Positioning: The Discursive Production of Selves



The idea for this paper emerged out of a discussion about the problems inherent in the use of the concept of role in developing a social psychology of selfhood. We explore the idea that the concept of 'positioning' can be used to facilitate the thinking of linguistically oriented social analysts in ways that the use of the concept of 'role' prevented. In particular the new concept helps focus attention on dynamic aspects of encounters in contrast to the way in which the use of 'role' serves to highlight static, formal and ritualistic aspects. The view of language in which positioning is to be understood is the immanentist view expounded by Harris (1982), in which language exists only as concrete occasions of language in use. La langue is an intellectualizing myth - only la parole is psychologically and socially real. This position is developed in contrast to the linguistic tradition in which 'syntax', 'semantics' and 'pragmatics' are used in a way that implies an abstract realm of causally potent entities shaping actual speech. In our analysis and our explanation, we invoke concepts such as 'speech act', 'indexicality' and 'context', that is the concepts central to ethogenic or new paradigm psychology (Harre, 1979; Harre and Secord, 1973; Davies, 1982). Feminist poststructuralist theory has interesting parallels with this position. The recognition of the force of 'discursive practices', the ways in which people are 'positioned' through those practices and the way in which the individual's 'subjectivity' is generated through the learning and use of certain discursive practices are commensurate with the 'new psycho-socio-linguistics' (Davies, 1989; Henriques et al., 1984; Potter and Wetherall, l988; Weedon, 1987).


According to long established tradition the orderliness of many human productions, for instance conversations, is a consequence in some way, of rules and conventions which exist independently of the productions. In some readings of the Chomskian school of linguistics, for example, transformational grammars are taken as pre-existing their roles in actual psychological processes of language production. We shall call this kind of view 'transcendentalism'. In this paper we take a contrary or 'immanentist' view. We shall assume that rules are explicit formulations of the normative order which is immanent in concrete human productions, such as actual conversations between particular people on particular occasions. These formulations are themselves a special kind of discourse having its own social purposes. According to the immanentist point of view there are only actual conversations, past and present. Similarities between various conversations are to be explained by reference only to whatever concretely has happened before, and to human memories of it, which form both the personal and cultural resources for speakers to draw upon in constructing the present moment. Though artificial mnemonic devices such as books and manuals are often understood as evidence for pre-existing knowledge structures independent of any speaker, these only have meaning to the extent that they are taken up by any speaker-hearer as encodings to be attended to. It is the actual conversations which have already occurred that are the archetypes of current conversations. We remember what we and others have said and done, what we believe or were told that they have said and done, where it was wrong and where it was right. In this view, grammar is not a potent psychological reality shaping syntactical forms. It is an aspect of a specialist conversation in which some people talk and write to and for each other about what other people say and write. In highly literate societies instances of this kind of writing can be drawn upon as concrete exemplars of how to talk. We take an immanentist stance to all similar theories about the sources of patterned human productions, in particular towards social rule sets.

If we want to talk about 'sexism' or 'ageism' in the use of language, what we are talking about is the highlighting of certain past conversations as morally unacceptable exemplars for talking and writing now. The basis on which a cluster of past conversations can be deemed to be objectionable as exemplars for speaking now, is not whether the speakers in the past or present intended their speaking to be derogatory of women or of the aged. Rather, it is because it can be shown that, as in the past, there can be negative, even if unintended consequences of those ways of talking. 'Position' will be offered as the immanentist replacement for a clutch of transcendentalist concepts like 'role'.


Since 'positioning' is largely a conversational phenomenon we must make clear at what level of analysis speaking together is to be taken as relevantly conversation. We take conversation to be a form of social interaction the products of which are also social, such as interpersonal relations. We must therefore, select analytical concepts that serve to reveal conversation as a structured set of speech-acts, that is as sayings and doings of types defined by reference to their social (illocutionary) force. This level of analysis must be extended to include non-verbal contributions to conversation. For example it has been found that there are phenomenologically identifiable markers by which people can distinguish telephone rings that are summoning them from those that are summoning others (Garfinkel, 1989). 'Summoning me' is an analytical concept of the speech act level.

Are we to think of conversation as a hazardous de-coding (by the hearers) of the individual social intentions of each speaker? Searle's (1979) version of Austin's (1975) speech act theory of conversation certainly tends in that direction, since he takes the type of a speech act to be defined by the social intention of the person who uttered it. We will argue here that, on the contrary, a conversation unfolds through the joint action of all the participants as they make (or attempt to make) their own and each other's actions socially determinate. A speech-action can become a determinate speech-act to the extent that it is taken up as such by all the participants. So what it is that has been said evolves and changes as the conversation develops. This way of thinking about speech acts allows for there to be multiple speech acts accomplished in any one saying and for any speech act hearing to remain essentially defeasible (cf. Muhlhausler and Harr‚, 1990; Pearce, 1989). As we develop our account of positioning we will argue for a productive interrelationship between 'position', and 'illocutionary force'. The social meaning of what has been said will be shown to depend upon the positioning of interlocutors which is itself a product of the social force a conversation action is taken 'to have'. We shall use the term 'discursive practice' for all the ways in which people actively produce social and psychological realities.

