Few things are more difficult than to see outside the bounds of your
own perspective—to be able to identify assumptions that you take as universal
truths but which, instead, have been crafted by your 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.
by David Takacs
How does your positionality bias your epistemology? I’ve
been asking this question to students, weaving it as a
theme throughout my courses. Of course, a resounding
chorus of bafflement greets the initial question. What I’m asking
is: How does who you are shape what you know about the world?
I think this is one of the most important questions one can ask
during an undergraduate education, and a student’s search for
answers may open up new possibilities for understanding her connections
to the world. As a reflective practitioner of the teaching
profession, I constantly grapple with these questions, as well.
David Takacs is an associate professor in the Department of Earth Systems Science &
Policy at California State University Monterey Bay, where he teaches courses in the environmental
humanities. He is the author of The Idea of Biodiversity.
28 | Thought & Action SUMMER 2003
Simply acknowledging that one’s views are not inevitable—that one’s
positionality can bias one’s epistemology—is itself a leap for many people,
one that can help make us more open to the world’s possibilities.
When we develop the skill of understanding how we know what we
know, we acquire a key to lifelong learning. When we teach this skill, we
help students sample the rigors and delights of the examined life. When
we ask students to learn to think for themselves and to understand themselves
as thinkers—rather than telling them what to think and have them
recite it back—we help foster habits
of introspection, analysis, and open,
joyous communication.
Unfortunately, many students
come to college without some
of the skills they need to succeed in
academic work. In California, the
richest state in the richest country the
world has ever known, we skulk in
the bottom fifth among states in per
capita spending on education. The
state system has shortchanged many
students who live in poorer school
districts. Crammed into overcrowded classrooms, led by underpaid teachers
who labor in crumbling infrastructure, many students do not get the
quality education they deserve. To compound this misfortune, some college
administrators and professors view these students—often poor, often
minority, sometimes bilingual—as “deficits.” These students pose problems
for our teaching; we have to spend lots of money to “compensate”
for their “deficiencies.”
Asking students to think about how their positionality biases their
epistemology helps us live an assets model of multiculturalism in our
classrooms. For example, we can see speaking English as a second language
as a deficit. Or, we can focus on an ESL student’s assets: she is bilingual,
a facile language learner who has much to teach about bridging cultures.
As a simultaneous insider and outsider, she can help native English
speakers see things they might have missed about their own language and
culture, about their own positions in the world.
By respecting the unique life experiences that each student brings into
the classroom—by asserting that the broadest possible set of experiences
is crucial to help each of us understand the topic at hand as completely
as possible—we empower all students as knowledge makers. We allow
each student to assert individualized knowledge that contributes to a collective
understanding. Rather than “tolerating” difference, we move to
respect difference, as difference helps us understand our own world-
When we develop the
skill of understanding
how we know what we
know, we acquire a key
to lifelong learning.
view— and thus the world itself—better. From respect, we move to celebration,
as we come to cherish how diverse perspectives enable us to
experience the world more richly and come to know ourselves more
Connecting positionality to epistemology simultaneously empowers
and disempowers individual expertise in the classroom. Students are
empowered because they recognize that they have unique claims to
knowledge that others can not deny. Only I have lived my life; only you
have lived yours. This encourages me
to listen to you and you to me, as we
each have a unique perspective. This
is not a lapse into navel gazing solipsism.
Rather, if this experience works
well, we are led into doubts about
the “correctness” of our own position,
as we come to learn that our
views may be constrained by the limits
of our own experiences.
Recognizing this, we are more
willing, eager, or obliged to talk with
others, as we realize we make
assumptions based on our own positionality,
and that this must bias how we view the world. Only by listening
to others can I become aware of the conceptual shackles imposed by
my own identity and experiences. The feminist scholar Sandra Harding
promotes “strong objectivity”1: Through recognizing and analyzing the
cultures in which we are positioned, and that therefore cannot help but
mold our worldviews, we take steps to become more aware and even
more objective. We come to know the world more fully by knowing how
we know the world.
Each year at California State University Monterey Bay, in an environmental
justice course I teach, I ask students to write about and talk
about how their positionality biases their epistemology. In one example
of how this approach helps promote awareness, one student found that
can’t understand how materialism can outweigh the value of life. There’s
no reason why families should have to struggle for survival or fight to live
in a sustainable environment; we all are human beings and have the right
to be treated with respect and consideration. We cannot allow greed,
ambition, power or money to drive our world to a slow end.
