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The Environmental Justice and Sustainability Research Toolbox

Module 2: Research Positionality

Key Topics to Engage in Module:

  1. Research ethics
  2. Identities, Positionalities, Social location
  3. Critical Ethical Reflexivity, Embodiment
  4. Power, Privilege
  5. Intersectionality, feminist standpoint
  6. Sociohistorical analysis, comparative critical social analysis

Guiding Questions:

  1. Who are you? What identifies, positionalities, and/or lived experiences have informed your understanding of yourself, others/communities and/or social contexts/social issues?
  2. How do these understandings inform, guide and/or surface in relation to your research inquiry -- the questions you ask, the methods you use, the results you discern -- and the research process?
  3. What ethics, values and principles must you, as a researcher, uphold to ensure the integrity of the research and the safety/wellbeing of participants/communities?

Module Learning Outcomes:

By the end of this module, you will be able to:

  • Engage in a process of critical ethical reflexivity that involves being self-aware and attuned to dynamics of power, privilege and oppression in relation to communities, contexts and your own identities/positionalities.
  • Develop a practice of critical ethical reflexivity that is sustained through constant self-awareness, introspection and social analysis of awareness of context.
  • Ethically conduct research with participants/communities because you have completed and fulfilled the requirements associated with IRB, specifically the Human Subjects CITI training certification
  • Develop a critically compassionate awareness/understanding of how your identities, lived experiences, feelings/emotions  and/or body may reproduce forms of power that may support and/or challenge the research process and/or participants/community.

Module Details

Some of these videos can complement some of the readings/in-class activities or assignments described in the section below.


Ideas for In-class Activities & Assignments

Activity I.

  • Watch the TedTalk, "How Studying Privilege Systems Can Strengthen Compassion" by Peggy McIntosh. And, read the article by Peggy McIntosh (1989) "Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack" and reflect on your positionalities, identities and proximities to "whiteness" and other structures of power. Engage with the following prompts by reflecting and discussing these with a peer/class, and/or free-writing about these in a journal:
    • Consider the reading and identify those items on the list that stood out to you that were most salient. Why were these most salient for you? Provide a story or an example of 1 privileged identity and how you came to recognize it.
    • McIntosh describes the "invisible knapsack" as a set of unearned privileges. Given her explanation of this, what is in your "invisible knapsack"? How does this shape your life, access to opportunities and resources, forms of power?
    • What does power mean to you? What does whiteness mean to you? How does power and/or whiteness surface in your life?

Activity II.

  • Engage in the Step Over the Line / Privilege Walk Activity
    • Follow the instructions and/or modify according to the class and context
    • Engage in a debriefing reflection/discussion following the activity

Activity III.

  • Assign students to complete 1-2 Harvard Implicit Bias Tests. Then, encourage students to write a critical reflexivity journal entry about their experiences following analysis and reflection on their results.
  • Use the following questions or prompts as a guide for student discussion/writings:
    • What stood out to them, and why?
    • What was new information? Or what confirmed their assumptions?
    • Have students consider what they can do to unpack these biases and assumptions. In other words, how will students engage with those unconscious/conscious biases that may surface in relation to their research/project.