In this context a discourse is to be understood as an institutionalised use of language and language-like sign systems. Institutionalisation can occur at the disciplinary, the political, the cultural and the small group level. There can also be discourses that develop around a specific topic, such as gender or class. Discourses can compete with each other or they can create distinct and incompatible versions of reality. To know anything is to know in terms of one or more discourses. As Frazer ( Iggo) says of adolescent girls she interviewed: 'actors' understanding and experience of their social identity, the social world and their place in it, is discursively constructed. By this I mean that the girls' experience of gender, race, class, their personal-social identity, can only be expressed and understood through the categories available to them in discourse.'

In this sense 'discourse' plays a similar role in our social theory to that played by 'conceptual scheme' in contemporary philosophy of science. It is that in terms of which phenomena are made determinate. An important distinction, though, between the two terms, as we understand them, is that conceptual schemes are static repertories located primarily in the mind of each individual thinker or researcher almost as a personal possession, whereas discourse is a multi-faceted public process through which meanings are progressively and dynamically achieved.

A particular strength of the poststructuralist research paradigm, to which we referred above, is that it recognises both the constitutive force of discourse, and in particular of discursive practices and at the same time recognises that people are capable of exercising choice in relation to those practices. We shall argue that the constitutive force of each discursive practice lies in its provision of subject positions. 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, story lines 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. Among the products of discursive practices are the very persons who engage in them.

An individual emerges through the processes of social interaction, not as a relatively fixed end product but as one who is constituted and reconstituted through the various discursive practices in which they participate. Accordingly, who one is always an open question with a shifting answer depending upon the positions made available within one's own and others' discursive practices and within those practices, the stories through which we make sense of our own and others' lives. Stories are located within a number of different discourses, and thus vary dramatically in terms of the language used, the concepts, issues and moral judgements made relevant and the subject positions made available within them. In this way poststructuralism shades into narratology.

We intend our development of the notion of 'positioning' as a contribution to the understanding of personhood. The psychology of personhood has been bedevilled by the ambiguity of the concept of 'self', a concept which has played a leading role in psychological discourses of personhood. This is the ambiguity of the question 'Who am I?' Human beings are characterized both by continuous personal identity and by discontinuous personal diversity. It is one and the same person who is variously positioned in a conversation. Yet as variously positioned we may want to say that that very same person experiences and displays that aspect of self that is involved in the continuity of a multiplicity of selves. In this paper we are not concerned with personal identity. However we believe that selfhood in this sense is as much the product of discursive practices as the multiple selfhood we wish to investigate (Harre, 1983; Muhlhausler and Harre, 1990).


Our acquisition or development of our own sense and of how the world is to be interpreted from the perspective of who we take ourselves to be, involves, we claim, the following processes:
  • 1. Learning of the categories which include some people and exclude others, e.g. male/female, father/daughter;

  • 2. Participating in the various discursive practices through which meanings are allocated to those categories. These include the story lines through which different subject positions are elaborated;

  • 3. Positioning of self in terms of the categories and story lines. This involves imaginatively positioning oneself as if one belongs in one category and not in the other (e.g. as girl and not boy, or good girl and not bad girl);

  • 4. Recognition of oneself as having the characteristics that locate oneself as a member of various sub classes of dichotomous categories and not of others i.e. the development of a sense of oneself as belonging in the world in certain ways and thus seeing the world from the perspective of one so positioned. This recognition entails an emotional commitment to the category membership and the development of a moral system organised around the belonging.

  • 5. All four processes arise in relation to a theory of the self embodied in pronoun grammar in which a person understands themselves as historically continuous and unitary. The experiencing of contradictory positions as problematic, as something to be reconciled or remedied stems from this general feature of the way being a person is done in our society. Within feminist poststructuralist theory the focus has been on the experience of contradictions as important sites for gaining an understanding of what it means to be a gendered person. Such contradictions do not define different people it is the fact that one person experiences themselves as contradictory that provides the dynamic for understanding (Haug). We wish to defend the adoption of 'position' as the appropriate expression with which to talk about the discursive production of a diversity of selves the fleeting panorama of Meadian 'me's' conjured up in the course of conversational interactions.


    Smith (1988: xxxv) introduces the concept of positioning by distinguishing between 'a person' as an individual agent and 'the subject'. By the latter he means 'the series or conglomerate of positions, subject-positions, provisional and not necessarily indefeasible, in which a person is momentarily called by the discourses and the world he/she inhabits'. In speaking and acting from a position people are bringing to the particular situation their history as a subjective being, that is the history of one who has been in multiple positions and engaged in different forms of discourse. Self reflection should make it obvious that such a being is not inevitably caught in the subject position that the particular narrative and the related discursive practices might seem to dictate.

    Positioning, as we will use it 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. However it would be a mistake to assume that, in either case, positioning is necessarily intentional. One lives one's life in terms of one's ongoingly produced self, whoever might be responsible for its production.