Her views on what constitutes justice were shaped by what she had
seen and experienced:
Only by listening to
others can I become
aware of the conceptual
shackles imposed by my
own identity and
30 | Thought & Action SUMMER 2003
I grew up in Mexico where money is all that matters, where being poor
means living in unbearable conditions. I have seen some of the well-educated
people abuse poor communities and their environment due to their lack
of wealth. Such communities are left alone without hope of improving their
living conditions, knowing that neither the government or the people with
power will ever care to provide some kind of assistance. These same communities
live in substandard housing where they lack a potable water system,
electricity, and a proper sewage system. . . . Some houses are built with wood
and bricks hammered together and with plastic glued as windows, so if it
rains they have leaks and flooding are easy to occur. Most of the people living
in these communities just dig a hole into the ground and make it into a bathroom.
They wash their clothes in the river closest to them or they have their
children bring buckets of water from some well that most likely is not safe to
drink. Flies and other insects are everywhere spreading diseases, because there
is trash and stagnant water throughout the community. Children playing outside
are constantly getting parasites into their system and infections on their
skin. These poor communities are also denied health care because they can’t
afford it, so they send their children to school sick and without energy to
Cassel’s classmates incorporated her views on justice into their own
developing theories, because she drew her expertise from the concrete
richness of what she had experienced as a young Mexican woman. This
experience had meaning for her classmates because they realized their
own views on justice were shaped by an incomplete relationship with the
At the same time, Cassel learned from her classmates’ positionalities.
Last semester, a student described knowing hunger as an army wife raising
three kids on less than sustainable wages; from this, she knew that the
nation did not necessarily honor its commitment to those in the armed
services in a just way.
Several white students have grappled with this question: Their parents
started out poor but managed to make it through sheer hard work. If they
could do it, why can’t everyone? But the question does not just remain
rhetorical because another student
can tell a different story: perhaps it
had something to do with the color
of their parents’ skin? Some students
who had hit hard times and pulled
out of it share those experiences with
the class, so the class may understand
how the “system” sometimes undermines
justice; others use their own
experiences to show that anyone can,
in fact, pull themselves out of bad circumstances.
The point is that these students
undergo an intensive workshop in
understanding how their experiences and identities shape what they know
about the world, and, using this experience, they teach their classmates, so
that their classmates come to see their fellow students—fellow community
members—as sources of valued expertise.
Knowledge does not arrive unmediated from the world; rather, knowledge
gets constructed by interaction between the questioner and the
world. We might label this epistemological stance constrained relativism,
or perhaps constructivist realism. When we encourage examination of
our own knowledge formation processes, we develop habits of informed
skepticism—of questioning the authority of all knowledge sources,
including ourselves. But skepticism can easily segue into cynicism or apathy
when faced with a relativistic world where truth is not always apparent
and easy to grasp. I work hard to avoid fostering these habits of cynicism
and apathy. Rather, I put forth a classroom model where students
explore and exchange their unique knowledge perspectives, we may all
come to more deeply rooted, deeply reflective, shared understandings of
the world. We become more connected to that world, and to each other,
and feel that communally, we can act upon that world to change it for the
To foster these connections, we must teach how to listen, that fundamental
and overlooked skill. At CSUMB, we teach “cooperative argu-
Knowledge does not
arrive unmediated;
rather, knowledge gets
constructed by
interaction between the
questioner and the
32 | Thought & Action SUMMER 2003
mentation.” It’s not an oxymoron; rather, in our classrooms we argue
towards consensus rather than towards winning. When you truly listen,
you listen to understand, not to judge or triumph. When all are experts,
because their knowledge comes in part through life experience, all can
learn—but only if you listen. Rather than convincing others of the
inevitability of your position, when you listen to others’ perspectives, you
may question your assumptions and lower the barriers to be able to reach
In all my classes, we do consensus
building listening exercises. For
the second day of Environmental
Justice class, students read Garrett
Hardin’s “Lifeboat Ethics.”2 It’s a litmus
test. Hardin’s classic, controversial
essay argues that people in
wealthy countries float on a
resource-rich lifeboat. While we
might want to share those resources
with poorer countries, to do so
would mean we swamp the lifeboat,
and everyone drowns. It’s a potent
metaphor that serves as a focal point to which we return throughout the
semester, especially as we continually delve into assumptions Hardin
makes about the world, and explore how his positionality might bias his
epistemology. (In fact, the first and last thought pieces students write are
about this essay.)
