively coherent participants in jointly produced story lines. There can be interactive positioning in which what one person says positions another. And there can be reflexive positioning in which one positions oneself (p. 48).

The concept of 'positioning' as a term has parallels to that of 'role' within traditional social psychology, yet articulates both a far more fluid and dynamic sense of the multiple 'selves' or 'identities' one has, and also how these 'are called forth' and/or actively constructed, in conversations between people or in other discursive contexts (to paraphrase Althusser on the notion of being 'hailed' by certain ideological positions). By contrast, the use of 'role' is more congruent with the modernist notion of the self as fixed, static, structurally formalised and ritualistic, thus leaving little room for capturing the more subtle and complex aspects of interaction (see Davies and Harre, 1990).

Davies and Harre define a subject position in the following way:

A subject position incorporates both a conceptual repertoire and a location for persons within the structure of rights for those that use that repertoire. Once having taken up a particular position as one's own, a person inevitably sees the world from the vantage point of that position and in terms of the particular images, metaphors, storylines and concepts which are made relevant within the particular discursive practice in which they are positioned. At least a possibility of notional choice is inevitably involved because there are many and contradictory discursive practices that each person could engage in (Davies and Harre, 1990, p. 46).

They argue that central to acquiring a sense of self and interpreting the world from that perspective is the learning of the categories which include some and not others such as male/female, father/daughter, then participating in various discursive practices that allocate meaning to those categories. The self is then positioned in relation to the storylines that are articulated around those categories (for example as wife ,not husband, or good wife and not bad wife). Finally, they say one recognises oneself as 'belonging' psychologically and emotionally to that position through adopting a commitment entailing a 'world-view' commensurate with that membership category.

All of us have multiple affiliations, and are different selves within each of them. For instance, I am not just my biological category of female, or 'simply' a woman, but other descriptors such as white, middle-class, mother, student, wife, pakeha woman, lapsed catholic/would-be buddhist etc. point to the many social contexts in which my 'identity' has been constructed through the various descriptions that give experience meaning. In some contexts it may be crucial I am a woman, in others not so much (although I can't think of that many right now), yet the important point is there is no singular, unitary self that is maintained at all times in all places. The essential self of humanism that is fixed and not subject to change is radically questioned by poststructuralists who see social identities as "discursively constructed in historically specific social contexts; they are complex and plural; and they shift over time" (Fraser, 1992, p. 178).

Weedon (1987) outlines how the poststructuralist "decentering of the subject" proposes a subjectivity which is "precarious, contradictory and in process" (p. 33) and opens up the possibility for change by 'offering' alternative ways of ascribing meaning to our experience. An example she gives is the potential opened up by 'feminist' discourses for women to reascribe what they had perhaps previously internalised as personal inadequacies and failings to a recognition of the socially constructed 'nature' of experience; through a process described as 'consciousness-raising' in the 1970s by second-wave feminists (or in contemporary jargon 'deconstructing' the 'positioned subjectivity' that may be experienced as 'oppressive'), such that:

what had been experienced as personal failings are socially produced conflicts and contradictions shared by many women in similar social positions. This process of discovery can lead to a rewriting of personal experience in terms which give it social, changeable causes (p. 33).

Davies and Harre (1990, p. 47) argue the contradictions one experiences between the constitution of various selves actually provides the dynamic for understanding. They use the metaphor of an unfolding narrative, in which we may be constituted in one position or another, in one narrative or another within a story, or perhaps stand in multiple positions or negotiate new ones by 'refusing' the ones that have been articulated by posing alternatives. Yet within their story they do not make explicit the notion of power that may enable or constrain this 'negotiation'. The very fact there is a notional idea of 'resistance' (a Foucauldian concept) implies the concept of an 'agent' or 'agency', thus shifting the focus away from a being merely functioning under the control of social structures and practices.

For those concerned with issues of social justice and looking at the workings of power/knowledge, the concept of positioning also opens up the question of how discourses construct what and who is considered as 'other'. In Derrida's view of presences and absences, the defining of one category in positive terms - and the 'other' as what the dominant group is 'not' - and analysing what is not said as much as what is, one can see glimpses of the workings of what Gramsci terms hegemony. Fraser (1992) says hegemony is 'the discursive face of power':

It is the power to establish the 'common sense' or 'doxa' of a society, the fund of self-evident descriptions of social reality that normally go without saying. This includes the power to establish authoritative definitions of social situations and social needs, the power to define the universe of legitimate disagreement, and the power to shape the political agenda. Hegemony, then expresses the advantaged position of dominant social groups with respect to discourse (p. 179).

Certain social groups are defined by the dominant orthodoxy as 'other'. One example is women, who within a male hegemonic system are variously defined in terms of whatever men are (which is valued positively) women are not; they are 'other'. In this way, the self/other binary intersects with others such as rational/emotional, culture/nature, public/private and are seen to represent male/female respectively. Within this particular discourse women disappear, become invisible in the binary man/not (wo)man, and women do not have a positive identity but are constructed from a 'position' of 'lack' and 'without male identity', the 'absence of the phallus', as Irigaray argues:

women are refused access to society and culture in direct proportion that men are of society and culture ... socially speaking, women - at least from a traditional perspective - must be attached to a man in order to have a social persona; a woman thus does not have her own identity ... that to have an identity which is not one's own - to be a 'sex which is not one' - is to be excluded from the fullness of being: it is left precisely in a condition of 'dereliction'. Women as women are therefore excluded from the social contract (cited by Lechte, 1994, p. 162).

Women, it is argued, thus need to create new 'subject positions' for themselves in which they are valued as women. This task of identifying, deconstructing (and then reconstructing) the dominant cultural discourses of gender identities has begun. Weedon's (1987) example regarding the creation of alternative 'feminist' discourses is one example. Yet some women wonder whether 'poststructuralism' serves women's interests in this aim.


Jenny Pinkus, August 1996