    Taking conversation as the starting point we proceed by assuming that every conversation is a discussion of a topic and the telling of, whether explicitly or implicitly, one or more personal stories whose force is made determinate for the participants by that aspect of the local expressive order which they presume is in use and towards which they orient themselves. The same anecdote might seem boastful according to one expressive convention, but an expression of proper pride according to another. In either reading the anecdote becomes a fragment of autobiography. People will therefore be taken to organise conversations so that they display two modes of organisation: the 'logic' of the ostensible topic and the story lines which are embedded in fragments of the participants' autobiographies. Positions are identified in part by extracting the autobiographical aspects of a conversation in which it becomes possible to find out how each conversant conceives of themselves and of the other participants by seeing what position they take up and in what story, and how they are then positioned.

    In telling a fragment of his or her autobiography a speaker assigns parts and characters in the episodes described, both to themselves and to other people, including those taking part in the conversation. In this respect the structure of an anecdote serving as a fragment of an autobiography is no different from a fairy tale or other work of narrative fiction. By giving people parts in a story, whether it be explicit or implicit, a speaker makes available a subject position which the other speaker in the normal course of events would take up. A person can be said thus to 'have been positioned' by another speaker. The interconnection between positioning and the making determinate of the illocutionary force of speech acts may also involve the creation of other positionings by a second speaker. By treating a remark as, say, 'condolence', in responding to that remark a second speaker positions themselves as, say, the bereaved. The first speaker may not have so intended what they said, that is, they may not wish to be positioned as one who would offer condolences on such an occasion.

    When one speaker is said to position themselves and another in their talk, the following dimensions should be taken into account:

  • 1. The words the speaker chooses inevitably contain images and metaphors which both assume and invoke the ways of being that the participants take themselves to be involved in.

  • 2. Participants may not be aware of their assumptions nor the power of the images to invoke particular ways of being and may simply regard their words as 'the way one talks' on this sort of occasion. But the definition of the interaction being 'of this sort' and therefore one in which one speaks in this way, is to have made it into this sort of occasion.

  • 3. The way in which 'this sort of occasion' is viewed by the participants may vary from one to another. Political and moral commitments, the sort of person one takes oneself to be, one's attitude to the other speakers, the availability of alternative discourses to the one invoked by the initial speaker (and particularly of discourses which offer a critique of the one invoked by the initial speaker) are all implicated in how the utterance of the initial speaker will be heard. This is also the case for any subsequent utterances, though the assumption is usually made by participants in a conversation that utterances by speakers subsequent to the initial speaker will be from within the same discourse.

  • 4. The positions created for oneself and the other are not part of a linear non-contradictory autobiography (as autobiographies usually are in their written form), but rather, the cumulative fragments of a lived autobiography.

  • 5. The positions may be seen by one or other of the participants in terms of known 'roles' (actual or metaphorical), or in terms of known characters in shared story lines, or they may be much more ephemeral and involve shifts in power, access, or blocking of access, to certain features of claimed or desired identity, and so on.

    One way of grasping the concept of positioning as we wish to use it, is to think of someone listening to or reading a story. There is the narrative, say Anna Karenina, which incorporates a braided development of several story lines. Each story line is organised around various poles such as events, characters and moral dilemmas. Our interest focuses on the cast of characters (for instance, Anna, Karenin, Vronsky, Levin and Kitty). The story lines in the narrative describe fragments of lives. That there is a cast of characters from whose imagined points of view the events described in the narrative will be different opens up the possibility for multiple readings. Any reader may, for one reason or another, position themselves or be positioned as outside the story looking in. Such positioning may be created by how the reader percieves the narrator and/or author to be positioning them (as reader) or it may be created by the reader's perception of the characters themselves.

    Transferring this conceptual system to our context of episodes of human interaction, we arrive at the following analogue: There is a conversation in which is created a braided development of several story lines. These are organised through conversation and around various poles, such as events, characters and moral dilemmas. Cultural stereotypes such as nurse/patient, conductor/orchestra, mother/son may be called on as a resource. It is important to remember that these cultural resources may be understood differently by different people.

    The illocutionary forces of each speaker's contributions on concrete occasions of conversing can be expected to have the same multiplicity as that of the culturally available stereotypes as they are individually understood by each speaker. A conversation will be univocal only if the speakers severally adopt complementary subject positions which are organised around a shared interpretation of the relevant conversational locations. Even then, the fact that the conversation is seen from the vantage point of the two different positions, however complementary they are, militates against any easy assumption of shared understanding.

    One speaker can position others by adopting a story line which incorporates a particular interpretation of cultural stereotypes to which they are 'invited' to conform, indeed are required to conform if they are to continue to converse with the first speaker in such a way as to contribute to that person's story line. Of course, they may not wish to do so for all sorts of reasons. Sometimes they may not contribute because they do not understand what the story line is meant to be, or they may pursue their own story line, quite blind to the story line implicit in the first speaker's utterance, or as an attempt to resist. Or they may conform because they do not define themselves as having choice, but feel angry or oppressed or affronted or some combination of these.

    In our analysis of an actual conversation we will illustrate the importance of the insight that the same sentence can be used to perform several different speech acts. Which speech act it is will depend in part on which story line speakers take to be in use. It follows that several conversations can be proceeding simultaneously. It also follows that one speaker may not have access to a conversation as created by another or others, even though he or she contributes some of the sentences which serve as pegs for the speech acts the others create (Pearce and Cronen, 1981). Our analysis indicates that any version of what people take to be a determinate speech act is always open to further negotiation as to what the actual act (if there is such a thing) is.