I ask the students who tends to agree, who tends to disagree, and who
can go both ways with Hardin’s thesis. Students break into groups with
representatives from each point of view. Their task: Each student in a
group takes two minutes to explain why they do or do not agree with
Hardin: What life experiences do they bring that lead them to their position
on Hardin’s thesis? When each person has taken their turn, they ask
respectful questions of each other, all in an attempt to come to some consensus
statement on Hardin, something to which they all can assent.
Rather than trying to convince a fellow student of the correctness of
his own position, a student must listen to how others’ life experiences
lead them in different directions in the world. The student must take
these experiences in and accept them as valid if he is to work successfully
with his peers to reach consensus. So, from the beginning of the class,
students are connecting positionality to epistemology, learning to listen
to understand, as others do the same, and using what they hear to question
their own positionality and epistemological claims.
By encouraging an assets model of multiculturalism through an
When you listen to
others’ perspectives, you
may question your
assumptions and lower
the barriers to be able to
reach consensus.
appreciation of positionality and epistemology, we encourage a nuanced,
scholarly, personal exploration of the racism, classism, sexism, homophobia,
and the other “isms” that roil society and can roil our classrooms
if we delve into these topics insensitively.
When we explore these issues in the context of academic subject matter,
and we tie our explorations to students’ lived experiences, we can
limn them in a less judgmental, less charged way. Everyone’s perspective
is valued; “bias” is seen as a resource that can help us each understand our
positions in society, can help us
gain some perspective on the
assumptions we may blindly hold
about each other.
Since positionality is the multiple,
unique experiences that situate
each of us, no one student’s perspective
is privileged. Rather, all
are privileged, and therefore all are
empowered to speak: the students
from minority as well as majority
cultures can help teach each other
in an atmosphere of mutual
respect. Each student confronts his
or her empowerment or disempowerment, privilege or lack thereof, and
no implicit or explicit judgment is leveled against them. No one student
comes to embody the despised oppressor, and no one student comes to
embody the embattled oppressed. Rather, we encourage a scholarly contemplation
and personal appreciation of all perspectives in a less politically
loaded, less judgmental context.
In this way, it is increasingly likely that students who would otherwise
be marginalized will be heard, and less likely they will be heard defensively.
In my experience, if anger ensues, it is not likely to be directed at
others in the class; rather, it gets channeled towards the forces of society
that lead to oppression—and hence that anger is more likely to result in
deeper understanding, and, I hope, informed action in the world.
Examining the connections between positionality and epistemology is
a fundamental part of a praxis pedagogy that my colleague Gerald
Shenk and I are developing at California State University Monterey Bay.
In our classes, we ask students to work through a cycle of praxis. First, we
ask them to name their own values, assumptions, and passions. They
then examine these values through study in the disciplines we teach,
through discussions with classmates, and through constant consideration
of how their positionality is biasing the epistemological claims they
make. They then take intentional action in the community, either
Since positionality is the
multiple, unique
experiences that situate
each of us, no one
student’s perspective is
through a service learning experience, or through a political project.
The Political Project, developed by my colleagues at CSUMB, first asks
students to define what counts as “politics” for them. They then choose a
community group with whom they work to change the world in some
way in consonance with their values: they do politics. As I write this, our
semester is only a few weeks old, but students in our co-taught Social and
Environmental History of California course are embarking on their
political projects.
They’re helping organic farmers
market to the campus community;
starting a new social action ‘zine;
raising funds so an elementary
school class can visit a planetarium;
constructing middle school
curricula on reproductive health;
organizing ecological restoration
projects in local creeks; educating
their soccer team about the presidential
candidates’ positions; trying
to convince the city of Santa
Cruz to build artificial surf reefs;
and devising a plan to promote
carpooling between student housing and campus.
Throughout the semester, and in their concluding papers, students
report on how their values have changed and reexamine the positionality
and the epistemological claims about the world they now make.
Through this process, we help prepare students to become ethical, effective,
self-aware members of their chosen communities—be they family,
social, neighborhood, political, spiritual, or even ecological communities.
We help them articulate, justify, and embody values they find meaningful
without imposing our values on them. And we help them to understand
where those values come from, what values others hold, and how
one can both assert one’s own values while respecting those of others.