    To illustrate the use of the concept of 'positioning' for analysing real conversations we will describe a conversational event in which one speaker positioned another. What the positioning amounted to for each conversant will be shown to depend on the point of view from which the conversation is seen. Our example will draw on a case where a single attribute, namely powerlessness was made salient rather than a typified role model. The main relevance of the concept of positioning for social psychology is that it serves to direct our attention to a process by which certain trains of consequences, intended or unintended, are set in motion. But these trains of consequences can be said to occur only if we give an account of how acts of positioning are made determinate for certain people. If we want to say that someone, say, A has been positioned as powerless we must be able to supply an account of how that position is 'taken up' by A, that is, from whence does A's understanding or grasp of powerlessness derive? We can raise the same issue by asking what psychological assumptions cluster around the single attribute, say powerlessness, which the act of positioning has fastened on A? We shall call this an extension of the significance of the attitude.

    For analytical purposes we propose two kinds of such extension.

    Indexical extension

    . For some people in some situations a position imposed attribute is interpreted and the consequences of such positioning taken up in terms of the indexical meanings developed through past experiences. 'Powerlessness', for example, might be grasped in terms of what was felt on past occasions when a person took themselves to be powerless. With respect to this particular attribute we have observed that women in industrial societies tend to make such extensions of the significance of the concept. The case is probably reversed for the attribute of powerfullness, in which women need to consult a typification, say mother, to know what it means. It follows that we would expect it to be the men among disadvantaged races or classes within such societies who take up the significance of being positioned as powerless indexically, that is in light of their particular experiences of being robbed of choice or agency.

    Typification extension

    . In other cases the extension of the significance of an initial act of single attribute positioning comes about through the association of or embeddedness of that attribute within a culturally well established cluster of attributes, called up by the positioning. In this case we think, metaphorically of a person scanning their past experience for a concrete occasion on which to build an interpretation of the position they have been assigned (whether they accept or reject it) until they encounter the record of a typified occasion such as 'nurse/patient'.

    In both forms of extension the story line in which the person takes themselves to be embedded is a critical element in the process of establishing the meaning of the utterance in question.


    The classical dramaturgical model has focussed on 'role' as the determining basis of action. Though there have been attempts to recruit 'improvised theatre' to the models available for social psychology (Coppierters, 1981) it is the traditional drama that has served as the almost ubiquitous source model. In the dramaturgical model people are construed as actors with lines already written and their roles determined by the particular play they find themselves in. Nor do they have much choice as to how to play these roles in any particular setting. They learned how to take up a particular role through observation of others in that role the role models. 'Positioning' and 'subject position', in contrast, permit us to think of ourselves as a choosing subject, locating ourselves in conversations according to those narrative forms with which we are familiar and bringing to those narratives our own subjective lived histories through which we have learnt metaphors, characters and plot. For example, consider the 'role' of mother. Everyone 'knows' what that is, and anyone finding themselves in that role or in relation to someone in that role, knows the multiple expectations and obligations of care for children that are entailed. There may be variations on the theme, such as 'Jewish mother', but these are simply mothers who take up their role within a further-set of constraints embedded in 'Jewish culture'. But everyone does not know each of our personal understandings and sets of emotions connected to our idea of mother, developed out of experience of our own mothers in the first instance. And those who develop their particular concept of mother in anticipation that they will one day be positioned as mother will do so differently from someone who knows that they will never be so positioned. The way we have been positioned and have positioned ourselves in relation to 'mother', the narratives that we have lived out in relation to particular mothers mean that we bring to each new encounter with someone positioned as mother a subjective history with its attendant emotions and beliefs as well as a knowledge of social structures (including roles) with their attendants right, obligations and expectations.

    Any narrative that we collaboratively unfold with other people thus draws on a knowledge of social structures and the roles that are recognisably allocated to people within those structures. Social structures are coercive to the extent that to be recognisably and acceptably a person we must operate within their terms. But the concept of a person that we bring to any action includes not only that knowledge of external structures and expectations but also the idea that we are not only responsible for our own lines but that there are multiple choices in relation not only to the possible lines that we can produce but to the form of the play itself. We are thus agent (producer/director) as well as author and player and the other participants coauthor and coproduce the drama. But we are also the multiple audiences that view any play and bring to it the multiple and often contradictory interpretations based on our own emotions, our own reading of the situation and our own imaginative positioning of ourselves in the situation. Each of these will be mediated by our own subjective histories. Finally, lived narratives, as we will show, can change direction and meaning in ways entirely surprising to the participants to such an extent that the metaphor of a prestructured play begins to lose plausibility as a viable image to explain what it that we do in interaction with each other. If we are to come close to understanding how it is that people actually interact in everyday life we need the metaphor of an unfolding narrative, in which we are constituted in one position or another within the course of one story, or even come to stand in multiple or contradictory positions, or to negotiate a new position by 'refusing' the position that the opening rounds of a conversation have made available to us. With such a metaphor we can begin to explain what it means to 'refuse' to accept the nature of the discourse through which a particular conversation takes place.

    The closest one might come conceptually to role in our framework, is subject position. A subject position is made available within a discourse. For example in the discourse of romantic love there are two major complementary subject positions made available the male hero or prince who has agency and who usually has some heroic task to perform, and the female heroine or princess who is usually a victim of circumstance and is reliant on her prince to save her from whatever it is that fate has done to her (Brownstein, 1984. Zipes, 1986). In everyday life, if two people are living out some version of the romantic love narrative then they will position themselves and each other in the complementary subject positions made available within the discourse of romantic love. In other words, they will engage in the discursive practices through which romantic love is made into a livid narrative.

    In Goffman's later works of 1974 and 1981 a different terminology appears as he shifts further from the dramaturgical model that animated his earlier work. An interest in the ubiquitous role of conversation in creating and maintaining social interaction led him to develop analytical concepts for understanding its properties. The earlier of his attempts was the idea of 'frame'. That this was not a well thought through concept can be seen in the following. He begins by asserting that frames and schemata are the same thing:

    Frames vary in degree of organisation. Some are neatly presentable as a system of entities, postulates and rules; others indeed most others appear to have no particular articulated shape ... (Goffman, 1974 21)

    The aim of the analyst is to isolate basic frameworks (primary frames) 'for making sense out of events'. The task is made difficult by the fact that while one thing may appear to be going on something else is happening, e.g. an autobiographical anecdote may be intended as a joke, a wedding may be in a play, etc.

    We can understand what is happening in a play, by seeing that while the primary frame is being used by the audience to make sense of what the actors are doing, it must be understood 'non-seriously that is, not have its usual consequences (or perlocutionary effects). Goffman called the use of a primary frame in playgoing a 'change of key' the analogy with music was deliberate. Key change involves a 'systematic transformation across materials already meaningful in accordance with a scheme of interpretation' to which participants are privy. Frames are, like roles, already given in a cultural system, and the occasions of their use, either in this key or that, provided for socially, e.g. by designating a certain arena as a playhouse. Thus the dynamic concept of positioning oneself in a discourse is not reducible to adopting a frame, though a frame may well come along with a position, nor is it reducible to a change of key, even though that one is positioned may be revealed as a key change.

    His later idea of 'footing' is more promising as an alternative to positioning. His metaphor is double. We gain or lose our footing in conversations, social groups and so on, much as we gain or lose it on a muddy slope. In the second layer of metaphor we speak from and can change our 'footings' in conversations. Goffman's own account of his new notion is rather vague, since it relies on various other ideas which themselves are not well defined. 'Change of footing' is concerned with occasions when 'participants' alignment, or set, or stance, or posture, or projected self is somehow at issue. 'A change of footing implies a change in the alignment we take up to ourselves and to the others present as expressed in the way we manage the production and reception of an utterance' (Goffman, 1981 128). So 'alignment' emerges highlighted from these remarks. But one's hopes for clarity are dashed since in the very next line Goffman ties footing back to his earlier and vague concept of frame thus: 'A change in our footing is another way of talking about a change in our frame of events'. But if we consult Goffman (1974) we find that a frame is simply a working set of definitions of the familiar Burkean kind, in which a scene, actor and action are specified in what is essentially a version of role analysis.

    So let us return to 'footing'. Goffman's analysis includes a conception of the speaker as fulfilling three speaking roles, that of 'animator', he or-she who speaks; that of 'author', he or she who is responsible for the text; and that of 'principal', he or she 'whose position [i.e. where the speaker stands] is established by the words that are spoken, someone whose beliefs have been told, someone who is committed to what the words say' (Goffman, 1981 144). This is the basis of the production format of the utterance. On many occasions, animator, author and principal are one and the same person.

    Similar complexities attend the hearers. There is always a participation framework in place, including differentiations of 'official recipients' of speaker's talk from bystanders, eavesdroppers and so on.

    Staying now with alignment and relating it to production formats and participation frameworks, we still lack an account of what the key term means. Tannen tells us (personal communication) that alignment is a relational notion, but so far as we can judge the relata of alignments are speakers' conceptions, linking the one adopted by the speaker with what sort of person the speaker takes the hearer to be. Similarly and sometimes reciprocally, there will be a pair of hearer's conceptions of the personae engaged in talk. An actual conversation will then realise, probably imperfectly, these beliefs as actual relations between participants. This could not be in sharper contrast to our conception of positioning, since it takes for granted that alignments exist prior to speaking and shape it, rather than that alignments are actual relations jointly produced in the very act of conversing. It should be clear that Goffman, even in his later work, did not escape the constraints of role theory. Frames and schemata are transcendent to action and stand to it as pre-existing devices (or tools) employed by people to create conversations. For us, the whole of the 'apparatus' must be immanent, reproduced moment by moment in conversational action and carried through time, not as abstract schemata, but as current understandings of past and present conversations.


    The best way to recommend our proposal is to demonstrate its analytical power in a worked example.