Asking students to study how their own positionality biases their epistemology
furthers the program of a liberatory pedagogy. Like Paolo
Freire, I want to work with students to mutually achieve “emergence of
consciousness and critical intervention in reality.”3 Like bell hooks, I
believe that students “want knowledge that is meaningful. Asking students
to connect positionality and epistemology works to achieve bell
hooks’ desire that we help students acquire “ways of knowing that
enhance their capacity to live fully and deeply.”4 Rather than the teacher
acting as sole holder of expertise to make meaning of material for the students,
the teacher starts from where the students are. When students con-
34 | Thought & Action SUMMER 2003
We help the students to
articulate, justify, and
embody values they find
meaningful without
imposing our values on
nect positionality to epistemology, we find out where they are because we
ask them! We start from a position of respect for the student, and we start
from the position that students ought to respect each other’s positions.
We foster the belief that students should be comfortable their own expertise
so that they respect themselves as authorities.
When the teacher lectures at his students, his students can only see
themselves as passive recipients of knowledge. Students are not empowered
to make knowledge themselves, and they are not encouraged to see
their fellow students as respected
sources of knowledge. Nor are they
empowered to use knowledge
they’ve created to change the
Those who would challenge the
powerful in society face strong
backlash. Witness, for example,
crusades against affirmative action,
bilingual education, gay rights. By
highlighting alternate claims to
power, those who advocate for the
marginalized highlight the structures
that keep dominant positionality
as seeming inevitable.
By naming the ideologies that are not inevitable or divinely ordained,
we can look for points at which to intervene so that power and privilege
may become more equitably distributed. Asking students to understand
how positionality biases epistemology and how those with certain kinds
of positions arrogate power can be part of an educational agenda aimed
towards promoting greater social justice.5
As my students gnaw on how positionality biases epistemology, so do
I. It’s an ongoing project, peeling away the layers of my own knowledge,
attempting the arduous task of seeing outside of my own position,
of trying to gain a foothold from which to look at me. How do I know
I’m making assumptions about the world if the world only reinforces
those assumptions?
I began asking these questions at an early age, when I realized I was
gay. I was a self-aware adolescent, and I developed a minor obsession
with examining how the world teaches us that heterosexuality and its
norms are the natural, inevitable way to be. It’s imperceptible because of
its banal omnipresence: it surrounds us through friends, family, advertising,
politicians, culture makers—all the forces that shape our worldviews
and self opinions, that shape our epistemological grasp on the planet
around us. And it’s insidious because those for whom the norms work
When the teacher
lectures at his students,
his students can only
see themselves as
passive recipients of
don’t ever need to even be aware that they fall subject to these norms. If
you’re heterosexual, you’re not obliged to think about the norms and
how they’re shaped because the norms work for you, and nearly every signal
you receive reinforces those norms.
When I point out assumptions those who are heterosexual make
because of their heterosexuality, even my most liberated straight friends
sometimes recoil because they hadn’t realized they had anything to question.
Their simple displays of public affection aren’t potentially life
threatening; they don’t risk being
barred from a hospital room
should their loved one become ill.
No one ever challenged the norms
that have always enveloped them.
“Norms” are called norms for a
reason. You have to first be aware
that your positionality might bias
your epistemology before you can
conceive of a more equitable world,
before you can listen to understand,
before you can admit other
voices and other ways of knowing
the world around you. And you
have no choice but to continuously examine these connections if you
want a fair, pluralistic society and an enlightened, expansive view of the
planet around you—and this should be a major part of what education is
It took an embarrassingly long time before I realized how oblivious I
was to my own positionality. As a white male, for example, I never had
to examine my white privilege or male privilege—I had never even heard
of these terms. No one challenged me to examine my privilege, and I didn’t
need to challenge my privileges because my privileges worked for me.
I don’t worry about walking alone at night; I’m not stopped on the highway
because of the color of my skin.
I now take it as part of my work—not just as professor, but as a member
of diverse communities—to keep examining my assumptions about
the world. And as a professor, I constantly examine power relations to be
aware that my positionality as the Ph.D. holder and grade giver can lead
me to abuse my power in the classroom unless I am vigilant. Because of
the power I hold in the classroom, my assumptions are less likely to be
challenged. Things I believe are true—about the world beyond the classroom,
the subject matters I teach, the students with whom I
interact—may or may not be a reflection of my own identity and experiences.
It’s only by keeping an attitude of mindfulness, a willingness to be
36 | Thought & Action SUMMER 2003
No one challenged me
to examine my
privileges, and I didn’t
need to challenge them
because my privileges
worked for me.
vulnerable, and a constantly engaged critical consciousness that I can
move and change. Only then can I really listen to what my students say.