    In our story we have called ourselves Sano and Enfermada. Sano and Enfermada are, at the point the story begins, at a conference. It is a winter's day in a strange city and they are looking for a chemist's shop to try to buy some medicine for Enfermada. A subzero wind blows down the long street. Enfermada suggests they ask for directions rather than conducting a random search. Sano, as befits the one in good health, and accompanied by Enfermada, darts into shops to make enquiries. After some time it becomes clear that there is no such shop in the neighbourhood and they agree to call a halt to their search. Sano then says 'I'm sorry to have dragged you all this way when you're not well'. His choice of words surprises Enfermada who replies 'You didn't drag me, I chose to come', occasioning some surprise in turn to Sano.

    Sano and Enfermada offered separate glosses on this episode, whose differences are illustrative of the use of the concept of positioning and instructive in themselves since they reveal a third level of concepts beyond illocutionary force and positioning, namely moral orders. The subsequent debate between our protagonists ran as follows:

    Sano protests that he feels responsible and Enfermada protests in return that she does not wish him to feel responsible since that places her in the position of one who is not responsible, and by implication, that she is one who is incapable of making decisions about her own well being. They then debate whether one taking responsibility deprives the other of responsibility. For Sano the network of obligations is paramount. He is at first unable to grasp the idea that anyone could suppose that the fulfilment of a taken-for-granted obligation on the healthy to take charge of the care of the ill could be construed as a threat to some freedom that he finds mythical. Enfermada is determined to refuse Sano's claim of responsibility, since in her feminist framework it is both unacceptable for another to position her as merely an accessory to their actions, rather than someone who has agency in her own right, and for her to accept such a positioning. Her concern is only in part for the unintended subject position that his words have apparently invited her to step into. She believes that his capacity to formulate their activity in such a way may be indicative of a general attitude towards her (and to women in general) as marginal, as other than central actors in their own life stories. She knows that he does not wish or intend to marginalise women and so she draws attention to the subject position made available in his talk and refuses to step into it. But her protest positions Sano as sexist, a positioning which he in turn finds offensive. His inclination is therefore to reject Enfermada's gloss as an incorrect reading of his words. But this of course only makes sense in his moral order of interpersonal obligations, not in the feminist moral order. Both speakers are committed to a pre-existing idea of themselves that they had prior to the interchange, Enfermada as a feminist and Sano as one who wishes to fulfil socially mandatory obligations. They are also both committed to their hearing of the interchange. Their protests are each aimed at sustaining these definitions and as such have strong emotional loading.

    The episode went through a number of further cycles of reciprocal offence, too numerous to detail here. One of them involved Sano in accusing Enfermada of working off a worst interpretation principle which he claims is characteristic of the kind of ultra-sensitive response that feminists and members of minority groups engage in when responding to 'fancied slights'. Enfermada hears this as a claim that she is unnecessarily making life difficult for herself, alienating people (presumably including Sano) from her and her feminist views. This bothers Enfermada more than the original 'apology' because she sees herself not only robbed of agency but as trivialised and silly, an objectionable member of a minority group who, if they behaved properly, could have equitable membership of society along with Sano. The whole point of her original protest was that his words robbed her of access to that equitable world whether he intended it or not. Until that point she had believed that his intentions were in fact good, which was why it was worth raising the issue. Now she sees that even knowing how upsetting it is to be so positioned in his narrative, his wish is to allocate all responsibility for inequitable treatment that she receives to her own personal style. And so the story went, with claims and counter claims. The complexity, if not impossibility, of 'refusing the discourse' became more and more apparent, as did the subjective commitment to implicit story lines with their implications for the moral characters of each of the participants.

    Leaving aside for one moment, the further cycles of offence that were generated around the original conversation, it is possible to render the episode in a symmetrical way and in terms of speech acts and illocutionary force as follows:

    Us: I'm sorry to have dragged you all this way when you are not well.
    Ue: You didn't drag me, I chose to come.

    Let us all call these utterances or speech actions Us and Ue respectively. We shall use the symbols A(Us) and A(Ue) for the corresponding speech actions which can be made determinate in the various story lines.

    What speech acts have occurred? To answer this question we have first to identify the story lines of which the utterances of S and E are moments. Only relative to those story lines can the speech actions crystallise as relatively determinate speech acts.

    SS S's line as perceived by S: medical treatment with associated positions of S = nurse and E = patient. In this story A(Us) = commiseration.
    SE S's story line as perceived by E: Paternalism with associated positions of S = independent powerful man and E = dependent helpless woman. In this story A(Us) = condescension. Indexical offence S to E.
    EE E's story line as perceived by E: joint adventure with associated positions of S and E as travellers in a foreign land. In this story A(Ue) is a reminder in relation to the story line.
    ES E's story line as perceived by S: feminist protest with associated positions of S = chauvinist pig and E = righteous suffragette. In this story A(Ue) = complaint. Indexical offence E to S.

    The importance of positioning as a real conversational phenomenon and not just an analyst's tool is evident in this example. Here are two well disposed people of good faith and reasonable intelligence conversing in such a way that they were entrapped into a quarrel engendered in the structural properties of the conversation and not at all in the intentions of the speakers. He was not being paternalistic and she was not being priggish yet each was driven by the power of the story lines and their associated positions towards the possibility of such mutual accusations.

    There are several further points to be made in relation to this analysis.