Rather than tying what they say into the latticework of my own beliefs, I
can start to hear them on their own terms, to conceive of different paradigms,
to judge views that may differ from my own as valid or consistent
or worth subscribing to or switching to. I even am currently considering
whether my own positionality leads me to focus on the connection
between positionality and epistemology in ways that might not be appropriate
or constructive in the classroom!
It’s an admittedly unscientific
sample, but I have found that my
male science students have the most
trouble connecting positionality to
epistemology. I ask students to write
a Theory of Environmental Justice that
uses scholarly investigation, service
learning experiences, and positionality
as evidence.
Last semester, four male students
came to me with the same problem.
They couldn’t insert a section on how their positionality biases their epistemology
because they couldn’t figure out where it fits: “It interrupts the
flow.” As they explained it, they are not comfortable with the possibility
of the subjectivity of knowledge. They’ve been taught that truths are discovered
irrespective of the discoverer’s identity. They see themselves as
unbiased conduits for reporting objectively derived facts, and are not
comfortable presenting themselves as knowledge makers whose own lives
count as factual evidence about the world.
Their multiple privileges have made it more difficult to understand
how their positions are positions. Women, on the other hand, have thus
far tended to feel liberated when allowed to show how, for example, their
experiences in the world shape their views on justice.
You can help students connect positionality to epistemology in any
academic discipline. My courses are offered in our science department,
although they are about ethics, justice, and history. But any science student
can study how scientific knowledge is constructed and how the scientific
process works if she examines how what a scientist knows—or
how what “science” knows—is shaped by the positionality of the scientist,
and the positionalities of those who have been scientists. They can
examine why certain questions get asked and answered, examine how values
shape observation. Stephen Jay Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man6 and
Sarah Blaffer Hrdy’s The Woman Who Never Evolved7 offer accessible
It’s an admittedly
unscientific sample, but
I’ve found that my male
science students have
the most trouble
connecting positionality
to epistemology.
examples of how the positionality of scientists has shaped the knowledge
they’ve produced. These books can help students envision how a more
self-reflective science, where its practitioners ask themselves how who
they are shapes what they know, can lead to more balanced, accurate
knowledge about the world.
No matter where they live or work, students will interact daily with
people with different perspectives, whose positionalities bias their
worldviews in profoundly different ways. Education can have no more
crucial function than helping students to function most productively and
joyously in their communities. This means learning to listen with open
minds and hearts, learning to respect different ways of knowing the world
borne of different identities and experiences, and learning to examine
and re-examine one’s own worldviews. These skills also seem requisite for
the reflective practitioner of the teaching craft. When we constantly
engage to understand how our positionality biases our epistemology, we
greet the world with respect, interact with others to explore and cherish
their differences, and live life with a fuller sense of self as part of a web of
1 Harding, Sandra, “After the Neutrality Ideal: Science, Politics, and ‘Strong Objectivity,’”
Social Research 59, 1992: 567-87.
2 Hardin, Garrett, “Lifeboat Ethics: The Case Against Helping the Poor,” Psychology Today
September 1974: 38-43, 124-126.
3 Freire, Paolo, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Continuum Publishing, New York, 1997: 62.
4 hooks, bell, Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom, Routledge, New
York, 1994: 19,22.
5 A recent, accessible, and delightful work that helps students understand what this might
mean: Brechin, Gray, Imperial San Francisco: Urban Power, Earthly Ruin, Berkeley,
University of California Press, 1999.
6 Gould, Stephen Jay, The Mismeasure of Man, New York, W.W. Norton & Company, 1981.
7 One could teach a whole note on positionality and epistemology in primatology.
Among other sources: Hrdy, Sarah Blaffer, The Woman That Never Evolved, Cambridge,
Harvard University Press, 1999; Hrdy, Sarah Blaffer, Mother Nature: A History of Mothers,
Infants, and Natural Selection, New York, Pantheon Books, 1999; Haraway, Donna J.,
Primate Visions: Gender, Race, and Nature in the World of Modern Science, New York,
Routledge, 1989; Altmann, Jeanne, Baboon Mothers and Infants, Cambridge, Harvard
University Press, 1980; Small, Meredith, Female Choices: Sexual Behavior of Female
Primates, Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 1993.
38 | Thought & Action SUMMER 2003