    It shows the way in which two people can be living quite different narratives without realising that they are doing so. In the absence of any protest on Enfermada's part, Sano need never have questioned how his position as care giver would appear in the moral order of someone whose position was radically different from his. Without her particular reply he could not have realised that he could be heard as paternalistic. Her silence could only act as confirmation of his moral order.

    Words themselves do not carry meaning. Sano's use of the apology-format is ambiguous. When it is placed in the context of Enfermada's narrative it causes indexical offence. Similarly, her protest at being 'made helpless' disturbs him since, in his story, it denies what he takes to be a ubiquitous moral obligation.

    We have shown the relational nature of positioning that is, in Enfermada's moral order, one who takes themselves up as responsible forjoint lines of action, may position the other as not responsible. Or if one takes up the position of being aggrieved in relation to another then the other is a perpetrator of the injustice. We have shown that what seems obvious from one position, and readily available to any other person who would only behave or interpret in the correct way, is not necessarily so for the person in the 'other' position. The relative nature of positions not only to each other but to moral orders can make the perception of one almost impossible for the other, in the relational position, to grasp.

    One's beliefs about the sorts of persons, including oneself, who are engaged in a conversation are central to how one understands what has been said. Exactly what is the force of any utterance on a particular occasion will depend on that understanding.

    In demonstrating the shifting nature of positions, depending on the narrative/metaphors/images through which the positioning is being constituted, we have shown how both the social act performed by the uttering of those words and the effect that action has is a function of the narratives employed by each speaker as well as the particular positions that each speaker perceives the other speaker to be taking up.

    There are normative expectations at each level. Sano is surprised at Enfermada's protest because according to conventions of the nurse-patient narrative, there is a normative expectation that the poorly both need and accept care. Of course this narrative also includes the case of the difficult patient. Enfermada for her part is accustomed to being marginalised in men's talk. In hearing him as giving offence she is interpreting him as engaging in normative male behaviour. And of course within this narrative men are notoriously unable to recognise the ways in which their taking up of paternalistic positions negates the agency of the women they are interacting with.

    We have shown the necessity of separating out intended meanings from hearable meanings in the process of developing discursive practices that are not paternalistic or discriminatory in their effect. The (personal) political implications of attending to the discursive practices through which one positions oneself and is positioned, are that one's speech-as-usual with its embedded metaphors, images forms, etc, can be recognised as inappropriate to personal/political beliefs both of one's own and of others with whom one interacts.


    Persons as speakers acquire beliefs about themselves which do not necessarily form a unified coherent whole. They shift from one to another way of thinking about themselves as the discourse shifts and as their positions within varying story lines are taken up. Each of these possible selves can be internally contradictory or contradictory with other possible selves located in different story lines. Like the flux of past events, conceptions people have about themselves are disjointed until and unless they are located in a story. Since many stories can be told, even of the same event, then we each have many possible coherent selves. But to act rationally, those contradictions we are immediately aware of must be remedied, transcended, resolved or ignored. While it is logically impossible to act from a formally contradictory script no-one could simultaneously go to Boston and go to New York most people, most of the time wittingly or unwittingly accept that their beliefs about themselves and their environment are full of unresolved contradictions which one just lives with. This feature of being human in a Christian universe was much more openly acknowledged in the past, with the concept of 'God's mysterious ways'. How could a benevolent God create such an unjust world? and so on. The possibility of choice in a situation in which there are contradictory requirements provides people with the possibility of acting agentically.

    In making choices between contradictory demands there is a complex weaving together of the positions (and the cultural/social/political meanings that are attached to those positions) that are available within any number of discourses; the emotional meaning attached to each of those positions which have developed as a result of personal experiences of being located in each position, or of relating to someone in that position; the stories through which those categories and emotions are being made sense of; and the moral system that links and legitimates the choices that are being made.

    Because of the social/grammatical construction of the person as a unitary knowable identity, we tend to assume it is possible to have made a set of consistent choices located within only one discourse. And it is true we do struggle with the diversity of experience to produce a story of ourselves which is unitary and consistent. If we don't, others demand of us that we do. We also discursively produce ourselves as separate from the social world and are thus not aware of the way in which the taking up of one discursive practice or another (not originating in ourselves) shapes the knowing or telling we can do. Thus we experience these selves as if they were entirely our own production. We take on the discursive practices and story lines as if they were our own and make sense of them in terms of our own particular experiences. The sense of continuity that we have in relation to being a particular person is compounded out of continued embodiment and so of spatio-temporal continuity and shared interpretations of the subject positions and story lines available within them. How to do being a particular non-contradictory person within a consistent story line is learned both through textual and lived narratives.

    In feminist narratives the idea of the non-contradictory person inside a consistent story line can, however, be just what is disrupted. In the study reported here pre-school children often struggled to interpret feminist narratives in terms of more familiar story lines. One such story was The Paper Bag Princess (Munsch, l980). This is an amusing story about a princess called Elizabeth who goes to incredible lengths to save her prince from a fierce dragon. At the beginning of the story, Princess Elizabeth and Prince Ronald are planning to get married, but then the dragon comes along, burns Elizabeth's castle and clothes and flies off into the distance carrying Prince Ronald by the seat of his pants. Elizabeth is very angry. She finds a paper bag to wear and follows the dragon. She tricks him into displaying all of his magic powers until he falls asleep from exhaustion. She rushes into the dragon's cave to save Ronald only to find he does not want to be saved by a princess who is covered in soot and only has an old paper bag to wear. He tells her to go away and to come back when she looks like a real princess. Elizabeth is quite taken aback by this turn of events, and she says 'Ronald your clothes are really pretty and your hair is very neat. You look like a real prince, but you are a bum'. The last page shows her skipping off into the sunset alone and the story ends with the words: 'They didn't get married after all'.

    The apparent intention here is to present a female hero who is not dependent on the prince in shining armour for her happiness, nor for confirmation of who she is. It also casts serious doubt on the concept of the prince who can provide eternal happiness. In this story Elizabeth is not a unitary being. She experiences the multiple and contradictory positionings we each experience in our everyday lives. She is positioned at the beginning as the uncomplicated, happy and loving princess, living out the romantic narrative of love and happiness ever after. She is then positioned as the dragon's victim, but she rejects this and becomes the active, heroic agent who is in control of the flow of events. She is then positioned as victim again by Ronald and again refuses this positioning, skipping off into the sunset, a free agent.

    When the dragon burns Elizabeth's castle and steals Prince Ronald, he also burns her clothes off and makes her very dirty. Many children see her at this point as having magically changed into a bad princess, as if the dragon had cast a spell on her. That badness, because of her nakedness, has negative sexual t overtones. Some of the boys are fascinated by her naked and bereft state, but generally it is not Elizabeth who holds their interest so much as the large, powerful and destructive dragon who has devastated her castle and later goes on to devastate entire landscapes. Other boys perceive Ronald as a hero. They comment on his tennis outfit and the medallion around his neck which they perceive as a tennis gold medal. One boy even managed to see Ronald as heroic, that is as a central agent in control of his own fate, even at the point where he was sailing through the air, held by the dragon by the seat of his pants: 'I'm glad he held onto his tennis racquet so hard. When you've done that, well you just have to hold onto your racquet tight and the dragon holds you up'.

    Many of the children to whom this story was read were unable to see Elizabeth as a genuine hero, and were equally unable to see her choice to go it alone at the end, as legitimate or positive. The dragon, for some, is the powerful male, whose power remains untainted by Elizabeth's trickery. In this hearing of the story, Elizabeth clearly loses her prince, not because she chooses to leave him, but because she is lacking in virtue. Many children believed Elizabeth should have cleaned herself up and then married the prince. What happens with these children who do not hear a story in which Elizabeth is the hero, is that the story is heard as if it were a variation of a known story line in which males are heroes and females are other to those heroes. Elizabeth thus becomes a 'normal' (unitary non-contradictory) princess who just got things a bit wrong.

    If Elizabeth is read as princess that is as one in the role of princess, then the non-feminist reading can follow almost entirely from an understanding of the role of princess. In opening with the sentence 'Elizabeth was a beautiful princess' the text inadvertently invites such a reading. The only clue in the first page of the text that this is not the usual kind of princess is a reference to the castle as 'hers'. According to the non-feminist reading, the dragon's attack turns Elizabeth into a dirty and bad princess. (Being unitary and non-contradictory magic is necessary to effect such a change in her.) At the end when Ronald tells her to clean herself up, he is giving her the information she needs to turn herself back into a 'real' princess, in effect breaking the magic spell. In the feminist reading the role of princess is not a dominant interpretative category. In this reading Elizabeth, like a modern woman, is caught up in a shifting set of possibilities now positioned as one with power, now as powerless. Her adventure is one in which she makes her way among the various subject positions available to her and eventually escapes them all.

    The children's responses to this story illustrate many of the points we have been making: in particular the multiple possible interpretations of any speech action, the interactive nature of the move from words spoken (or in this case, words on the page) to the social act that is taken to have occurred, and the intimate relation between perception of the positions in which the various characters find themselves and perception of story lines. It also shows that though the story can in one reading present Elizabeth as acting agentically, in another she can be seen to behave foolishly. The discursive production of oneself or another as an agent requires the appropriate story line, and for women caught up in traditional roles the availability of discursive practices which allow them to be seen as other than in a fixed role. The many children who heard a non-feminist story illustrate the resilience of traditional discursive practices through which actions are interpreted as gender based acts. Thus the move from role to position is both analytically and politically necessary in the study of people in their contemporary everyday worlds.


    In moving from the use of role to position as the central organising concept for analysing how it is that people do being a person, we have moved to another conception of the relation between people and their conversations. In role-theory the person is always separable from the various roles that they take up; any particular conversation is understood in terms of someone taking on a certain role. The words that are spoken are to some extent dictated by the role and are to be interpreted in these terms. With positioning, the focus is on the way in which the discursive practices constitute the speakers and hearers in certain ways and yet at the same time is a resource through which speakers and hearers can negotiate new positions. A subject position is a possibility in known forms of talk; position is what is created in and through talk as the speakers and hearers take themselves up as persons. This way of thinking explains discontinuities in the production of self with reference to the fact of multiple and contradictory discursive practices and the interpretations of those practices that can be brought into being by speakers and hearers as they engage in conversations.


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